As they say, 'third time's the charm'

As they say, third time

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
November 4, 2009 00:45
4 minute read.
Yisrael Campbell 248.88

Yisrael Campbell 248.88. (photo credit: )

That familiar comedy stand-by, the penis joke, gets put to - um, how can I say this delicately? - novel use in Yisrael Campbell's one-man show. In Circumcise Me, the Catholic-born comedian recounts his journey from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism - a spiritual transformation and physical ordeal that involved not one, not two, but yes, three symbolic circumcisions. It's more information than you'd care to know in most cases, but the story and its attendant anatomical jokes have made the comedian, born Christopher Campbell, a popular performer in Jerusalem, his home for much of the last decade. Having revised his show for the New York stage, Campbell is setting up shop at the Bleecker Street Theatre in the East Village, where Circumcise Me opens November 11. The son, in his telling, of a "manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman," Campbell was never an obvious candidate for becoming either a comedian or a Jew, but found his way to both thanks in part to alienation from his childhood religion. "People always say, 'How Catholic were you?'" the performer recalls early in the show, smiling and waiting a beat before his next line. "Catholic enough to know I was going to hell. So I switched religions." His actual conversion, of course, was not nearly that simple, coming after youthful struggles involving alcohol, drug abuse and other challenges. His encounter with his adopted religion began in earnest after he moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Judaism "felt like real information, a real way to have a relationship with God," he says, speaking recently at a coffee shop on the Upper West Side. That spiritual relationship tightened following his first conversion, completed via the Reform movement and involving symbolic circumcision No. 1. (More TMI: Campbell, like the majority of American men, had been circumcised at birth, but needed to undergo a ritual letting of blood - "not from my thumb," he notes - as part of the conversion process.) The passage of time led him to greater observance of Jewish tradition and - owing to the internal struggles between the different streams of Judaism - to additional "conversions" and circumcisions to satisfy the more religious sections of the community. The comedian's deepening devotion brought fulfillment in many areas of his personal life, but increasingly presented difficulties in his career. "It got to the point that I didn't want to work on Shabbat anymore, so I turned down a couple commercials I had been cast in," he says. "My agents thought it was cute when I started putting on a kippah - not so cute when I started turning down work." TO FURTHER his spiritual education and gain perspective on his path, Campbell moved to Israel for what was supposed to be four months - and ended up marrying a Gemara teacher at Jerusalem's Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. In the years since, he's changed his first name, fathered twins and endured the second intifada, recollections of which also play a role in his routine. "Most stand-up shows don't end with, 'And then two bombs went off and killed my friends,'" he says, referring to one of the more poignant - and skillfully handled - moments in the show. Later, he speaks about his work with the Palestinian-Israeli Comedy Tour, in which the black-attired, sidelock-sporting comedian joined an unlikely group of stand-up artists to boost regional understanding. ("Is it warm in here, or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?" he likes to ask.) Despite the dramatic and highly unconventional swings his life has taken, Campbell comes across as thoughtful and even-keeled, quoting Elie Wiesel and discussing the emotional impact of Leon Uris's Exodus as he reflects on his outsider status - both as an American convert in Israel, and as a Jerusalem resident and convert back in the US. "They think I'm crazy," he jokes of his parents' ultimately supportive response to his choices, "but they thought I was crazy for eight other reasons before." Beyond its size, New York offers an appealingly diverse potential audience, with Campbell expressing the desire that Circumcise Me will attract not only Jewish theatergoers, but non-Jews as well. "It's a journey," he says of the experience of seeing the production. "Hopefully that will be resonant for many kinds of people, whatever their background." Regarding his own history, many of the tensions, it appears, have already been worked out onstage. While Campbell enjoys being closer to his American family and expresses satisfaction at returning to New York as the star of his own show - he studied at the city's Circle in the Square Theatre School in the late 1980s - he also notes shortcomings he wouldn't have noticed in his previous life. "It's funny," he says. "I always thought New York was such a Jewish city. Until," he goes on, "I lived in Jerusalem for eight years, and suddenly it feels not so Jewish."


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