The rabbi answered a second calling

SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

Humor: Stand-up 0...

December 08, 1996|By Susan Reimer

The rabbi answered a second calling; Humor: Stand-up 0) comedy appeals to this man of the cloth.

When Allyne Alper's son the rabbi announced he was going to pursue a life in stand-up comedy, she was -- how can we put this? -- circumspect.

"I think she was concerned that I was throwing away a career," says her son the rabbi, Robert Alper.

"Most of my conversations with her would begin with, 'How's Sherri and the kids?' and move to, 'Any new gigs?' "

Bob Alper's mother, who still lives in her family's home in Park Heights, can relax. Just in time for Hanukkah, her son the rabbi-turned-comic has now published a book, a very tender volume of stories titled "Life Doesn't Get Any Better Than This."

Ordained in Ohio

Alper was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati after graduating from Lehigh University, and he was the first Jew to earn a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.

"My grandfather manufactured men's suits and my uncle was a rabbi," Alper says. "I come from a short line of men of the cloth."

Ba-da-bum.

Alper has served congregations in Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia, but he now lives in East Dorset, Vt., where he says he is one of only seven Jews in the state when the ski resorts are closed.

He took time off from selling Christmas trees for the Rotary to talk about what he says is the seamlessness of his life as he moves from the synagogue to comedy clubs to bookstore signings in Baltimore.

"Everything is very coherent, very consistent," he says. "I never stopped being a rabbi. I still officiate at weddings and conduct services during High Holy Days. But comedy was very much a part of being a rabbi for me."

He says he trained for comedy by spending 25 years in front of hostile audiences.

"When I give a sermon, I hope I move people spiritually. When I make them laugh, I know I do.

"There is a lot of comedy in my rabbinate and a lot of rabbinate in my comedy. It is very clean. It isn't hurtful. It doesn't make fun of anyone."

Feeling that there wasn't enough rejection in his life, Alper decided to write a humor book to anchor his comedy, but he found no takers. He is apparently much funnier in front of a microphone than he is in print.

But his agent was touched by the gentle tone in one of his stories. "She asked if I could do poignant and I said, 'Sure, I can do poignant.' "

The result is a delightful collection of stories that capture the holiness of life's daily dramas. The stories, some of which are set in Baltimore, tell of incidents like the kiss he stole in fourth grade or of his panic at not being able to find his father's grave marker under the snow.

His mother was proud when he was ordained a rabbi, and she sighed with relief every time he got a comedy "gig."

"Now she calls the radio talk shows and says, 'When are you going to have my son on again?' " In the trials of technology, history can testify that the compact disc revolution ended the reign of full-bodied album covers with the likes of Carly Simon flashing her flashy flesh. This was album art -- not some fool CD booklet revealing only the fine print.

But albums are for old people, aren't they? Just a silent minority of vinyl freaks clinging to turntables and searching for a stylus?

"Once a week, someone comes in here and says, 'I hate CDs!' " said Dan Fielder, manager at the Musical Exchange downtown on Charles Street. The CD store sold albums on the side, until the side got full. So it opened the Record Room two doors down.

It's crazy, but old and young folks still want albums, Fielder said. "People come in to get that old record-store feeling."

The Record Room is where old albums go to die -- or be reborn. In bin after tightly packed bin, the Chicago and Peter Frampton and Jethro Tull and Ohio Players albums are marked up, down and every which way. There's James Taylor's first record (on the Apple label) for $8.99. Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" is just $2. Sentenced to the bargain bin, Firefall and Foghat cohabit with the Cowsills and Carpenters.

Your parents' albums are also here: Sergio Mendez and Brasil '66, Steve Lawrence, the Kingston Trio, Vikki Carr and, of course, Jackie Gleason's "Music for Lovers Only."

"It's like a big yard sale," Fielder said. In other words, more browsing than buying goes on.

"I don't like CDs, and they don't like me," said John Dean. "Albums sound better. It's a warmer, richer sound. There's just something about dropping a needle down in a groove."

Dean, a 41-year-old area photographer, came in after stumbling upon some orphaned albums in an alley by his home. He tried to pawn them off on Fielder, who promptly cut the man's collection down to a collector's size: Janis Ian -- no thanks; Led Zeppelin II -- forget it, a million are in circulation; Uriah Heep -- please!; Men at Work -- no; Velvet Underground -- we'll take that.

"Very little interest here," Fielder said to Dean, who took it well. Dean ended up keeping the Velvet Underground album -- it seemed to hold a memory.

Remember when you bought or heard your first compact disc? Of course not. But people remember their first albums, because they gave us our first songs. As a boy, Fielder remembers hearing Oliver's "Good Morning Starshine" over and over again one summer.

L "Whenever I hear that song, I think of Ocean City," he said.

In honor of the moment, Fielder jumped up to play the Guess Who's "Greatest Hits" on vinyl. With utter reverence, both men listened to "These Eyes" fill the Record Room. No one dared speak. Then Dan Fielder rushed out to the other store.

"Somebody wants to buy a CD."

The Record Room is located at 418 N. Charles St. The phone DTC number is (410) 528-9815.

Rob Hiaasen

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