Vermont's Seniors Are Redefining What it Means to Age Well | Seven Days

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Older & Bolder: Vermont's Seniors Are Hiking, Raising Crops and Redefining What It Means to Age Well

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Published June 12, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 18, 2024 at 8:51 p.m.


Phyllis Rubenstein - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Phyllis Rubenstein
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Age 65 isn't what it used to be. Seventy-five isn't too old, either, at least for some.

Instead of retiring, many seniors are staying on the job or finding new outlets for their talents and passions. Advancements in health care, technology and living standards are helping people live longer, healthier and more productively.

Examples abound. At 82, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has announced a run for another six-year term. If his democratic-socialist sensibilities are sometimes questioned, his cognitive fitness is not.

Across the state, seniors are also keeping up their pace. Attorney Peter Langrock, 86, still runs an active law practice based in Middlebury. Jim Coutts, 81, is starting a cannabis cultivation business with his grandson in East Brookfield.

"People's lives can be rich right up until the moment they take their last breath," said Erica Marks, director of volunteer services at Age Well, a resource center for seniors.

Some are choosing to work into their advanced years as society's definition of old age is itself shifting, said Jeanne Shea, an anthropology professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in social gerontology. Life expectancy for Vermonters is 78.8 years, according to the 2020 census, slightly higher than for all U.S. residents. Average lifespans have grown considerably during the past century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All of this is not news to WCAX-TV reporter Joe Carroll. For more than 12 years, he's been profiling remarkable older Vermonters for the station's "Super Seniors" segment, which airs each Thursday during its 6 p.m. broadcast. Some of the people he profiled stood out because of their talents, such as 76-year-old singer Rosalind Fritz, who's had hits on European pop charts. Others, such as 70-year-old Carl Cushing, who survived polio and cancer as a child, impressed him with their tenacity.

All have shown Carroll what it means to age gracefully.

One subject in particular, Claire Duke, stuck with Carroll. For close to seven decades, she kept secret her dream of attending college. She never did enroll but volunteered thousands of hours to public service in her hometown, Barre Town, starting the first local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Those efforts won her an honorary degree from Northern Vermont University. She was 87 at the time.

"Some of the most interesting people I've talked to seem pretty average on the surface," Carroll said. "But they have a certain dignity about them and a positive outlook on life that I find aspirational."

As part of a yearlong exploration into aging in Vermont, which has one of the oldest populations in the country, Seven Days reporters sought out seniors who are pushing boundaries by working, volunteering and exploring. We profile seven of them here, including a dump-truck driver, a rabbi-turned-comedian and an Appalachian Trail through-hiker.

Together, they show that people can pursue the skills they've mastered over decades or can reinvent themselves — not only in spite of advancing age but also, at times, because of it.

— Rachel Hellman




Another Walk in the Woods

Thru-hiker Phyllis Rubenstein, 71

Phyllis Rubenstein clambered over house-size boulders and slogged through cold, ankle-deep mud as she hiked the full 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail last year.

Along the course of the six-month journey, Rubenstein blogged regularly and posted more than 1,000 photos of flowers on the iNaturalist website. And she bonded with fellow hikers, almost all of them younger, as she pushed her body to its limits. Rubenstein turned 70 during her first week on the trail.

Trekking the full AT is a grueling enterprise, and only an estimated 1,000 people complete it each year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Being one of those people, Rubenstein said during an interview at her home in Montpelier, brought lasting joy. Yet it also drew tears.

"It really took a toll on my body. And on my emotions," she said. Hitting her limit physically, after a lifetime of training as a cross-country skier and hiker, was sobering. "Would I ever do it again? I don't know if I can."

Rubenstein had long dreamed of hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Over many years of outdoor activity, she had ascended all of the nearly 100 peaks that top 4,000 feet in the White Mountains and Adirondacks. Between 2000 and 2013, she hiked the AT in sections over several summers.

But thru-hiking the trail had to wait until Rubenstein was able to retire from her law practice. Just weeks after settling almost all of her remaining cases, she was off, launching her trek north on April 15, 2023, from Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia.

