A Rabbi Walks Into a Comedy Club — and Stays
In 1986, after 14 years of faithful service to two different congregations, Rabbi Bob Alper began feeling pulpit fatigue.
“I knew something was happening when I’d be conducting services and really looking forward to the announcements,” he told the Forward.
“I loved certain aspects of the rabbinate,” he said. “But there were other aspects of it I didn’t like: the time constraints, the fish-bowl life. Rabbis are the last of the generalists — expected to do everything well.” Alper left his Philadelphia congregation and began a counseling practice.
But around the time he was hanging up his rabbinic robes, Alper came across a small ad in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, a weekly publication. “You think you’re funny?” it read. “If so, let us know in 50 words for our ‘Jewish Comic of the Year’ contest.” Alper gave it a shot, and though he didn’t win — he placed third behind a chiropractor and a lawyer — one of the contest judges, the hostess of a major Philadelphia morning television show, took a shine to him and had him on her program. Other television and stage opportunities followed. Today, Alper makes his living as a stand-up comic, performing between 80 and 100 shows a year.
Alper’s audiences tend to skew older. (“Usually the only heckling I get are the hearing aids going off,” he wrote the Forward in an e-mail.) And a recent show on the campus of Brooklyn College was no exception. Walker and wheelchair were among the primary means of conveyance used to reach the college’s Art Deco concert hall.
Early on in the performance, Alper drew a couple of distinctions between himself and Jackie Mason, perhaps the best-known occupant of the rabbi-comic niche.
“There are a few differences between [us],” Alper said. “First of all, I’m still a practicing rabbi — part time — he’s not; and secondly, the accent: To me Jackie Mason does not sound Jewish. In my view a Jewish accent is more like what my grandfather had, an accent that he derived from the faraway land of his birth — Bangor, Maine.”
In a voice as thick with New England as John F. Kennedy’s, he proceeded: “Well, Bawby, got to get you down to the synagawg. Staht you studyin’ for your bah mitzvur.”
The bit was, to a degree, characteristic of the set that followed — clean and nonthreatening, more bucolic than neurotic, more Garrison Keillor than Lenny Bruce — Jewish humor that even a Protestant can love. It’s an act that’s brought him ovations from London to Palm Springs and from Denver to Cape Cod.
But the Brooklyn crowd on this recent Sunday afternoon, though large, was restrained.
“It was a hard show,” Alper told the Forward from the safe confines of his Vermont home a few days after the performance. The typical Brooklyn audience member, he said, “is somewhere between being just a regular layperson and a comedy professional.”
A quick perusal of Alper’s calendar (Gainesville, Fla.; Ypsilanti, Mich.; Salt Lake City) offers a glimpse into who his audiences generally are. Though often Jewish — a good number of his gigs are in synagogues — his act generally plays outside the big centers of Jewish life. And Alper clearly enjoys, perhaps even prefers, audiences that aren’t composed entirely of Jews.
“I love doing non-Jewish groups,” he said. “There really is an electricity there. They just don’t know what to expect.”
Though never the class clown, Alper, a native of Providence, R.I., has always liked to “do funny,” he said. Growing up, he realized that comedy helped him in two key arenas: student elections and getting girls. Alper attended college at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and from there he went to Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College.
“After three years [at the seminary] I went to Israel primarily to learn spoken Hebrew,” he says in his act. “I had a lot of biblical Hebrew under my belt, so it was kind of difficult during those first weeks. For example, I can still see the look on the cab driver’s face when we pulled into my neighborhood and I said to him in my Hebrew, ‘Behold! Here I descend!’”
With an amiable, professorial presence, impeccable diction and a shock of white hair (he jokes in his act that he’s a cross between Steve Martin and Alan Alda), Alper often sets his material on academic terrain.
“I found out that at the University of Vermont, Hebrew, Russian and German are all located in the same building,” another part of his act goes. “They call it the Department of Semitic and Antisemitic Languages.”
When he first left his pulpit, Alper still officiated at weddings and funerals to make ends meet, but by 1994 he was able to live off his act alone. Alper is still very much a rabbi, though, and he conducts High Holy Days services every fall for a group of about 400 people, many of whom do not belong to congregations of their own, in a church in the Philadelphia suburb of Glendale.
Alper seems genuinely pleased by where his unusual path has taken him.
“I came home yesterday, and I got my alumni magazine from Lehigh,” he said. “In my class notes it says that this one retired, this one semi-retired, he’s playing golf. I’m going to be 60 years old next week, and I’m going around to college campuses doing stand-up comedy. I’ve gotta pinch myself.”