A few hours after a U.S. Army base in Iraq came under Iranian-backed Shi’ite rocket attacks the other day, Dave Rosner and a few friends showed up. Rosner, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, wasn’t there to fight. He went to tell jokes.
Rosner, a wiry, wisecracking native of New Mexico who now lives on the Upper East Side, was part of a stand-up show that entertains troops in war zones. This one was especially tense after the rocket attack, one in which an injured soldier had to be airlifted away for medical care.
A veteran who has twice served in the Middle East, Rosner is accustomed to danger. So he stepped onstage and did his routine.
“I pretty much killed,” Rosner says, the day after he returned from Iraq. That’s comic talk for an act that had the audience in stitches.
Rosner is sitting in the dining room of the Friars Club, the Midtown networking home for comics where he’s been a member since 2006. His jokes about life in the Marines, life as a Jewish Marine and life as an Orthodox Jewish Marine, were a success, bringing laughter from the mostly non-Jewish audience, he says, picking at a salad.
“I am,” he says, repeating a favorite line, “the only Marine who when he kills, nobody dies.”
Except for stereotypes.
Since leaving active duty 15 years ago, Rosner (daverosner.com), a cancer survivor and political commentator on cable TV, has split his time between the Reserves, serving first as an inteligence officer, then in a public affairs unit in the U.S. and Korea and Japan, and working as a comic, doing lots of shows for synagogues and other Jewish audiences. He also does volunteer shows at veterans’ hospitals. He tells the Jews about the Marines, and vice versa.
Rosner has a lock on the Orthodox Jewish Marine stand-up bookings. “I’m the only one,” he says.
“He’s the funniest Marine,” gushes a middle-aged woman, who knows his material, at the next table,
On Monday, March 23, Rosner will headline for the first time at the Friars Club. His 7:45 p.m. show in the Milton Berle Room is titled “Confessions of a Jewish Marine.” (For information, call  751-7272, or contact Rosner at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In the competitive stand-up world, headlining at the famed Friars Club, performing for one’s comedic peers, is a pinnacle of success.
The Friars Club is where generations of comics hang out, where pictures of superstars like Jack Benny and Billy Crystal line the walls, where jokes that could curdle milk are the stuff of celebrity roasts
Which makes Rosner an oddity.
“I work clean,” he says.
A “smart aleck” since he was a kid, he began developing his talent on active duty, telling jokes in order to relax the other troops and doing stand-up at off-base comedy clubs open-mike shows. (Rosner is reluctant to give his age; his first enlistment, after college, was in the early 90’s — you do the math.)
Raised in a secular home (“If you say ‘Good Shabbos,’ my family thinks you’re a rabbi”), Rosner visited Israel for the first time after a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, in 1991. “I figured it was time to go to Israel.” Enrolled in a Hebrew University ulpan, he made friends with a Modern Orthodox crowd, attending Torah classes and Shabbat meals.
Within a year he was a full kipa-wearing, kosher-eating, Sabbath-keeping baal teshuvah. “I was always touched by the music, at meals, at services,” he says. “My Jewish soul was drawn to learn more.”
Rosner spent a year and a half in Israel during 1994-96, mostly learning at the Machon Meir Zionist yeshiva in northern Jerusalem.
When offered Friday night shows, he usually says he’s “not available,” Rosner says. Sometimes he accepts a gig if he can walk to the club and perform without using a microphone. “I actually asked a rabbi about that.”
Between bites of broiled salmon, he tells tales of the Marines accommodating his religious requirements, of the service arranging for kosher MREs and arranging his schedule so he wouldn’t have to travel on Shabbat. Though the Marines have a hard-bitten image, “For every negative story, I probably have 10 positive stories,” he says.
Anti-Semitism in the Marines? No more than anywhere else in the U.S., he says. “You’ll always have your 10 percent.”
“I know I don’t look like a Marine,” Rosner tells Marine crowds. “But I look like the guy who designs the Marine Corps Web site.”
“They laugh,” he says.
Jewish crowds are intrigued by his unique military background, Rosner says. “You don’t look like a Marine,” they tell him. “I don’t look like a Marine,” he says. “I’m really skinny. I work out all the time.” His hair isn’t brush-cut short.
He signed up for the show at the Iraq base earlier this month because “it’s an absolute honor and privilege to be able to entertain the troops,” he says. He knows, from serving in the soldiers’ boots, “how they get lonely, how they get isolated” during months in the middle of the desert. “I know how being able to laugh can make your mood change.”
He was there 10 days.
“We spent the first and last 24 hours of the trip in Kuwait,” Rosner says. “On the way back it was Purim and luckily there was a U.S. Army Orthodox rabbi stationed there and I was able to hear the Megillah reading twice.
“The thing I am most proud of from the comedy tour,” he says, “is that I did not throw up on any of the helicopter rides.”
After the shows, the grateful officers gave him and the two other comics unit hats and blankets as mementos. The enlisted men gave congratulations. “They came up and shook my hand,” Rosner says. “They came up and said thank you.”