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Breaking down barriers, one laugh at a time

Wendy Schneider
April 2007

Bob Alper was at home in Vermont when he received a phone call from his publicist in Los Angeles. It was December, 2001, just three months after the destruction of the Twin Towers.

"I have this great idea," she said. "Why don't you do a show with an Arab comedian?"

"Do you have any other ideas?" was his response. Alper, an ordained Rabbi who had left the pulpit after 14 years to pursue a career as a stand up comic, wasnıt acting out of prejudice. He simply wasn't interested in being part of a two-comedian act.

But the publicist was not to be dissuaded. She had seen a Muslim Arab comedian by the name of Ahmed Ahmed and, in her opinion, a joint act featuring a Rabbi and a Muslim would be a great sell. When she sent them videotapes of each other's act, Rabbi Alper was sufficiently impressed that in April of 2002 he invited Mr. Ahmed to share the stage with him at a Philadelphia synagogue.

"We tried it out to see how it would work," he said in a telephone interview with the HJN. It worked. Their act played to rave reviews and since then, theyıve taken their show "One Muslim. One Jew. One Stage" to synagogues, churches, mosques, community and corporate venues on hundreds of occasions. Rabbi Alper became a rabbi in 1972, serving congregations in Buffalo and Philadelphia. In 1986, he left the full-time rabbinate to become a counselor, a profession he never actually pursued because he answered an ad for a comedy contest. When he came in third place, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comic.

Rabbi Alper, 61, is always the "One Jew' of the partnership. His original partner is Ahmed Ahmed, 36, an actor and comedian whose Egyptian parents immigrated to California when he was a month old. Usman, 31, a native of Skokie, Illinois, is a community activist who writes and lectures on a wide variety of topics.

"People are a little skeptical when they hear about it" [the unusual pairing of Jew with Muslim] he said in a telephone interview. "But then when they see the show, they greet it with a sense of relief." Why relief?

"They see a guy who, as Azhar says in the show, 'When you see me in the airport I'm your worst nightmare." For some members of the audience, it's their first intimate exposure to a warm, friendly, affable Muslim. And people are relieved."

Does it work the other way around?

"I did an Iranian mosque in Los Angeles," he said. "I found that mosques and synagogues have a lot in common. In both places, the lay people don't have a clue where the light switches are or how to adjust the sound system. Everyone's inept."

Given the tensions between Jewish and Muslim students on Canadian campuses, it came as a pleasant surprise to hear that their show has been enthusiastically received at college campuses throughout the United States. He and Mr. Usman are taking their act to New York University in Manhattan, where they will perform at a fund raiser to establish a prayer space for Muslims. The Muslims are funding the event and Hillel is a co-sponsor.

At a performance at the University of Pennsylvania that was sponsored by Hillel, the rabbi recalled, "The place was mobbed with [students wearing] Kipot and hijabs. They were introduced by three students: the president of Hillel, the president of the Muslim Student Association and the president of the Pan Arab Student Society.

"The key to the show," he said, "is that itıs totally non political." He has seen the unifying impact of laughter and has coined the following expression: "You can't hate someone with whom you've laughed."

The Laugh In Peace tour takes place at Beth Jacob Synagogue on May 2 at 7:30 pm.


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