Have you heard the one about the Middle East policy specialist whose second love was stand up comedy? If you haven’t, then you haven’t met Noam Rosen.
Rosen, a 29-year-old Jewish comedian from Toronto, won last year’s Canadian Comedy Award for the best one-person show. Last fall, Rosen launched a shared evening of stand-up comedy by three Jewish and three Muslim comedians at one of Toronto’s small alternative comedy clubs. The first of only two performances to date, both of which took place last November, attracted a capacity audience of 120 people, of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. However, the fact the show was reported in the New York Times by Canadian comedy reporter Andrew Clark gave Rosen’s effort an impact that has radiated outward from that small club.
"The crowd liked it lots. It was a real Peacenik kind of thing," said Rosen in a phone interview last week. "Then we received a huge amount of attention from the article in the New York Times." The Times article spawned coverage on National Public Radio, Public Television, and eventually to coverage in the Canadian papers.
One of the many Americans who read about that show took action. Irene Goldman, vice chair of the Coalition for Peace Action, was so impressed by the concept that she E-mailed Rosen the same day she read his story. "I wonder if you would be able to bring your team of Jewish and Muslim merry makers to us. Laughter is exactly what we need," wrote the peace worker. "New Jersey has a wonderfully broad cultural community. I think we can handle humor and sincerely believe we need to laugh together."
Rosen reports that he and Goldman "hit it off" immediately. As a result the Princeton Coalition for Peace Action is hosting the American premiere of "The Mideast Optimist: Muslim and Jewish Comedians Night." Reuniting the entire Toronto cast, the first show takes place Saturday, March 2, at Trinity Church. An almost immediate sell-out, a second show has been added on Sunday, March 3, at Princeton Day School.
Appearing with Rosen are Perry Perlmutar, 28, a Jewish actor and sketch artist married to a Muslim; Rasul Somji, 22, a Muslim who was born in Tanzania; and Al Hassam, a 31-year-old Indian Muslim raised in British Columbia. Also featured is Enis Esmer, 22, a Canadian comedian known for his successful comedy show "Turkish Delights." Born in Turkey and raised by secular Muslim parents, Esmer has been known to serve his grandma’s home-made pastries at his shows. Completing the cast is Alex Nussbaum, 31, one of Toronto’s best-known comedians who also works as a character designer for animated TV shows.
As reported by Andrew Clark in the Times, Nussbaum told his Toronto audience that he had researched Islam and found that characters from the Old Testament made "cameo appearances" in its religious literature. "There is one passage," he said, "where Muhammad goes to see God and is told to pray 50 times a day. On his way down, he meets Moses and tells him about it. `What?’ Moses tells him. `You can’t do 50! I know these people. Talk him down! Talk him down! Tell him Moses sent you!’"
Certainly, laughter can take us outside ourselves, says Irene Goldman, with enthusiasm. "The buzz is here. People are so excited about Noam’s concept. They respond to the title of the show and say, `It’s about time!’ People are so ready to laugh together," she says. "I believe that if you try hard enough you can fix things that have gone wrong, one person at a time."
Anyone who has read the news from the Middle East recently is bound to question whether Rosen is really an optimist. "When it comes to Middle East politics, yes," he says. "Although some days it’s harder than others.
"Anywhere there’s tension there’s comedy," says Rosen, expressing his personal philosophy. "It’s a way of relieving tension in a non-harmful way."
"It’s easy to be distracted by the violence and the conflict. It’s human nature to want to know these things. But I think the media does a disservice to the communities by focusing on the negative. Each side tends to accentuate its own suffering and ignore the suffering of others. My idea was to have a more neutral — or rather a spinning — but in a positive manner."
It’s not all fun and games for Rosen, whose show is part of a larger goal to promote peace in the Middle East by disseminating good news rather than bad.
Rosen launched the website www.MidEastOptimist.com on October 7, 2001 — the day the U.S. began its military attack on Afghanistan. Rosen publishes a bevy of links to newspapers and websites with positive or hopeful stories about the Middle East.
"That was when there was an explosion of a need for information." His project began as a personal E-mail list, then grew to a website, and took a big leap with the comedy show’s publicity. Readership has grown, he says, as Americans found that the daily goings on in the Middle East were clearly impacting their own lives.
The site’s first offering, dateline Teheran, was a story from an English-language Iranian news site reporting on improved U.S.-Iranian relations. Rosen, who reads news online for three or four hours a day, builds links to stories from papers as diverse as the Jordan Times, Pakistan Daily, and the Jerusalem Post.
Despite the September 11 terror, Rosen’s comedy show had been planned since July. "We got together and had a meeting with a cliche buffet — you know, with bagels, cream cheese, pistachios, hummus," he says. "Rasul had a funny attitude about the whole thing. When I asked him, `Do you want to do this show with Jews and Muslims,’ he said: `What is this, a trap or something?’ He thought he was going to be stuck by himself in a roomful of Jews!"
"There’s a huge amount of anti-Muslim sentiment right now. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to notice," he adds, noting that Toronto’s Muslim comedians were cautious about performing.
Rosen was studying immunology at the University of Toronto before he left college to switch to comedy. How did you get from immunology to comedy? we naively ask.
"I stopped doing immunology and started doing comedy," was the reply. And his parents, he adds, "have no problem with my career."
Rosen’s father is a radiologist who advised his son not to go into medicine. "Can you imagine the Jewish doctor saying to his Jewish son, don’t be a doctor!" His mother is a social worker by training who works with the mentally ill homeless, and recently opened a shelter for the Jewish homeless. Rosen and his girlfriend Mary Crosbie — "one of the funniest girls to ever be born in Canada" — hope to move their comedy acts to New York in the near future.
Although www.MidEastOptimist has grown into a small company now, Rosen keeps costs at a minimum with the help of collaborators that include Toronto Web master and friend Victor Wong. In a similar way, the Princeton Coalition for Peace Action depends on personal initiative and volunteer labor such as Irene Goldman’s.
"If you can laugh together, you can solve problems together," says Goldman. "Our goal is to raise the consciousness and the feelings of people to open up and understand one another. We believe if people can get beyond the differences and respond to one another as individuals, the Coalition for Peace Action could put itself out of business and that would be wonderful."
Noam Rosen remains optimistic about the power of comedy. "George Burns said it best," he says. "For some reason sometimes people need help laughing — everything else they can do themselves, but they need help laughing."
The Mideast Optimist: Muslim and Jewish Comedians Night, Coalition for Peace Action, Trinity Church, 33 Mercer Street, 609-924-5022. $10; $25 & $50 patrons & sponsors. Saturday, March 2, 7:30 p.m.
The Mideast Optimist: Muslim and Jewish Comedians Night, Princeton Day School, the Great Road. Sunday, March 3, 7:30 p.m.