Rubenstein had planned her journey with care. She prepared about a dozen packages for her house sitters to mail to her and arranged to return home briefly for the Jewish High Holy Days in September. Years of studying outdoor gear came in handy when Rubenstein chose her sleeping pad, lightweight down quilt, tiny bear-proof food box, and tent that packed to the size and heft of a bread loaf. When she set off, her load weighed 24 pounds.

Because she moves a bit more slowly than younger hikers, Rubenstein headed north from Georgia for the first half of the trek and then jumped to the end point at Mount Katahdin in Maine to finish the rest heading south. That way she could end her trip on November 7 in Pennsylvania instead of at Katahdin, where early winter conditions can arrive in October.

Rubenstein avoided shared shelters, choosing instead to camp in solitude.

"Life is simple when you're carrying your home on your back," she said. "I like my tent and to be immersed in nature."

But Rubenstein also became part of the companionable culture of mutual support that has developed during the trail's nearly 100-year history, with AT hikers swapping stories about bears, terrain and water sources. Through a well-known system of "trail magic," volunteers along the way offer food and first aid supplies.

Her account is interwoven with tales of companions sporting trail monikers such as Honeybun, Cheeks and Mosey. Last month, Rubenstein, who came to be known as "Green Mountain Girl," traveled to Virginia to swap memories with some of her fellow hikers at the annual Trail Days Festival. She recalled her weeks on the trail with a new friend nicknamed 3rd Wheel, whose speed advantage came from relative youth.

"At age 44, 3rd Wheel is blessed with fully flexible joints and good balance and agility," Rubenstein blogged on a website for long-haul hikers. "He made a game of rock hopping on the trail."

The two sheltered from the rain for three days at a hostel in Delaware, dining out and catching a jazz band at a nearby inn.

Rubenstein, who has a slight build to begin with, lost about 15 pounds on the trail. At first, she said, she underestimated how much food she would need and often felt hungry. She remained healthy, though the risk of injury and the limits of age were everyday company.

"I stretched my limbs in unimaginable ways. I used all my strength," Rubenstein wrote in her blog after enduring the difficult Mahoosuc Notch, known as the AT's hardest mile for its colossal boulders and the scrambling they require. Most hikers, she noted, can get through the notch in two hours. Rubenstein and a companion, Georgia, 58, took four. Of her 187 days on the trail, that one was the toughest.

— Anne Wallace Allen




Diesel in His Veins

Trucker Gerald Cloutier, 85
Gerald Cloutier - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Gerald Cloutier

You don't drive a truck with just this, Gerald Cloutier said, touching his forehead. You go by how it feels, in your hands and in the seat of your pants.

"You gotta be a part of it," Cloutier said, sitting in the weathered yellow dump truck that he maneuvers across Chittenden County every week, doing whatever job needs doing. He thought for a moment. "I guess that's where the love and attachment comes in."

Cloutier is a truckin' man, and he knows a thing or two about where love comes into it, too. Excavators, backhoes, 100-foot-long tractor trailers — you name it, he's driven it. "Cut my veins, and diesel fuel will pour out," Cloutier says.

He's easily one of the oldest drivers at S.D. Ireland, the construction giant. The most reliable, too, said Todd Silloway, who hired him several years ago.

Cloutier has given his life to the road. And to his thinking, it has returned the favor in spades. As a boy growing up in Barton, he learned patience and a work ethic in the cab of his father's dump truck. He was behind the wheel, too, when he first laid eyes on the woman who would become his partner in a life on the road.

As a young serviceman in 1962, Cloutier was driving a military bus in Niagara Falls, N.Y., when his friend leaned over and honked the horn.

Cloutier hadn't noticed the pretty girl in a convertible. Then the same car pulled in behind them at the bus depot later that afternoon. When his friend stood up, Cloutier pushed him back into his seat.

"This one's mine," Cloutier said.

Sharon and Gerald exchanged vows a year later at the air base chapel and moved to Vermont, where they raised two kids. Sharon answered phones for the state police and opened a ceramics business. Gerald worked for trucking companies, hauling logs, oil, salt.

