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Jewish and Muslim comics laughing toward ‘Peace’

Contributing Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010

In efforts to strengthen interfaith relations, university officials across the world sometimes turn to forums, academic lectures and focused leadership groups as vehicles for discussion.

Sometimes, laughter works just as well.

For the past eight years, Bob Alper — an ordained rabbi with 14 years of congregational experience and more than 20 years of comedic experience under his belt — has traveled the country not to preach, but to joke.

This evening, Alper and his performing partner Azhar Usman, a well-known Muslim comedian, will come together in Salomon 101 to perform the 90 minutes of interfaith comedy that have come to compose the nationally acclaimed “Laugh in Peace” tour, “One Muslim. One Jew. One Stage.”


Comedians on college circuit

Though the pair has performed at venues across the nation — from the local synagogues of Alper’s hometown in Vermont to appearances on the Daily Show and CNN — Alper insisted that the college shows are often the most rewarding.

One particularly memorable experience, he said, came from an evening spent at the University of Pennsylvania. Audience members were hanging out together after the show, when the students were asked to leave — the conversation had gone on for so long that Hillel staff members needed to go to bed.

“It’s a pinch-me situation that I’m 65 and doing the college circuit,” Alper said. “No one my age doing is colleges — it’s a real thrill to be able to do, and to laugh and to tease.”

Though Alper said he likes to joke that he connected with Usman through JDate — an online Jewish dating service — he noted that the true story is equally humorous.

“I literally Googled ‘Muslim comedian,’ ” he said. According to his best estimate, the two have since performed upwards of 90 shows together.

Before pairing up with Alper, Usman co-founded the “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy tour, and has since performed in over a dozen countries, according to his website. Usman will be coming to Brown after a month performing his tour in Australia and South Africa.

Alper’s material, which he said ranges from typical Jewish stereotypes to cracks about his dog, is most often a direct result of his own experiences.

“People can relate to other people who are self-revealing,” he added. “It takes down the wall between you and the other person if you’re able to make fun of yourself.”

Despite the nationally acclaimed status of the “Laugh in Peace” tour, Alper admitted to feeling nervous about the duo’s opening competition — the Brown Stand-Up Comics.

“We hope they’re not funnier then we are,” he joked. “We’re counting on them to suck.”


Throwing a pebble into the interfaith pond

Gene Goldstein-Plesser ’11, executive vice president of Brown/RISD Hillel, said he began planning the event following a glowing recommendation from another university Hillel. He approached the Brown Muslim Students Association and several other campus groups and departments to co-sponsor the event.

The responses from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, Goldstein-Plesser said, have been overwhelmingly gratifying. Though financial contributions were not always possible, it seemed that everybody wanted to be part of an event with the potential to bring together a rabbi, a Muslim — and the community.

When Valerie Wilson, the associate provost and director of Institutional Diversity, was approached with a proposal to sponsor the comedians, she recalled that her immediate reaction was, “How wonderful!”

Together with University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson and the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, Wilson’s office recently undertook a project known as “Catalyzing Conversations on Diversity,” a new campus-wide initiative to explore issues of identity, literacy, diversity and co-existence.

Humor, Wilson said, may provide a means of addressing deep-rooted issues of interfaith dialogue in a manner that the lectures and leadership groups of the initiative simply cannot.

“We found that often times, people don’t know how to start a conversation,” Wilson added. “It’s a safe way, to bring people to an event like this, where everyone gets permission to laugh.”

When speaking of her work on the promotion of interfaith dialogue, Wilson continually returned to one analogy. Any event or idea that serves to further interfaith dialogue is just like a pebble being thrown into a pond, she said. Her job is only to enhance the ripples.

According to Wilson, the initiative is set to continue into next semester — and beyond.

“We want to put to work all the diversity that we have on campus,” she added, to “find topics that everyone has a stake in and that everybody can bring a different perspective to.”

Dave Coolidge ’01, associate University chaplain for the Muslim community, agreed that the performance could act as a way to explore topics that would otherwise be off limits.

“Comedy is a place for truth-telling and making known that which is often hidden,” he added. “It can be useful as a way of exploring complex and difficult issues either personally or more widely.”

Much of his work as a chaplain, Coolidge emphasized, focuses on enhancing what he refers to as the “natural symbiosis” between the Jewish and Muslim faiths that results from the shared experience of being minority groups in America.

“That’s the bread and butter of cohesive community -— finding points of commonality and building off of it,” he added.


‘A much-needed laugh’

The student representatives from Hillel and the Muslim association emphasized that while tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities at Brown are virtually nonexistent, stereotypes still exist that need to be addressed.

“Faith is very respected on Brown’s campus in general,” Goldstein-Plesser said, “but I think that people see there’s sort of this bias — people see Muslim and they think terrorist, they see Jewish and they think Israel, when really the Jewish and Muslim identities are so much bigger than that.”

One of the driving reasons behind the event, Goldstein-Plesser said, was to create a space where different faiths could come together, not to engage in academic debate or heavy political conversation, but just to have fun.

Jenna Zeigen ’12, president of Puzzle Peace — an on-campus group that promotes dialogue on issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestine conflict — expressed her excitement for the event in an e-mail to The Herald.

Despite her involvement in a topic that causes conflict around the world, Zeigen’s e-mail shared the position expressed by Alper and others — this event isn’t about the politics.

“The politics surrounding the (Israeli-Palestine) conflict are very present on this campus, and often very serious,” Zeigen wrote. “I think that this event will provide a much-needed laugh to the mix.”

Wilson echoed the sentiment. “Everything about the issue of interfaith dialogue is not all serious,” she said. “It’s nice just to see a little bit of irreverence and to actually poke fun at those things that are actually funny.”

One misconception that needs to be destroyed, noted Shadia Karim ’12, president of the Muslim association, is that the “Laugh in Peace” performance represents a rare collaboration between Jewish and Muslim students.

“The idea behind this event, that a Jew and Muslim can be on a stage together, actually rather mimics the relationships between the individuals involved in the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here,” Zeigen wrote. “Many of us are friends!”


Clean comedy

As with any comedic performance, Alper said, the sensitive nature of the material always runs the risk of offending people.

Though the “Laugh in Peace” partners perform separately
in a style known to the comic world as tag-teaming, Alper emphasized his performance shares an important underlying principle with Usman’s — their routines are always un-hurtful, clean and non-political.

“We want people to leave feeling good,” he added. “When you hear a comedian who’s really dirty or nasty or mean, you might laugh because it’s a well-constructed joke, but you end up feeling guilty.”

Mordechai Rackover, rabbi at Brown/RISD Hillel, said he has often heard and greatly appreciates the humor and sensitivity of Alper’s work. He also mentioned that he is sometimes alarmed by the overly harmful way in which people choose to make fun of their own culture or religion.

“Just because you’re of that faith — of that ethnicity — doesn’t mean that you have a free pass to say those things,” he added.

As long as the intent of the material is good, Karim said she isn’t too worried that audience members will be mistakenly offended.

“We can make fun of both sides because we have both sides there,” Goldstein-Plesser said.

Ultimately more important than the material the show addresses, Alper emphasized, is the experience that it can provide to audiences.

“It’s not just what they hear from us, but just sitting there, laughing together with people they might not even ordinarily talk to,” he said. “When people laugh together, they can’t hate each other.”

“One Muslim. One Jew. One Stage.” will be held at 7 p.m. in Salomon 101. Admission is free and open to the public. Following the event, audience members are invited to partake in a night of discussion, snacks and “interfaith schmoozing” at Hillel.

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