The stand-up comic was doing his routine at a Long Island temple one recent Sunday afternoon, but his material wasn’t routine for the folks in The Community Synagogue in Port Washington.
Ahmed Ahmed was talking about racial profiling, about the suspicious questions of security personnel at airports … about life in the United States since 9-11 as an Arab.
As an Arab American, to be accurate.
"I was a little bit nervous before coming here," said Ahmed, 31.
The Egypt native was performing at the synagogue with Rabbi Bob Alper, a stand-up comic from Vermont, in a show billed "Arabs! Jews! Lighten Up!"
Ahmed, curly haired with a new beard, in a dark suit with open-collared shirt, paced on the bima, leaning on the microphone stand for support.
"Thank you for having me here," he told the nearly capacity, mostly middle-aged crowd in the sanctuary’s velvet-covered pews.
Then he described his reaction when Rabbi Alper, who turned from the pulpit rabbinate to the comedy circuit 15 years ago, called with the idea of doing some shows together in Jewish congregations: an idea prompted by the rabbi’s conversation with a publicist.
"Are you out of your mind?" exclaimed Ahmed, who was born in a village near Cairo but moved to California a month later with his family. He has done some movie acting and a few years of stand-up in Los Angeles.
The rabbi and Ahmed kept in touch, by phone and Internet. So on a Saturday night they met in Philadelphia before a show at Congregation Ohev Shalom.
And the next day they drove to Port Washington.
The show started about 10 minutes late: "Egyptian standard time," Ahmed explained. Rabbi Alper did his usual S-(squeaky clean) rated gig about Jewish families and Yiddish expressions and the soon-to-open Jewish-Japanese restaurant, "Remember Pearl Farber."
Then Ahmed, introduced by the rabbi, talked about pre-flight security searches at American airports ("It takes me a month and a half") and pre-cut meals in flight ("They won’t give me a knife").
On the way to Philadelphia, luggage in hand, he said the security people at the L.A. airport asked, "Did you pack this yourself?" Yes, Ahmed had answered. Pregnant pause. "So they arrested me."
The crowd laughed, nervously but loudly.
Another story about his trouble getting into a nightclub. "I just want to come in a have a drink," Ahmed said he told the doorman. "I just graduated from flight school."
More laughter, less nervous.
After the show, the Long Island Jews (and a few Arabs who came for the interethnic show) hugged Ahmed in the lobby.
"Every single person had nothing but open arms," Ahmed said. "Old Jewish couples came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for making me laugh.’ "
Ahmed said it was his first time performing in a "house of religion. My eyes were opened. It was an enlightenment."
"Humor," he said, "breaks down walls."
"It bridges culture. It brings people together," said Rabbi Alper, who over the years has taken his very Jewish show to Christian audiences and mixed groups.
"Especially at a time when our hearts are breaking, humor is a way of healing," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of The Community Synagogue. "Just because I am in despair about what is going on in Israel doesn’t mean I must give in to my despair."
Rabbi Salkin said he immediately accepted the suggestion of Rabbi Alper, a friend for 20 years, to appear at the synagogue with an Arab comic as part of the congregation’s 50th anniversary commemoration and a fund-raiser for the temple youth group.
"We are a welcoming congregation. Welcoming Bob and Ahmed into our synagogue is a kind of tikkun olam," Rabbi Salkin said, using the Hebrew expression for "repairing the world."
Reactions in the Jewish community?
"It’s been very mixed," the rabbi said. Some people loved the idea. Some were worried about security. In the end, the performances had no extra security personnel, no hecklers, no protest marches. One caller, Rabbi Salkin said, declared: "It’s Jewish liberals like Rabbi Salkin who are destroying the Jewish people."
"Some of you have wondered aloud, ëNow? At this moment? During the worst crisis that Israel has faced, arguably, in its history? Is this really appropriate?’ " the rabbi wrote in an open letter to the congregants, answering their questions.
"Your justifiable concerns emerge out of the pain for what our people is now enduring," Rabbi Salkin wrote. "I am convinced that the humor will all be in good taste … these small moments of Jewish-Arab interaction are redemptive …let us pray for peace and healing: and let us have the courage, even, to laugh."
Ahmed’s too-short show didn’t break any stereotypes about Arabs, said members of the audience. "Everyone came with an open mind," said Edith Weber.
"It recharged our batteries," said Les Tafarella, another synagogue member.
"An excellent idea," Gamil Soury, an Egyptian-born Catholic Arab, said of the Jewish-Arab performances. "It should be done more often."
"We want to get rid of the pain," said Khaled Osman, a Muslim from Cairo who lives near the synagogue.
Ahmed, who said he is "not a practicing Muslim" but has made the pilgrimage to Mecca and fasts during Ramadan and prays regularly, including a brief supplication in Arabic before he started his show Sunday, branched into stand-up a few years ago after tiring of portraying Arab terrorists in films and on TV. He did generic stuff, often at the "Arabian Knights" shows at the Comedy Store in L.A., about families and relationships. "Jewish people in Hollywood love my humor."
"I never intended to be a political comic," he said.
"Circumstances." 9-11. He saw stereotyping of Arabs ("You don’t think of comedy when you think of Arabs") and he saw a way to change it. By talking, with a comedic edge, about himself, about his family. "I humanize Arab culture," Ahmed said. "I put a human face on Arabs. I got a calling, and I answered that calling."
Late night in L.A., before young, hip, usually inebriated crowds is familiar territory. A Sunday afternoon in a suburban synagogue, standing before sober, middle-aged Jews, was terra incognita.
"I was sort of starting comedy all over," Ahmed said.
And before he and Rabbi Alper parted ways on Sunday, they made plans for their next time together, back east, in another synagogue.