Chris’s Bris (Extract)
Yisrael Campbell often looks like he’s wandered into the wrong place. On this sweltering August day, the full-bearded 45-year-old with long, dangling sidelocks, a black fedora and a thick black jacket, is seated in a caf? in the German Colony, a chic, largely secular neighborhood in Jerusalem.
Campbell, acutely aware of how he stands out in his ultra-Orthodox garb, and always ready to mock himself, volunteers to fetch a pitcher of water in this self-service cafe. “I’m the only one dressed anything like a waiter,” he quips, straightening his black jacket and getting up to bring the water.
Appearances can be misleading.
Campbell feels very much at home in this caf?, in this part of town (he lives in the adjacent neighborhood of Baka) and in this country – which is a little bit surprising for a Catholic-born American from Philadelphia who used to be called Chris.
His metamorphosis into an Orthodox Jew who makes a living as a standup comic in Jerusalem is the focus of his one-man show and, more recently, of “Circumcise Me,” a documentary on his life, which has been screened at film festivals in the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel and on the Jewish Channel (a national Jewish cable network in the United States). The 48-minute film charts an extraordinary spiritual, creative and occasionally absurd journey that includes three circumcisions along the way.
Fortunately, Campbell notes early on in his show and in the film, he underwent a medical circumcision right after birth, so the subsequent circumcisions – one for each of his three conversions to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, as he became increasingly observant – involved only a symbolic drawing of blood. Nevertheless, by the third time, he says, he began to grow weary of the ceremony. “Three circumcisions is not a religious covenant – it’s a fetish,” he laments in his show.
Campbell’s mother was slated to become a nun before she met her husband-to-be and dropped out of the convent. But Campbell was no Sunday school prodigy. He describes his high school years as a blur of drugs and alcohol. “How Catholic was I? Catholic enough to know I was going to hell,” he observes in his show. By 16, he had sobered up and embarked on the spiritual search that ultimately led him to Judaism.
Campbell, a large-built, soft-spoken man with a laid-back manner, is affable and funny, punctuating his story with one-liners. But much of the time, he is earnest and probing, not so much looking for a laugh, it seems, as for an answer. He talks about his views of the different branches of Judaism, his reluctance to live by a hodge podge of religious beliefs – a little Christianity, a little Buddhism – as some of his childhood friends do; and his appreciation of Jewish religious law and its impact on his life. His spiritual search, he notes, has always been closely linked to his artistic one.
The man, who describes himself as “a little bit of a class clown,” moved to New York to study acting a few years after completing high school in Philadelphia. This fall, he notes, his show will run off-Broadway just a couple of blocks away from where he studied 20 years ago – at New York’s Circle in the Square Drama School. “I really will have come full circle,” he smiles, “but in the process, I will have changed my name, my religion, my nationality and my marital status.
“In those days,” he continues, twirling a sidelock, “I used to dress in the standard actor ‘uniform’ – black turtleneck and black jeans. So I guess the only thing that hasn’t changed is that I’m still in black,” he says, casting an amused glance at his attire.
In the late 80s, he moved to Los Angeles, hoping to improve his prospects for an acting career. It was there that he saw an ad in a newspaper for a basic course in Judaism, given at a local Reform synagogue. Campbell says he thought he would become disillusioned with the religion, just as he had with Catholicism. But by the end of the course, he was more enthusiastic than ever and decided to convert.
What drew him to Judaism? Campbell admits he was deeply inspired by “Exodus” – not the Biblical book, he hastens to explain, but the Leon Uris novel.
But he also found Judaism to be a refreshing contrast to what he perceived as the dogmatic approach of Catholicism. “The idea that everything is up for discussion is an integral part of Judaism and that really attracted me,” he says, recalling how his first rabbi raised doubts about some of the basic tenets of the Passover story. “He would ask: How is it that when the Jews left Egypt they had time to take all the gold and silver of the Egyptians, but,” he continues, his voice rising in a tone of ridicule, “they didn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise?”
Campbell shakes his head, still bemused by the rabbi’s question, and reveals perhaps another source of his attraction to Judaism: “Rabbis are definitely much funnier than priests.”
While studying at the Reform center in L.A., Campbell was also auditioning for commercials. Coincidentally, Campbell got his first audition the day after he completed his conversion. “Before that, I guess I didn’t have the right connections,” he quips, referring to the preponderance of Jews in the city’s media industry. “When I told one of my relatives, he said: ‘Wow! News travels fast.'”
During that same period, Campbell married the daughter of an Egyptian-born Muslim doctor. “The father said he wouldn’t come to the wedding unless I converted to Islam,” says Campbell, who declined. “I told him that if I belong to all three major religions in one calendar year, people are going to doubt my sincerity.”
