'Laughter heals' is message of unlikely Jewish-Muslim comedy act
"Both Jews and Muslims have a lot in common. What are we fighting over? Jews and Muslims don't eat pork, we don't celebrate Christmas, we both use 'ch' in our pronunciation, and we are both hairy creatures of God," says comedian Ahmed Ahmed. "The only real difference between Jews and Muslims is that Jews never like to spend any money and Muslims never have any money to spend."
So goes one of the dozens of jokes featured in the "Laugh in Peace" comedy routine of Ahmed and Rabbi Bob Alper. It's one Arab, one Jew, one stage. The unlikely duo's show will be coming to Israel (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa) and the Palestinian territories (Ramallah) for the first time from Aug. 12-17. Together, Ahmed and Alper have performed more than 150 times during the last 14 years-throughout the U.S., Canada, and England-at synagogues, churches, mosques, theaters, and college campuses.
Their story began as a gimmick by a savvy publicist, says Alper, a Reform rabbi who spent more than a decade at pulpits in New York and Philadelphia-or as he calls it, "14 years of performing in front of a hostile audience." Alper admits he was at first resistant to the idea of the combined show.
"My publicist calls me one day and says, 'Bob, why don't you do a show with an Arab comedian?' I said, 'Do you have any other ideas?'" he says
Ahmed was skeptical, too.
"I got this call, 'My name is Bob Alper and I am a Reform rabbi.'... He says, 'I have an idea. I thought it would be great to do a show together.'... Well, I said, 'That sounds good, where do you perform?' He says, 'Well, I perform in synagogues.'... I thought someone was playing a joke on me," Ahmed laughs.
But the timing was right. In 2001, at the height of the terrorism of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in Israel, people were primed for comic relief. Alper says when people are tense or sad, "comedy is even more important."
Overt time, the two have been more than just a successful and sought-after show. They've become good friends. The women in Alper's small Vermont town fell in love with Ahmed through his visits and regularly inquire about his wellbeing. Alper has eaten in Ahmed's parents' California home.
"Ahmed's dad asked about my family," Alper recalls. "When I told him my wife would be having shoulder surgery the following month, he looked gravely at me and ordered, 'You must stop twisting her arm.'"
They also believe they've played a role in breaking down barriers between Muslims and Jews. On college campuses, where Jewish-Muslim tension and anti-Semitism run rampant over the issue of Israel, Ahmed and Alper perform for mixed audiences. Jewish males wearing yarmulkes and females in hijabs sit side-by-side, smiling and laughing.
"When people laugh together, it is hard to hate each other," says Alper, recounting how at the University of Arkansas it occurred to him that they were guests of the "Razorbacks"-a Muslim and a Jew performing at a school whose mascot is a pig.
They keep their shows apolitical, though they do touch on their personal religious experiences in the 90-minute performances, which generally are divided between solo acts of 30-35 minutes and then a joint opening and closing. The closing includes stories from their travels.
"When we begin a show, we say we really are an odd couple. Ahmed is 45 and I am 70. He lives in Metro LA, I live in rural Vermont. He's Muslim, I'm a Jew. But both of us are incredibly good looking," Alper quips.
Alper, who holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary, got into comedy in 1986 when he entered the "Funniest Jew in Philadelphia" contest. He says his comedy remains "appropriate for being a rabbi. In other words, it's clean."
"The reason Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac at the age of 12 and not 13, is because at 13 it wouldn't have been a sacrifice," says Alper.
Ahmed, who was born in Helwan, Egypt, and raised in Riverside, Calif., became an actor before a comedian. After playing "a lot of terrorist roles, cab drivers, and sleazy, dark Arabs," Ahmed quit out of frustration and turned to comedy. But his recent role in the three-year series "Sullivan & Son" (2011-2014), in which he played an unlucky-in-love tow-truck driver, made him the only Arab-American actor playing a non-stereotypical role on a comedy sitcom. His comedy is also "squeaky clean family fun," though Ahmed admits one joke did get him banned from Dubai for a year.
Occasionally, Rev. Susan Sparks, senior pastor of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, joins Alper and Ahmed for a show to make for a Jewish-Muslim-Christian comedic triumvirate.
"I'm a true believer that laughter heals, and that comedy can bridge the gap between communities across the world," says Ahmed. "We just lead by example."
Though Ahmed and Alper have certainly contemplated their own plan for peace.
"In terms of the terrible rift between our people, we've come up with one idea, one way that might be able to help heal the divide. That would be if all of us together-Jews and Arabs, Arabs and Jews-if all of us together could simply learn," says Alper.
If you want the secret sauce, you'll have to buy tickets to one of their shows.