On a hot summer evening in August, a rabbi with a swatch of white hair addressed an audience of about 200 people at Temple Ohabei Shalom, a Boston-area synagogue. The act in and of itself is typical, mundane and even boring.
The event, however, was not.
Arab comedian Ahmed Ahmed joined Rabbi Bob Alper for a night of stand-up comedy as part of their ongoing tour, "One Arab, One Jew, One Stage." Ahmed, who towers over his partner and dresses in trendier duds, says that the duo is not political. They perform together because it packs some serious "entertainment value" into their sets.
"I get great spiritual payback from it," Ahmed said of the tour where the venues are primarily synagogues and the audiences mostly Jewish, "I get to leave LA and see the countryside."
Ahmed, 33, who was born in Egypt and raised in California, began his foray into comedy when, while working as a waiter, a woman at one of his tables told him that he should be a comic. Like any good comedian, Ahmed took a cue from his audience. His first night behind the microphone was at an open mic night at LA Cabaret Comedy Club. After a set where he poked fun of his Arab-American family, "I caught the comedy bug," he said in a phone interview, from California.
That was nine years ago and Ahmed has been doing stand-up ever since.
Alper jumped into the comedy scene eight years earlier in 1986 when he competed at the Jewish Comic of the Year Contest in Philadelphia. He remembered that while walking to the venue, he stepped into a puddle and had to take to the stage in wet pants. He was nervous, he explained in a phone interview from Rhode Island. However, after he got going, wet pants and all, "the audience laughed and I was hooked."
The rabbi comedian, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, opened the evening's festivities at Temple Ohabei Shalom poking fun at Jewish jokes, the meat and potatoes of his comedic lexicon. "A quintessential Jewish joke," Alper began, "is a joke that gentiles don't understand and Jewish people have already heard."
Alper has a relaxed and soft presence on stage; his glasses and blue button down shirt lend him an air of a casual storyteller. He spent most of his time telling, rather than performing, about the short supply of Jewish life in Vermont, fatherhood and married life. Alper recalled the good old days when parent-child relations were clear-cut, with a sharp division between acceptable and questionable behavior.
"I used to borrow ties from my father and now my son borrows earrings from his mother," he deadpanned to a delighted audience.
Alper also touched on the fleeting nature of childhood innocence and the unshakable adoration of youngsters for their parents. He explained that when he recently called a friend, a little girl answer the phone. When Alper asked his friend's very young daughter how she was doing, she responded, "My daddy took me to the animal zoo…My daddy is the best daddy in the whole world." When his friend finally came on the line, Alper advised him, "Enjoy her while she's stupid."
Like many fine comics, some of Alper's biggest laughs came when he changed his humor from observational to self-deprecating. In a witty bit, he poked fun of his Hebrew skills acquired after years of study at the seminary. During his first trip to Israel, Alper explained that he was eager to put his antiquated language skills to good use. He took a taxi to his hotel in Tel-Aviv and when he arrived at his destination, the rabbi announced in biblical Hebrew to the Israeli cabbie, "Behold, here I descend."
Once the rabbi warmed up the audience, Ahmed took to the floor with unbridled energy, charisma and ingenuity. With a convincingly serious expression weighing down the features of his face, Ahmed opened with, "My name is Ahmed Ahmed and I can't fly anywhere."
Much of Ahmed's set explored the difficulty of being an Arab-American during these unsettling times. "It's a tough time trying to fly," he said to an audience that was at first hesitant to connect to the comedian, "I have to get to the airport a month and a half in advance."
Ahmed joked that when he finally did make it onto the plane, he was the only passenger whose "food came pre-cut. I didn't get any utensils, Only a spork."
The Arab comedian explained that unlike most "reputable" airlines, he never has any trouble flying Southwest, poking fun at what he considers to be a low-quality airline. Imitating a Southwest official, Ahmed quipped, "He's an Arab, go ahead, we'll probably crash before he does anything."
Halfway through his set, Ahmed paused, scanned the audience and asked the crowd with mock concern, "Are there other Arabs in here?"
When the comedian's question was met with total silence, Ahmed scratched his head and said, "Perfect."
Ahmed's presence on stage is electric. His comedy routine is comparable to a one-man show. He makes funny sounds into the mic and assumes a variety of different characters depending on the imitation. Ahmed brought down the house when he mimicked his superstitious Arab mother, who closely resembled the stereotype of a Jewish mother as well.
In fact, many of Ahmed's jokes were tinged with familiarity because they resembled Jewish jokes.
"You know you're an Arab when you are screaming into the telephone and it is not even an emergency," he told the crowd.
Simply switch one word and the same joke could have entertained multitudes at a Catskills comedy lounge back in the day.
After the performance, the comedians greeted the crowd in the synagogue lobby. Ahmed was particularly swarmed by newly-converted fans. One woman approached Ahmed to applaud his backbone. "I'm an Israeli and what you did takes a courageous person," she told the Arab comedian, referring to his stand-up.
Ahmed's arm was then grabbed by a young man who pumped the comedian's hand with great veracity. "Yishar Ko'ach," the young man repeated again and again, using the Jewish phrase for "congratulations," usually said after someone completes a mitzvah, such as reading from the Torah.
While Ahmed may not have performed a Jewish ritual, he certainly did perform a good deed. He appeared before a curious crowd and turned them into adoring fans, breaking down stereotypes by making fun, all in the name of comedy.