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Two cultures laughing together

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Itongadol.- An Arab, a Jew and a Christian walk onstage — OK, so this is not a joke, it’s a review. And actually, while the Christian is sometimes part of the act, only the Arab and the Jew made it to Israel this month, for a comedy tour billed as Laugh in Peace. The American stand-up duo of Rabbi Bob Alper and actor Ahmed Ahmed appeared in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, to the delight of English-speaking audiences.

But before they performed for Israeli audiences, Alper and Ahmed took the stage in East Jerusalem as part of the 1,001 Laughs Festival, which starred seven Palestinian-American comedians under the auspices of a cultural initiative sponsored by the US Consulate in Jerusalem. I attended the one and only performance at the Hakawati Palestinian National Theatre, near the American Colony Hotel in
East Jerusalem. My companion and I appeared to be the only Jews, but our initial uneasiness disappeared rather quickly as we waited with the crowd and never attracted a single unwanted stare. Not only were our promised tickets not waiting for us at the box office – there was no box office. No tickets were for sale, since the show had long since been sold out – at the bargain basement price of NIS 20 per ticket.

We managed to catch the eye of a consulate employee, who told us to walk right in. We made our way to the top row and sat down on the uppermost step. Immediately, a friendly woman in a sleeveless blouse and jeans shooed her two young children out of their seats, insisting that we sit in proper chairs while the kids take our places on the step. Our first question to her was about the show: was it going to be in English or Arabic? And she said she honestly did not know.

It soon became apparent that the entire show would be in English — colloquial American English, in fact — but this did not phase the audience in the least. Nor did it seem to bother anyone that these were not exactly A-list comedians: the laughter and applause were continuous and genuine, especially when the comics nailed familiar aspects of Arab culture, and joked about the difficulties of being Muslim in post-9/11 America. Even the touchy subject of airport security — not only in North America, but even at Ben Gurion — was grist for the humor mill, provoking genuine guffaws.

We held our breath when the MC announced special guest Rabbi Bob Alper, but we needn’t have been concerned. The applause was friendly, and there was polite laughter at Alper’s jokes, especially this one:

“Ahmed and I were returning from a gig at a congregation named Kol Ami. He asked me what the name meant, and I told him it was Hebrew for ‘Voice of My People.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘because in Arabic it means ‘Eat my uncle.’”

Everyone was in a good mood when the show ended, and my friend and I took away two impressions: one, that the Palestinians seemed starved for comic relief; and two — how strange it was for us to file into a crowded theatre in Israel with absolutely no security, and no-one checking handbags.

In spite of the positive experience in Jerusalem – audience members even took selfies with Alper along with the other comedians after the show – when the comedy festival went on the next night to perform in Ramallah, the organizers “pulled a Matisyahu”: Alper would be permitted to perform only if he denounced the Israeli occupation. Ahmed, upset at this decision, decided on his own to tell the crowd that his co-star the rabbi was in the audience; his announcement was greeted with applause.

The Laugh in Peace Israel tour was quite different: only Alper and Ahmed in front of smaller audiences (who paid NIS 80 per ticket). Although there may have been expectations that the two would perform together as a duo, and perhaps use comedy as a way of defusing Jewish-Muslim tensions, as Alper explained, only comedy teams in which one played the straight man appeared onstage together. Alper and Ahmed performed their separate sets, therefore, much of which were identical to their routines before the Arab audiences.

When the crowd was primarily Jewish, Alper’s sets were significantly longer than Ahmed’s. He was also very funny when he was in his element, recounting (or exaggerating) anecdotes drawn from his experiences during his former career as a congregational rabbi in Buffalo and Philadelphia.

In Haifa, the chemistry between Alper and Ahmed prompted one audience member to share with Alper the story of “his optometry practice, whose colleagues are Arab Christians and Muslims, Druze and Jews, all of whom get along very well; something Haifa people pride themselves in.”

At the end of their show, Alper and Ahmed do appear together to talk about how their association began and to take questions from the audience. The two revealed that their partnership — now in its 13th year — was originally the idea of a Hollywood publicist; but it has blossomed into much more than just a way to attract bookings.

“We do a lot of shows on college campuses,” said Alper, “where we are invited by Jewish and Muslim student groups. Once, we overheard the heads of the Jewish and Muslim student groups talking about where to go for dinner. It turns out that their offices were right next to each other on campus, but they had never spoken to each other until the two organizations co-sponsored our appearance. Now, they are good friends.”

Apparently, it does not take a trip to the Middle East to laugh and make peace.

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