Years later, with their youngest heading off to college, Sharon had an idea. Her business was slowing down, and they had money lying around. Let's buy a truck and hit the road, she proposed.

Starting a new venture worried Cloutier, but he had long dreamed of owning his own truck. Against the advice of friends, the couple made a down payment on a truck they would name Big Bertha and clambered aboard, the start of a grand adventure.

Life on the road took adjusting — with the long hours and truck-stop showers — but Sharon found her way. She handled paperwork and spoke to dispatchers. She learned how to copilot.

"She could back me in anywhere," Cloutier said, unmistakably proud.

The couple spent the next 18 years hauling you-name-it across the country, accumulating 1.7 million miles. Cloutier can still recall those jobs with crystal-clear detail, down to the exact turns he had to make. Sharon made scrapbooks to capture the moments: hauling a trailer of gear from a production of Les Misérables; pulling part of a 737 jet; holding two tiger cubs that traveled with a client, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

The travels took a toll on Sharon's health, but she refused to call it quits — right up until she had no choice. A doctor ordered her off the road in 2012. Cloutier stuck it out solo for six months, but it just wasn't as fun anymore.

Sharon died in 2022 at age 78. She never regretted the couple's decision to pursue the trucker's life. "She still talked about it, the fun we had, right up until the day she died," Cloutier said.

Cloutier eventually returned to work to pay the bills. He isn't sure how much longer he'll remain behind the wheel, but standing still only makes him feel older. Plus, he likes the camaraderie, trading jokes and stories.

Cloutier recently switched to one of the company's smaller dump trucks, which has a better seat for his grumpy back. It's a "Tonka toy" compared to Big Bertha, he said, after backing it into a tight space during a job on the Champlain College campus.

Still, this truck can do things the bigger ones can't, he said, again sounding proud.

— Colin Flanders




Nourishing Her Neighbors

Volunteer Velma Crowell, 80
Velma Crowell and Lisa Judd - HANNAH FEUER
  • Hannah Feuer
  • Velma Crowell and Lisa Judd

Among the drivers waiting in a line that snaked around the block at a pop-up food pantry in Newport, Velma Crowell was a familiar face.

She rolled down her window, adjusted her hearing aids and bantered with the volunteers directing traffic, many of whom she knew by name.

"What's the matter, David? You think it's summer, you've got no coat on?" she asked. David smiled and waved her along.

Volunteers hauled bags of carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, potatoes and tomatoes — enough to feed four households — into her back seat. At Crowell's request, they tossed in extra cabbage for a soup she planned to make.

The longtime Derby resident delivers food to seniors in rural Orleans County as part of VeggieVanGo, a monthly program sponsored by Vermont Foodbank that distributes fresh produce to those in need. But with an eye for the practical needs of her community, Crowell recognizes that having ingredients often isn't enough: Many lack the know-how to turn raw vegetables into tasty meals. So Crowell crafts easy-to-follow recipes, shares food-preservation tips and even personally prepares dinners. Crowell sees her efforts as a way to provide social contact for older adults, who make up a big share of those receiving help.

"Some of these people don't really see anybody else all week," Crowell said. "You don't know how much it means to an older person just to have attention. Just a hello ... It brings life to them."

Her recipes are simple and budget-friendly: a squash dinner prepared in the microwave; green beans drizzled with lemon juice, butter, salt and pepper; a two-ingredient Hawaiian cake made from angel food mix and canned pineapples.

Crowell also helps recipients of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a separate federal initiative offering food boxes to low-income people over 60. The boxes contain staples that don't always match personal tastes. When Crowell noticed that some seniors disliked the instant potatoes, she devised a recipe for duchess potatoes, seasoned with garlic and onion powder and formed into elegant shapes.

Crowell grew up in the town of Holland, where she learned to cook from her grandmother, who would drink the juice from canned fruits and vegetables that others poured down the sink. She channels that no-waste ethos into teaching others how to use leftovers and preserve or freeze food that spoils.