Campbell became hungry for greater ritual observance. When he asked how to put on phylacteries, his Reform rabbi directed him to another rabbi 75 miles away. “I figured there had to be someone closer who could help me,” he recalls, explaining how he gravitated first to Conservative and eventually to Orthodox Judaism, where he says he feels most comfortable.
In the summer of 2000 he decided to come to Israel for a few months to study Hebrew. By then, he was turning down offers for commercials if they were being shot on Shabbat or Jewish holidays – something he admits was a bad career move: “A struggling actor in L.A. turns down work only on one condition: He’s dead.”
He loved Israel, he says, and decided to extend his stay for a year.
Campbell – who was by then divorced – fell in love with his substitute Talmud teacher at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute, Avital Hochstein. The couple married in 2002 and now live in Baka with their three young children.
Campbell’s one-man show, “It’s Not in Heaven,” evolved from a talk he gave at Pardes about his unusual life. A number of members of the audience suggested he turn it into a book or stage production. He credits fellow American-born comedian David Kilimnick, founder of the Jerusalem-based Off the Wall Comedy Empire (a company of English-speaking comedians), for encouraging him to launch the show, in 2004. He has since performed all over Israel as well as in the United States and the United Kingdom. Campbell is also a member of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, a quartet of Palestinian and Jewish stand-up comics who say they try to bring peace, or at least a few laughs, to the Middle East. In the fall, Campbell will launch a new one-man show, “You Can Never Be Too Jewish” on off-Broadway.
There seems to be something inherently paradoxical about being Orthodox, which implies reverence, and being a comedian, which calls for irreverence. Yet, Campbell manages to be both. In his private life, he allows himself little leeway in his religious observance. (When he flew to the U.S. on Tisha B’av, he fasted for 32 hours instead of the mandatory 25 because he was flying across several time zones.) “Halakhic structure is for me a way of being in a relationship with God,” he explains.
A Therapeutic Film
The film “Circumcise Me” was a sort of therapy
for filmmakers Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld, both veteran news reporters who live in Jerusalem.
British-born Kalman, a reporter, and Canadian-born Blumenfeld, a photographer, have worked for leading media outlets, including Time, Newsweek and the Boston Globe.
“At the height of the intifada, David and I were doing a lot of work together, reporting mainly about guns, bombs, exploded buses and people dying,” recalls Kalman. “We were also asked to produce other people’s documentaries – and those were also about suicide bombings.
“After you’ve seen enough dead bodies lying on the pavement after a suicide bombing of a bus, you realize you’re becoming inured to the shock. When you see people still fused to their seats inside this blackened shell, and all you’re looking at is the camera angle, you realize that you’re losing a bit of what makes you human.
“It got a bit grueling and depressing. So David suggested we do something of our own, something fun. Doing this film has enabled us as reporters to retrieve a little bit of our own humanity. Basically this has been just one big act of therapy.”
On an evening in 2004, he recalls, “I went to the opening night of Off the Wall Comedy Club [an English-language comedy club in Jerusalem], and there was this haredi [ultra-Orthodox] guy standing in the corner. I felt like saying to him: ‘You’re in the wrong place – this is a comedy club. Can I direct you to Me’a She’arim [an ultra Orthodox neighborhood]?’ And it turns out that he was the headliner.”
Kalman, who founded a comedy club at his alma mater, Cambridge, was delighted. “I thought he was funny, talented, charismatic and found his story so compelling. It seemed like the obvious choice for a documentary. That night I called David and told him: ‘We’ve got our subject.'”
Campbell readily agreed. “He had nothing better to do,” quips Kalman as Campbell, seated nearby, nods in agreement.
The film is an abbreviated version of Campbell’s standup comedy show which is itself a tapestry of his colorful life and observations about subjects close to his heart. The filmmakers shot six of his shows and conducted interviews with the comedian in different locations in Jerusalem. There is also footage of Campbell’s father, a lapsed Catholic who remains perplexed but not bitter about his son’s conversion. The movie is being screened at over a dozen film festivals in cities across the United States over the next few months (https://circumcise-me.blogspot.com).
“In a lot of documentaries, the filmmakers research the story, but in this case the story was right there,” Kalman notes. He also says that he had grown tired of interviewing “cynical politicians” and terrorists, while ignoring what he regards as the real heroes of the story – ordinary people coping in an extraordinary situation. He wanted to show that side of Israeli reality, too.
“The fact is that even at the height of the intifada, people continued to laugh. There was still a life going on in Jerusalem against the background of this craziness. And as news reporters we never got to report that.”
One segment of the film – and show – deals with Campbell’s own intifada experiences, including the loss of two close friends killed in a terror attack at the Hebrew University cafeteria in July, 2002. He handles the subject with sensitivity, but doesn’t refrain from telling jokes about terrorists.
“In this film, we wanted to tackle the intifada, but from a different angle,” says Kalman. “We think it’s the first intifada comedy.”
Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report.