When Jerusalem-based haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian Yisrael Campbell brings his one-man off-Broadway show Circumcise Me to the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, he’s prepared for all kinds of controversy.
“One friend warned me, ‘oh, you’re going to get protesters because of your Israel connection.’ Then a friend from England said, ‘no, you’re going to get protests because of the circumcision connection.’ It could be the first time in history that anti-circumcision protesters team up with anti-Israel protesters. I welcome all protesters from any camp as long as they don’t block the door,” said Campbell last week in a phone call from New York.
The famed offbeat festival, taking place from August 1-25, is just the latest far-flung spot that has opened its doors for the 51-year-old comic to tell his unique tale.
Called the “funniest Roman Catholic Orthodox Jewish comedian in the world” by Stephen Colbert, Campbell has been telling the hilarious and often poignant story of his journey from Philadelphia-bred Catholic Christopher Campbell to hassidic standup comic Yisrael Campbell. That passage involved three different conversion processes, the ritual circumcision that comes along with it, and a whole lot of material for his act.
The result was a heartfelt, guffaw-inducing autobiographical monologue that Campbell honed after arriving in Israel for a few months that turned into 14 years.
Marrying an Israeli woman and raising a family, Campbell eventually upgraded his performance into a more-precise off-Broadway show that debuted in 2009 and somewhat restricted his penchant for improvisation.
“At that point, the show became a real show – it had a script, as opposed to going onstage every night and basically telling my story more or less,” said Campbell, who was in the US to perform for Chabad in Bergenfield, New Jersey. “It had video elements and cues. I had to say certain things at a set time in order for the stage hand to cue up the lighting or the video.”
Since the three-month run at the Bleecker Street Theater, Campbell has taken the show around the world, reverting back to the less formal “hour of standup” format. However a recent collaboration with Gary Rudoren, a veteran Chicago and New York improv and comedy writer, actor and director currently spending a few years in Jerusalem, has resulted in a hybrid version of Circumcise Me.
“What Gary has done to help me is put the off-Broadway version back on its feet. We revised it somewhat and updated some of the content, and brought back some of the visual element,” he said.
Campbell presented a “one night only” public Israel debut of the show in Jerusalem last month, and despite fierce competition from both Lag Ba’omer and the European basketball championship game won by Maccabi Tel Aviv, Circumcise Me almost filled the Agron Guest House auditorium.
“We wanted to enable people who couldn’t make it that night to see the show, so we’re making it a ‘two night only’ event,” said Campbell, explaining that another performance will take place at the same venue on June 5, the night after the Rolling Stones perform in Tel Aviv.
“Thank God we live in a place and time that our cultural schedules are busy and we’re part of the world around us. If I have to go up against Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Rolling Stones, that’s fine by me,” he said.
For his run at the Edinburgh festival, Campbell is aware that he’ll be performing in front of a predominantly non-Jewish audience, who may not get some of his observations, which are peppered with yiddishkeit and Hebrew.
“We have to adapt the show, sometimes even for Jewish audiences,” he explained. “One time I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting more laughs from a Jewish audience, and a guy came to me and said, ‘look, they don’t understand the Hebrew references.’ “So it’s a balancing act of trying to be as successful as possible and still telling a particular story. It’s not a civics lesson in religious conversion or in aliya, it’s my story. On the other hand, while not everybody is going to laugh at a joke they understand, nobody is going to laugh at a joke they don’t understand.”
Luckily for Campbell though, humor like his is universal.
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