"I was raised that you ate what was given to you," Crowell said. "We're trying to teach people how to economize."

A high school dropout, Crowell worked for AmeriGas for 16 years, starting as a secretary and working up to a managerial role. Later, she directed the Head Start program serving Orleans, Essex and Caledonia counties, which provides free early childhood education to poor families.

Crowell started sharing recipes because she used the food bank and saw ways it could better meet the needs of her community. In a region where many embrace a go-it-alone stoicism and eschew free services as unearned handouts, Crowell tries to help people feel more comfortable about accepting help. Learning to cook, she said, gives people more control over their eating.

"The first time I spoke to some people about it, they said, 'I don't want to do that because that's for poor people,'" Crowell said. "They're ashamed."

With deep roots in the Northeast Kingdom, Crowell isn't delivering to strangers. At her first stop, a trailer park in Derby, Crowell knew the woman who lives there would likely be asleep, so she left the vegetables at the doorstep without knocking.

The second destination was the home of a lifelong friend, Lisa Judd.

"It's a godsend," Judd said of the deliveries. She said that because she cares for a family member with dementia, she wouldn't be able to pick up the food on her own. She handed Crowell two dozen freshly laid eggs as thanks.

At the next stop, Crowell asked a woman about an upcoming doctor's appointment and complimented her freshly mowed lawn.

Crowell said small interactions are part of why she volunteers. "It's looking for the shine in someone's eyes that hasn't had shine for a while," she said.

The last batch of vegetables in the car were for Crowell, who was heading home to prepare a dairy-free cream of cabbage soup. After a day of deliveries, it was time to feed herself.

— Hannah Feuer




'Wonderful Noises'

Experimental musician Herb Leff, 80
Herb Leff - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Herb Leff

Herb Leff likes to spend time in what he calls "the Etherium" a makeshift music studio in an upstairs bedroom of his Burlington home. It's crammed with hundreds of instruments: xylophones, singing bowls, drums, metal water bottles that he drums on to produce "vibrant, wonderful noises," and chimes of all shapes and sizes.

Later, Leff might make his way to "the Cave," also known as the basement utility room. Beside his washing machine and boiler stand a two-foot-diameter gong and other large instruments. Upstairs, his "electronium" harbors synthesizers and keyboards.

Leff spends most of his waking hours in his home studios making idiosyncratic and outlandish experimental songs, which he releases on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, two online audio distribution platforms. He has around 5,000 "listens" on SoundCloud. And once a week Leff and five other experimental musicians jam as the band "Open Concept." Some of the musicians are half his age.

"It's a passion I can't describe," Leff said. "It's a very dependable way of getting into a different space."

Music making is just one venture of the self-described "utopian" psychologist, who spent most of his life teaching psychology at the University of Vermont. Leff used to make eccentric pencil drawings and then abstract sculptures, all while penning three psychology books. He has long asserted his commitment to the act of creating.

Leff has always forged his own path. In sixth grade, he knew he wanted to be a professor. "By 10th grade I had settled on philosophy," he remembered.

In graduate school at Harvard University, though, Leff pursued humanistic psychology instead. He was greatly influenced by John Dewey, who posited that our highest calling is to enhance the quality of the human experience.

"That set the tone for the rest of my life," Leff said.

Herb Leff - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Herb Leff

In 1970, Leff accepted a position lecturing in psychology at UVM, and moved to Vermont with his wife, Ellen, a nurse and avid quilter. Shortly after, he wrote his first book, Experience, Environment, and Human Potentials, which in 523 pages seeks to guide readers in creating a utopian world.

Leff's research informed his decision to pursue art.

"Seeing beauty in the world around you or composing an interesting photograph: These ways of thinking have utility," Leff said.

While on sabbatical in Hawaii, Leff became captivated by Indonesian percussion instruments. Back in Burlington, he built a backyard studio and started experimenting with percussion.

It wasn't long before Leff pivoted, this time to sculpting. Leff created "threedimensional collages," using distorted mirrors to create rotating mobiles. He sold six of the sculptures and had a solo exhibit at the Fletcher Free Library in the late 1990s.

