Rabbi, Muslim team up for a few laughs

Believe it or not, after Sept. 11, the timing seemed just about perfect


April 06, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

You hear the one about the rabbi who calls up a Muslim comic after Sept. 11 and asks him to do his shtick -- in a synagogue?

The Muslim listens and says, "What is this, a joke?"

It's no joke. The rabbi and the Muslim are in town this weekend with their show, "One Arab. One Jew. One Stage. Two Very Funny Guys," appearing at 7 p.m. today at Har Sinai Congregation.

Rabbi Bob Alper, who bills himself as "the only practicing clergyman doing stand-up com-edy ... intentionally," teamed up a year ago with Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-born, Southern California-raised Muslim who quit acting for comedy nearly a decade ago after all he could land were stereotyped roles: "Ter- rorist, cab driver, sleazy Arab prince," he said.

Ahmed, 32, a resident of Los Angeles, says he uses comedy as a tool to counter stereotypes, mostly through self-deprecating humor. "I talk about what I'm dealing with as an American, not as an Arab, but as an American, trying to maintain my heritage while living in America" after Sept. 11, he said. "It's about how people perceive me."

Like the joke he tells about the girls he dates. "The kind of girls that have been attracted to me these days are the kind of girls who want to rebel against their parents. So they date me because I'm Arab, because it's dangerous," he says.

He recalls that when he was out with a date recently, she pulled out her cell phone and called a girlfriend.

"She says, 'I'm out with Ahmed. He's great! He's tall, dark, hairy, and the best part is, I think he's a terrorist. My parents would absolutely hate him. He's perfect!' "

Alper, 58, a resident of rural Vermont whose angular face and silver hair lend him a striking resemblance to comedian Steve Martin, says comedy for him "is always very much a part of my rabbinate, in the sense that I'm providing people with a very healthy spiritual experience.

"When I deliver a sermon, I hope I move them spiritually," he says. "When I make them laugh, I know I move them spiritually."

But that's not why he got into stand-up. It was because in 1986, after 14 years as a pulpit rabbi and an ascending career track, he got bitten by the comedy bug after five minutes onstage at the Jewish Comic of the Year contest in Philadelphia.

"I walked onstage wearing a pulpit robe and everybody laughed," he said. "Then I spread my arms as wide as I could and I said, 'Try not to think of me as a rabbi.' That worked."

He came in third place -- behind a chiropractor and a lawyer.

Gradually he found himself doing fewer and fewer weddings and bar mitzvahs, and more and more clubs. He still does about one wedding a year and conducts High Holiday services in Philadelphia, but the rest of the time he's on the road, much of the time playing synagogues rather than the comedy club scene.

"My act's totally clean," he said. "And because I don't perform on Friday nights, I can't do a weekend at a club."

Alper began seeking a partner in fall 2001 at the suggestion of his publicist. "She said, 'Why don't you do a comedy act with an Arab?' I said, 'Do you have any other ideas?' "

But she persisted. "I'm already unusual as a rabbi comic, but a rabbi and Arab she felt would take us to another level of national interest," he said.

Meanwhile, Ahmed had been doing mainstream, observational humor, telling jokes about his family and his Arab upbringing. Then came Sept. 11. The Comedy Club in Los Angeles, where he had a regular gig, shut down for two days.

When business resumed, the owner asked him to open the first show.

"I was terrified," Ahmed said. "But I went up on stage and started doing self-deprecating jokes."

The audience responded. Shortly thereafter, Ahmed grew a bushy beard, embracing his newfound role. "It was like, 'I'm an Arab, don't shoot,' " he says. "It was almost like my way of surrendering."

About a month later, Ahmed was featured in a Wall Street Journal profile. Alper found him through the Internet and obtained a tape of Ahmed's act. "That sealed the deal," he said.

The rabbi called and made a pitch.

"I said, 'You want me to do a show with you in a synagogue? Are you crazy?' " Ahmed recalls. "I'm an Arab, and you want me to go in front of 300, 400 Jews and make them laugh? Forget about it."

Somehow, Alper convinced him. So one night last April in Philadelphia, the rabbi put a yarmulke on the Muslim's head and sent him on stage.

"How are you all doing? My name's Ahmed Ahmed," he began. "Don't worry. They patted me down before I came on stage."

The audience responded with nervous laughter.

"My name really is Ahmed Ahmed," he said. "Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to be named Ahmed these days? My name's Ahmed Ahmed. So I'm doubly dangerous."

Big laugh.

He just flew in from Los Angeles, he tells them. These days, "on the plane, my meal comes pre-cut."

Now he had them.

The one thing Alper and Ahmed say they avoid in their act is politics. "In terms of the situation in the Middle East, we don't touch it," Alper said. "And we do it purposely, because it's not funny. And we don't want people to be uncomfortable. In comedy, if you want to make people laugh, you avoid subjects that are painful."

But they do talk about the possibility of the power of overcoming mutual prejudice. They try to end each show with a powerful message. Ahmed provides an example:

"With all the problems in the world between Jews and Arabs, and Arabs and Jews," he says, "one thing we can do to stop all the hatred, all the misconceptions, is if all of us can learn ...

"Irish dancing."

Har Sinai Congregation is at 2905 Walnut Ave. in Owings Mills. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door. Infor-mation: 410-484-5188.

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