Worrying about all of the threats around us is normal. Taking action against these threats is pro-active and an effective way to cope. Everything from writing emails to legislators to marching in the streets to volunteering in help agencies enables one to feel less a victim and more a contributor to solving the problems and creating more pleasant times ahead.
As a part of my series about the the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rabbi Bob Alper
Bob Alper, a funny toddler, became a rabbi, served two large congregations for 14 years while also earning a doctoral degree, and on a lark in 1986 entered a “Jewish Comic of the Year Contest” in which he took third place behind a chiropractor and a lawyer. Since then, Bob has performed thousands of times internationally, both solo and with his Muslim and Christian comedy partners in the “Laugh In Peace Tour” he founded. He is also the author of inspirational books, including “Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This,” which The Detroit Free Press called “a volume of spiritual gems” in a 4-star review.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’ve always been funny, and it runs in my family. My first cousin Ben wrote for Leno, Letterman and even lesser comedians like — well — me. During my high school years I performed Bob Newhart routines for my Jewish youth group (benefits: election to regional offices and attention by the young ladies) and as editor, published the first April Fool’s edition of our high school newspaper. It was also during my teen years that I told people, jokingly, that I wanted to become a rabbi and a stand-up comic.
As to entering the rabbinate, I did not receive a “calling” from on high or put my hand on a rock. Rather, it was a logical choice for a kid committed to Judaism and looking for a people-oriented career. I have always used humor in my preaching, teaching and counseling, so adding stand-up comedy was not a huge stretch.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most important, most inspiring moment of my 30-year comedy career took place after a show, when a woman whom I knew was dying of cancer approached me. “You know,” she said, “for an hour and a half, I forgot I was sick.”
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Well, I’m basically part of three industries, the rabbinate, stand-up comedy and writing. In all three, the often quoted, best advice is take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously. And, of course, leave time in your lives to pursue your dreams, even if they are as far fetched as, say, becoming both a rabbi and a stand-up comic.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Try to understand and appreciate laughter not simply as entertainment or diversion, but as a spiritually-uplifting and, dare I say, even holy part of our lives. I often use humor, appropriately, in eulogies as a way to help mourners recall their dear one in their vitality. Similarly, humor can work well in the board room, the hospital, on a construction site. Anywhere. Used judiciously and effectively, good humor relaxes the listener, warms the atmosphere and enhances relationships between leaders and those they employ or serve.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Gerda Weissmann Klein’s All But My Life. Originally published in 1957, it was one of the very first holocaust memoirs. Now in its 87th printing, a version with a new epilogue has recently been released. Just as she did from the stage at the Academy Awards when a documentary on her life won an Oscar, Gerda references the story of the murder of her entire family by the Nazis and their collaborators, her years as a slave laborer and survival from a death march. And then she asks her readers and her listeners to do one simple thing: when they return to their homes, stop before entering and think about what blessings their homes provide. Something Gerda ached to have during those terrible years. No lesson has impacted my life more than Gerda’s.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Connect with people. One of the difficult parts of our quarantine has been the loss of opportunity to be with other people. We miss family and friends, of course. But also the quick hello with the woman behind the deli counter whose name we don’t know but whose smile always cheers us. We need to continue finding creative ways to connect, even behind masks. And make use of traditional methods, too, like calling an old friend with whom we’ve lost touch.
- Prayer and/or inspirational readings provide a quiet, personal embrace. Everyone has his/her own favorites. Mine? To be perfectly honest and, hopefully not sound too self-serving, I reread chapters in my own books. In both Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This and Thanks. I Needed That I offer short, true stories that occasionally start with a bit of humor and end with an inspiring message.
- It goes without saying that music touches our souls in many ways. For example: following a very serious motor scooter accident (helicopter transport to ICU, etc.), I derived comfort by frequently listening to my favorite song of healing. And at the very opposite end of the spectrum, hearing rock and roll oldies that evoke pleasant teen memories can be a real boost in troubled, sad times.
- Worrying about all of the threats around us is normal. Taking action against these threats is pro-active and an effective way to cope. Everything from writing emails to legislators to marching in the streets to volunteering in help agencies enables one to feel less a victim and more a contributor to solving the problems and creating more pleasant times ahead.
- Laughter. In addition to the story of the woman dying of cancer, I have my own experience. Following my accident, a few days after I came home and now lay in a hospital bed, a colleague learned about what had happened. During his call, he asked if I had followed my own often-given advice about using humor to help with critical situations. I confessed I hadn’t. A few minutes later, he said something funny and I exploded in laughter. I don’t recall what he said, but definitely do cherish the wonderful, almost liberating, healing feeling those guffaws brought to me.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I would simply activate the five suggestions above: connect with people, share meaningful, comfortable prayers or readings, share evocative music, invite people to join you in taking action in small or large projects, and find ways to help people laugh as often as possible.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
My specialty is humor, of course, and I truly feel that laughter can play a critical element in combatting anxiety. Fortunately, there are literally thousands of Youtubes, Netflix specials, podcasts and websites offering a laugh. Of my colleagues, I’d recommend Gary Gulman and Mo Amer.
But to quote Rabbi Hillel from 2,000 years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” So let me suggest people check out my Quick Laugh project! Since the end of March, I’ve been posting a different short clip from my stand-up routine every morning. They only last about 40 seconds. Not a huge time investment but, as a subscriber in California wrote, a great way to begin the day. And I was brought to tears when a Long Island colleague shared that “With 5 funerals this week-4 due to covid19- I look forward to your Quick Laughs, which help keep me upbeat all day.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“The Bible talks about kids of a certain age. According to one of the commentaries, the reason Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac at age 12 and not 13, is because, at 13 — — — it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice.” That’s a favorite, but definitely not the only quote with particular meaning in my life. Rather, it’s just one example of so very many jokes and funny stories that create both laughter and lend perspective. I always use this joke in my routine; it gets a huge laugh, with pockets of the audience laughing more intensely than others. And I just know that these are the folks with teens awaiting them at home. Laughter is healing, community-building and, as with this joke, cathartic.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would teach the sacred value of clean, un-hurtful humor, challenging people to open themselves to more joy as an antidote to stress and sadness.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
My website www.bobalper.com has it all: Videos, a link to subscribe to Quick Laugh, my performance schedule and much more.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!