In 2003, another shift: "I just had this sudden urge to play the marimba again," he recalled.

Recently retired, Leff had plenty of time to experiment. He has kept it up for the better part of the past 20 years.

"For me," he said, "the real joy in this is not creating something that people might say, 'Oh wow, that's wonderful,' but rather creating something that I think is wonderful."

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Leff has been prolific on Bandcamp, releasing 19 albums since 2022. Some of his songs, such as "Marimba Mia," are a delicate dance of xylophone and piano. Others, such as "Shake That Thing," feature haunting synthesizer vibrations.

"He has a meditative, spontaneous sound to his music," said musician and DJ Otis Cleveland, who sometimes jams with Leff. "I always feel really good at the end of making music with Herb. I feel happy and liberated."

Leff has no plans to stop. "Art to me adds great depth and pleasure to existence," he said.

Music, Leff said, has gotten him through difficult times. When he broke his foot last year, he wrote "Intimate Jamboree," an album that includes drumming on metal water bottles — which he could do while sitting.

Through his instruments, Leff enters another world. Sounds dance off the walls, expanding and contracting at his whim. There, in the Etherium, time — and age — are no matter.

— R.H.




Acting Globally

Peace advocate Nina Meyerhof, 82
Nina Meyerhof - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Nina Meyerhof

Nina Meyerhof, whose parents fled from Nazi Germany as teens, spends her own life running toward war and disaster.

She was at the United Nations in 2001 to take part in International Day of Peace ceremonies when planes struck the World Trade Center, sending thousands streaming from lower Manhattan. Meyerhof slipped off her heels and headed in stockings in the opposite direction to find a way to help.

Her act of impulse would lead Meyerhof and colleagues to an unusual project of mercy — providing teddy bears to the stricken relatives of the 9/11 missing. Moved by the scenes of children and their parents clutching the toys, she began carrying teddy bears, including ones donated by Vermont Teddy Bear, to zones of mayhem and devastation in other parts of the world.

Meyerhof, who lives in South Burlington, has delivered teddy bears to Thailand after the 2004 tsunami, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and to Rwanda and Uganda. More recently, she's taken bears to Ukraine's border with Poland after Russia's invasion and is now coordinating a collection for Israel and Gaza.

The bears are just one part of Meyerhof's long and continuing mission: building peace and training young leaders. Over the years, she said, the work has put her in the same room as Kofi Annan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jane Goodall and the Dalai Lama. It won her a 2023 President's Volunteer Service Award and produced an eclectic résumé of dizzying breadth and variety. Meyerhof's latest big effort is to establish a peace center in Poland near the Auschwitz concentration camp, which is now a somber memorial and museum.

Diane Williams has traveled with Meyerhof to several countries, including Poland, where they distributed bears to displaced Ukrainian families in train stations and arena-size reception centers. "She zeroes in on the kids, and she's very present to them," Williams said. Even before the last bear had been handed out, Meyerhof was discussing how to find housing, counseling and Polish language lessons for the refugees, Williams said. "She's always thinking about next steps."

In April, Meyerhof was off to Kenya to deliver computers to a school. In May, she was in Spain for a conference. Later this month, she will begin a series of remote meetings to discuss with 25 young people from around the world issues on the agenda at the U.N.'s Summit of the Future in September.

Meyerhof speaks casually about a globe-trotting life — financed by fundraising — that has exposed her to some of the world's greatest suffering: "I just do the work," she told Seven Days the day before she left for Spain.

Some Vermonters may know Meyerhof as the former special education director for Windham Central and Windham Northeast supervisory unions and the Winooski School District. She ran a camp for children and teens, called Hearts Bend, on her Newfane farm for 30 years.

Meyerhof's parents lost nearly every relative in the Holocaust. They were scarred for life, and she was scarred by their scars, Meyerhof said. "You just have that choice of taking an experience and using it for the betterment of who you are or going into despair and say, 'Oh, poor me, I'm a victim of life,'" she said. "And I'm not interested in being a victim."

