By Rhonda Hoffman
Special to the Times
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the humor of Rabbi Bob Alper ,who will be appearing in A Night of Solidarity and Laughter at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, 9768 Verree Road, on Saturday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m. The 78-year-old funnyman is widely known as “the world’s only practicing clergyman doing stand-up comedy … intentionally.”
Alper, who makes his home in East Dorset, Vermont, with his wife of 54 years, once served a 450-family congregation in the Philadelphia area. Ordained in 1972, he holds a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary.
His most recent gig in the Philadelphia area was as a headliner at Poco’s Comedy Cabaret in Doylestown in October.
“That’s where I got my start, so it was a nice homecoming,” said Alper, who has lived in rural New England for more than three decades.
“The state of Vermont is not overpopulated with Jews. Taking a hike one day I felt lonely and isolated. Then a sudden wind came across the mountains and I heard a God-like voice call out, ‘If you build a deli, they will come,’ “ Alper observed.
He’ll never forget his first days in his position as a recently ordained rabbi at a synagogue in Buffalo.
“The snow started early in the morning and just kept getting heavier, making driving impossible so I had no choice but to spend the next 30 hours in the temple before streets could be plowed. It gave a whole new meaning to the Biblical phrase, ‘And you shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever,’ “ Alper recalled.
So, how did the “man of God” become a full-time comedian? He got his start in 1987 after competing in a comedy contest organized by the Jewish Exponent, a local weekly newspaper. He placed third in the competition behind a lawyer and a chiropractor. He doubts if the lawyer or chiropractor pursued a career in comedy, but, for him, it was just enough of a catalyst to catapult him into the world of laughter.
Since then, he has appeared at countless venues throughout North America, England and Israel, performing at college campuses, congregations and churches, comedy clubs and convention centers. He has appeared on both network and cable TV, including shows Good Morning America and Extra, and cable networks Comedy Central and Showtime. More recently, he has also branched out into another medium – satellite radio — and can be heard regularly on Sirius/XM clean comedy channel.
In addition, about two decades ago, he formed the Laugh in Peace Tour, taking his show, which also includes rotating Muslim and Catholic comedians, on the road.
“I hope when Arabs see an affable Jew who makes them laugh and Jews see an affable Arab who makes them laugh, we’ll start to make some inroads. Perhaps in a small way, we’ll help change perceptions of ‘the other,’ ” noted the rabbi, who recently returned from a Jewish Federation mission to Israel. “We were there to express our solidarity with Israel in this time of crisis.”
“Humor is a coping mechanism in times of transition, celebration and stress. It builds bridges, not walls. The psychological, physical and spiritual value of clean, unhurtful comedy is unlimited,” noted Alper, who has not fully abandoned his clergical duties, still occasionally officiating at weddings and other life cycle events, especially when it’s in the family.
In addition to performing on stage, the modest, yet charming Steve Martin lookalike has authored two books, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This and Thanks, I Needed That. They are collections of true and moving stories that have touched him and which he wanted to share with a broader audience.
Although he mostly writes his own material and extracts stories from real life, he occasionally uses something offered by his cousin, who is a professional comedy writer.
“I feel a kinship to other comedians as our goal is to make others laugh as opposed to my wife’s goal, as a retired psychotherapist, whose mission was to help people cry,” said the father of “an adorable 52-year-old and a cute-as-a-button 48-year-old.”
Asked whether he’s ever met his “comedy twin” Steve Martin, the rabbi replied, “I’ve never met him, but wonder if people tell him that he looks like the famous comedian Bob Alper.”
So, what’s in the future for this indefatigable funnyman? He hopes to continue living and laughing and to create humor from all the ups and downs of life.
“Humor is good for the soul – hopefully mine and the audience’s. Comedy is like internal aerobics — the more I do it, the more fit I feel,” he said. ••
For tickets to the Feb. 3 show, call the synagogue at 215-677-1600. The cost is $27 per person, which includes the show and assorted charcuterie boards. A portion of the proceeds will support Israel relief agencies.