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Meet the rabbi who serves as the Pope’s comedic adviser

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Rabbi Robert
Rabbi Robert "Bob" Alper, left, and certificate for winning from Pope Franics, right SULTAN KHAN PHOTO

This is not a joke: Pope Francis has a new honorary comedic adviser, and he’s a rabbi.

Earlier this fall, Vermont Rabbi Robert “Bob” Alper won a contest called Joke With the Pope. Rabbi Alper was one of more than 4,000 people from 47 countries who submitted jokes to the contest, which was designed to promote engagement with the pontiff leading up to his recent visit to the United States.

Along with the unofficial title and a certificate, Rabbi Alper was awarded $10,000 (US) to donate to charity. His choice was House the Homeless in Ethiopia. He was also given two tickets to The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

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A native of Providence, R.I., Rabbi Alper was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1972 and was the first Jew ever to earn a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served congregations in Buffalo and Philadelphia. In 1986, he entered a Jewish Comic of the Year contest in Philadelphia and came in third. He’s been on the comedy circuit ever since and continues to serve as a rabbi.

The winning entry?

“My wife and I have been married for over 46 years, and our lives are totally in sync. For example, at the same time I got a hearing aid, she stopped mumbling.”

He spoke to The CJN recently by telephone.

What made you enter the contest and why was it so last-minute?

Rosalie Fox.

Your wife?

No, a lady in town I know, a friend. A few weeks ago, she said, “Bob did you hear about this joke-with-a-pope contest? You gotta enter it.” I blew her off. I don’t enter contests. I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. I guess about a week and a half later, I ran into her at the farmer’s market. She said, “Bob, did you enter the contest?” I said no. She said, “The deadline was three days ago and you gotta do it.” I said, “Rosalie, leave me alone,” and I bought my bread and tomatoes. Then I went home, my wife was out somewhere, and I was sitting on the back porch. So I took out my cellphone and took a video of myself telling a joke, and I sent it in. A week later, I got an email saying, “Congratulations, you’ve won.”

Has the Pope called to thank you?

He hasn’t called, but I have a certificate from him. And the Pope was in on it. He actually wrote to the priest who ran the contest and endorsed it. It has a lovely quote about how he values humour and laughter, which they put on the certificate they gave me.

This is the kind of joke the Pope himself could tell.

Yes. They really wanted something that was appropriate. They liked the joke because, first, it was funny. It reflected family. When I say, “My wife and I have been married for 46 years,” that’s a pretty significant statement. I’m very proud of that and love to share it. Second, they felt it was slightly and humorously self-deprecating. In other words, I wasn’t making fun of someone else, not even my wife. I was making fun of me.

And the joke is better because it’s true.

It’s absolutely true! I got the hearing aid in early June, and in late June, my wife and I went to Cape Cod for a week. On the way down, I was playing with the idea.

To write a joke, it just doesn’t come out. You play with it, you tweak it, you write it and cross it out. And then you try it out over and over. I had a show in Cape Cod, so I did the joke and it just killed. So when it came time to send the joke to the Pope – I know millions of jokes – that was the newest and a good one to use.

Have you encountered congregants who say humour from the pulpit is unbecoming?

Never, which is interesting. Maybe they just don’t want to insult me. Maybe it’s because I’m able to use it appropriately. A good example is, years ago, when I was three or four years into my rabbinate, in Buffalo, I officiated at the funeral of a woman. I told some funny stories about her. I remember saying, “Lilian remained in character until the very end. On the day before she died, her niece came to her and said, ‘Aunt Lil, is there anything you’d like?’ She said, ‘Yes, a comb, some candy, and a stack of 50s.’” And everyone laughed. She was a hard-nosed person and they loved her. But it got a good laugh, a cathartic laugh. It was an appropriate use of humour.

I use the model of the Talmud, of a fellow named Rabbah. He started every lesson with a joke and then the students relaxed and could take in the serious nature of the lesson.

A lot of Jewish comics poke fun at their own Jewishness. Does that make you uncomfortable?

Yeah, because they often cross a line. That’s why, for example, I don’t do bris jokes. That’s an easy target, and it’s a sacred ceremony. So the only Jewish humour I do is poking fun at Jews behaving in silly ways.

An example, if you don’t mind?

It’s not a true story. “When I was in Israel in the late ’60s, long before cellphones, I had to make a call from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I dialed the number and heard a voice say, ‘Please deposit eight tokens.’ I said, ‘Gee, I only have seven.’ The voice said, ‘all right, I’ll take seven.’”

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Or, on an incredibly hot day, and an outdoor wedding. Everyone was miserable. The bride looked at me and said, “Rabbi, can you please make it a short ceremony.” I said, “Do you both want to be married?” They said yes. I said, “You are.”

Are you and Vermont senator and U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders Vermont’s Jewish community?

Actually, the biggest event in Vermont is the annual “I-Didn’t-Know-You-Were-Jewish Potluck” dinner. I met [Sanders] a couple of times. Watching his stump speech in an elementary school in our town, I thought, “I wish I had a video of him to show the confirmation classes so they would know what a biblical prophet looks and sounds like.”

Do you think he could use some humour?

No, and the reason is, he does have some humour. But I think his message is such a strong message of compassion for people, that I think if he resorts to sound bites and stand-up comedy, it would dilute the message I think is so important. I wouldn’t tamper with it.

Will you be notified if the Pope ever tells your joke, and do you get royalties?

[Laughs]. I don’t think so. I kind of doubt he’s going to tell it.

Because it involves a wife?

That would be one reason.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.

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