Meyerhof first took her efforts to the world stage in 1990, when she launched a nonprofit called Children of the Earth to help young people advance peace. The organization at its peak had chapters in 30 countries before falling into dormancy.

Oran Cohen, a South African who is trying to revitalize the group, met Meyerhof in Ghana 20 years ago. Watching her teach young people about peace made him realize that he, too, had a role to play, Cohen recalled. "She changed the trajectory of my life."

Meyerhof's current work on the Auschwitz peace center is a project of One Humanity Institute, which she founded with a Slovenian partner, Domen Koevar.

"She's a fast mover," Koevar said.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, they put the peace center on hold and renovated one of their buildings to house Ukrainians seeking shelter in Poland. Meyerhof and Koevar plan to convert that building into a bed-and-breakfast and, next door, to operate a coworking space, a bakery and conference rooms with the help of two Polish staffers.

The goal, according to Meyerhof: Place the best of humanity near the site that represents its worst.

— Mary Ann Lickteig




Haymaker's High

Farmer Wayne Lemire, 78
Wayne Lemire - ROB STRONG
  • Rob Strong
  • Wayne Lemire

Wayne Lemire doesn't know how to stop haying. He has no plans of getting off his tractor — the same one he's been riding since 1974 or so.

"People call me crazy because I'm still haying at my age," Lemire said. "But I just can't sit around."

Lemire has lived in Brownsville, population 560, his entire life. He's made one move: from his childhood home on Route 44 to his wife's house on what is now known as Lemire Road. (About 20 years ago, the town renamed the street after him, to Lemire's bewilderment.)

The 19-acre property, with billowing fields of grass and valley views of Mount Ascutney, is Lemire's passion — along with his hay.

"I like to make nice hay," Lemire said. "Good hay. No crap. Light green and dry."

Lemire's introduction to haying was happenstance. Shortly after marrying his wife, Ellen, Lemire was approached by a neighbor who asked him to hay his fields. A few days later, Lemire bought a red New Holland mowing machine in New Hampshire for $7,500.

Lemire ramped up his hay-making operation. Soon enough, he was hooked. Within a few years, Lemire was selling 12,000 bales annually as feed for animals across Vermont. According to Lemire, he was known for producing some of the best hay in the area.

That's still the case. Last week, Lemire hauled 200 bales to Wendy Bejarano, a local horse owner. (He took the next day off to rest.)

"It's absolutely beautiful hay," Bejarano said. "He really makes sure that it is dry and good."

Back in his prime, Lemire also drove a truck full time for a natural gas delivery company. He'd often arrive home after logging hundreds of miles behind the wheel, then hay until 3 a.m.

"I was nearly worked to the bone," Lemire said.

Wayne Lemire - ROB STRONG
  • Rob Strong
  • Wayne Lemire

Haying calls for careful timing to cut, dry, bale and store grass. It also requires an intimate understanding of tractors — something Lemire learned over time.

When Lemire isn't haying, he's in his large garage, working on dozens of vintage tractors he's acquired over the years. He sometimes repairs neighbors' tractors, as well. That keeps him busy in the winter.

His tractors, in various states of repair, bear tags with his scribbled notes about what work still needs to be done. His will indicates who stands to inherit some of these prized machines.

Lemire and Ellen never had children. Instead, they raised dogs and horses — 13 of each. Ellen ran a ceramics business out of her home studio and taught horseback riding. She died in 2015 from cancer.

Lemire acknowledges that he's lonely. He leaves his home once a week to buy groceries and seed for wild birds. Recent health issues have affected his balance and slowed him down. But that hasn't stopped him from haying. In fact, Lemire recently drove his tractor through what he suspects was a heart attack.

"If you're moving around all the time, you forget about any pain," he said.

Most days, including weekends, Lemire is out in the field or in his garage tinkering until 8 p.m. He has only five customers left for his hay but no desire to stop working.

"I love this place here," Lemire said, gazing over his hayfield, which danced in the wind.

