Rabbi and Arab make a funny team

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, May 12, 2005

Journal Television Writer

Stop me if you've heard this. This Arab and a rabbi walk into a synagogue. . . .

If that sounds like the setup for a joke, in a way that's exactly what it is. Actually, many jokes.

The rabbi is Providence native Bob Alper, now living in Vermont, who left congregational life for a career as a standup comic.

The Arab is Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed, who went to Hollywood but got tired of being cast in bit parts as a terrorist. So he decided to try comedy.

The two of them have formed an improbable team, and will be performing together Sunday night at Temple Torat Yisrael in Cranston.

Alper said the two unlikely partners got together through a publicist, Gia DelliGatti, who called one day in 2002 with a great idea -- why didn't Alper do a show with an Arab comedian?

"I said, 'How about another idea?' " Alper remembers.

But DelliGatti said she had found the perfect guy, Ahmed. She told Alper she had seen a tape of his appearance on ABC's daytime talk show The View, and he was very funny.

So Alper called Ahmed, who thought the whole thing was a prank.

"I said, 'Are you playing comedy clubs? Theaters?' and Bob said, 'I tour synagogues,' " Ahmed recalls. "I said, 'You gotta be kidding!' "

Neither man knew what to expect before their first shows together, but they received a surprisingly warm reception.

"In the synagogues, he killed," jokes Alper.

34 and 60

Even aside from the obvious, Ahmed and Alper are very different people.

Ahmed is 34 and lives in Hollywood; Alper is 60 and lives in Vermont.

Ahmed got excited when he saw Justin Timberlake at Starbucks; Alper got excited when he saw a moose amble across his lawn.

Alper has a gently self-deprecating style he compares to that of Bob Newhart, and does material about officiating at funerals or trying out his rabbinical Hebrew in Israel.

(He tells one joke about being in an Israeli cab. "BEHOLD! I will now descend!" he proclaimed when he reached his destination.)

Ahmed is edgier. He talks about getting yanked off an airplane -- apparently because of his Arab origins -- and spending 12 hours in a holding cell with what looked like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

But both poke some gentle fun at their own cultures, and they have formed a bond outside of their performances.

"Bob is like my comedy angel," Ahmed said.

The two men mostly perform in synagogues, but they have also taken their act to colleges and at least one mosque.

They don't discuss the Iraqi war or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Alper said just the fact that the two share the same stage sends a message.

"To see Jewish men wearing yarmulkes and Muslim women wearing the hijab [head scarf] and laughing together, it's a very nice thing," Alper said.

'Terrorist #4'

Ahmed was born in Egypt, but his family emigrated to the United States when he was still a baby. He grew up in Riverside, Calif., and moved to Hollywood when he was 19.

He tried to make it as an actor, but found himself consigned to parts like "Terrorist #4" in the 1996 movie Executive Decision. He turned to comedy after working at the classic actor's job, waiting tables at a restaurant.

"I was telling jokes, being funny at the tables. Every table was like a new crowd," he said. "One day a woman said to me, 'You should be a comic.' Suddenly the clouds split open and the angels went, 'Ahhhhhhhhhh!' "

Ahmed got a break in 2000 when Mitzi Shore, the Jewish owner of the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, put him on a monthly bill of Arab-American comedians called "Arabian Nights."

Then came 9/11.

"My whole life turned upside down," Ahmed said. "For one thing, there was heavy, heavy airport security."

Comedians are frequently on the road, or in the air, to get to the next gig. Suddenly, being an Arab-American posed a threat to his ability to get to work.

Like any good comedian, Ahmed tries to use his problems as raw material for comedy. On stage, he points out that Arabs rank fourth as victims of hate crimes in the United States.

"Fourth!" he says, as though insulted. "What more do we have to do?"

Grew up in Providence

Alper grew up in Providence, went to Classical High School, and was president of the youth group at Temple Beth-El before his family moved away. After studying for the rabbinate, he worked at congregations in Buffalo and then Philadelphia.

"I found a lot of uses for humor as a rabbi," he said. "It's a way to engage people and get their attention."

In 1986, he came in third in a "Jewish Comic of the Year" contest, behind a chiropractor and a lawyer. Still, it was enough to start him doing open-mike nights at comedy clubs.

Alper said he stood out among the twentysomething comics in black T-shirts doing sex jokes. "We'd all be in the dressing room, and I'd say, 'Nobody here is doing material about officiating at weddings, are they?' "

By 1990, Alper had left his congregation and moved to Vermont with his wife, a psychotherapist. Now he mostly plays synagogues, not clubs.

As many people remind Alper, Jackie Mason was a rabbi before he became a comedian. Alper said one difference between them -- besides the accent -- is that Mason stopped working as a rabbi once he became a comedian. Alper has not.

He said he still preaches during the Jewish high holy days, and also officiates at "life-cycle events" such as weddings and funerals. He said he has a particular appreciation for funerals.

"I think it's a critical opportunity to be very helpful to people in a crisis," he said. "I've officiated at probably 500 funerals in my career. It gives you a certain perspective on life."

Rabbi Bob Alper and Ahmed Ahmed will perform Sunday at 7 p.m. at Temple Torat Yisrael, 330 Park Ave., Cranston. Tickets are $20, $60 for patrons. Patrons are invited to a post-performance reception and roundtable discussion with the performers.

To order tickets, call (401) 785-1800.

Online at: http://www.projo.com/theater/content/projo_20050512_comedy.1d518cd.html