Later, Lemire leafed through an old scrapbook of photographs. He showed off wedding-day pictures of Ellen, shots of favorite dogs and cats, of friends laughing. But most of the images depicted his field over the decades, a time-lapse progression from growing grass to neatly baled hay to vacant, stubbled remains as one season surrendered to the next.

— R.H.




A Rabbi Walks Into a Club

Comedian Bob Alper, 79
Bob Alper - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Bob Alper

Bob Alper likes to tell audiences that his hero is Harrison Ford, an actor still working into his eighties.

"He's making another movie," said Alper, a rabbi-turned-comedian from East Dorset. "It's going to be called Indiana Jones and the Enlarged Prostate."

First ordained in 1972, Alper for years sprinkled humor into his sermons, weddings and eulogies before getting around to what he called "the serious crap." It wasn't until the 1980s, when Alper left his congregation in Pennsylvania, that he started taking comedy, um, seriously.

Since then, Alper, who moved to Vermont in 1990, has been performing at comedy clubs, festivals, corporate events, retirement communities and, naturally, synagogues throughout the U.S. His act has been featured on Comedy Central, Extra, Showtime and ABC's "Good Morning America." He's performed in Europe, the Caribbean and Israel, and he's written three books.

Avuncular and smiley, Alper said he uses humor to brighten people's day, whether he's paid to or not. He routinely offers store clerks his Vermont driver's license unsolicited, just so they can see his photo. In it, Alper sports a wide, clown-like grin, his hands fanned in a playful taunt behind his ears. On the back he affixed a sticker that reads, "Yup. They let me do that."

"There are all kinds of ways of being a rabbi: congregational life, academic life, chaplaincy," he said. "My rabbinate is making people laugh."

With his white hair and glasses, Alper bears a strong resemblance to Steve Martin, a feature he occasionally works into his act. He got started in standup after noticing a tiny ad in the weekly Philadelphia Jewish Exponent seeking entries for Jewish comic of the year. He submitted a joke and was chosen as one of 13 finalists to perform a five-minute act at a local comedy club. He placed third, behind a chiropractor and a lawyer.

"I should have won," Alper said. A news anchor at a Philadelphia morning TV show agreed and invited him on the air.

Soon Alper was performing 50 shows a year, a run that once included a comedy festival in Toronto before an audience of 2,000 Muslims. Taking the stage, the rabbi looked out upon the crowd. "I feel really strange, so alone, totally out of place," he said. "Think of it: All of you are Canadians, and I'm American."

Though Alper frequently performs for Jewish audiences, his brand of humor isn't religious. While bris jokes might seem like easy comedic fodder, Alper said he never pokes fun at the Jewish circumcision rite.

Too sacred?

"No. I don't do dick jokes," he said.

The rabbi also steers clear of political humor, as well as anything that he views as raunchy or mean-spirited.

In 2015, Alper entered a joke contest called "Joke With the Pope," sponsored by a Catholic relief organization and so named because Pope Francis is known for his sense of humor. Alper shared one about his close relationship with his wife, Sherri, to whom he has been married for 55 years: "Our lives are totally in sync. At the same time I got a hearing aid, she stopped mumbling."

Of more than 4,000 entries, Alper's joke won, beating out submissions from Bill Murray, Conan O'Brien, David Copperfield, Brooke Shields and Al Roker, he said. A plaque in Alper's office proclaims him the "official comedic adviser to the Pope."

Asked why Jews account for so many great American comedians, from Borscht Belt comics such as Jack Benny to Billy Crystal, Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld, Alper offered that humor has long served his people as a survival mechanism. In this vein, he quoted another Jewish funnyman, Mel Brooks: "If you make people laugh, they can't bludgeon you to death."

Alper learned about survival and the power of humor from a former congregant and dear friend, the late Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor. Klein recounted to Alper how she and fellow Jews held in a Nazi death camp secretly put on comedy acts at night ridiculing their captors.

When Klein died two years ago, Alper included a joke in her eulogy. It's one he still tells to older audiences: "There are three stages in life: youth, adulthood and 'You look wonderful!'"

— Ken Picard

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