Yisrael Campbell, 42 - From Penn Wynne, PA to J'lem

Stand-up comic is a Torah student, father of twins and a convert who made aliyah five years ago.

By DAVID BENDER
October 7, 2005 21:45

 
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So a priest and a rabbi are sitting in a comedy club. The priest turns to the rabbi and asks, "Begorrah, rabbi, sure an' just what's so funny about Israel, anyway?" "Damn near everything," says 42-year-old Yisrael Campbell, a Torah student, stand-up comic, father of twins and a convert who made aliyah five years ago. After entertaining the crowd from behind the mike at comedy clubs from Los Angeles and Las Vegas, to New York and London, his close-up-and-personal humor is now yocking the house throughout Israel. So - as was once written about funnyman Robin Williams: "Not Just Another Shtick Figure" - what exactly is Campbell's "shtick?" "I'm trying to search for truth; I'm trying to search for what's true about me... I think that humor - making a joke - allows me to take it to the next level, take it deeper," Campbell says, citing as creative sources comedic icons like Lenny Bruce's scathing, irreverent anti-establishment raps, and Richard Pryor's manic, but achingly personal routines. "I have the benefit of having found a spiritual home that makes sense to me, that I feel comfortable in, that I love," he says of his adopted homeland. "I don't feel that I've been deprived of something, I don't feel that I was cheated out of something, I don't feel that I was poisoned by something," Campbell says, reflecting on the long and winding - but still unfinished - spiritual journey from Catholicism to Orthodox Judaism he began when he was 16. FAMILY HISTORY Campbell's mother is Italian, his father Irish. Both are comfortable with his life direction, neither viewing his conversion as a "turning away from their religion." BEFORE ARRIVAL "I always give Leon Uris credit," he says when asked what initially got him interested in Judaism and Israel, recalling an early, painful "descent in order to rise." "When I was 16, I became aware of the fact that I was an alcoholic and a drug addict," he says. "The people I met that said they could help me said I needed to find a higher power." In his search, he tried returning to the Church, joining "meditation groups, I went to an ashram in Miami - I legitimately searched for spiritual answers... "When I was 19 I read Exodus," says Campbell, recalling the initial spark to his Zionistic fire. "I was ready to move to Israel; I was ready to turn the desert green. If Kitty Fremont (Exodus's female protagonist) was still here, she'd have been about 85..." he guffaws. UPON ARRIVAL "I kind of did it backwards; I came thinking that I was staying for four months. After the four months, I decided that I wanted to learn for the year," Campbell says. He began learning at Pardes [Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem], where he met his wife, Avital, when she filled in for his regular teacher. "Say I'd been learning at a more traditional environment, like the Mir [Yeshiva], and I had married my substitute Gemara teacher [there] - I'd be married to an 80-year-old chain-smoking rabbi." "My hardest day here was July 31, 2002, when my dear friends Ben Blutstein and Marla Bennett were killed with seven others at the Hebrew University bombing. That Motzei Shabbat I spent from 4 a.m. till 8 a.m. with Marla's casket in the cargo area of Ben-Gurion Airport waiting for her flight, which had been cancelled, to be rescheduled. "I knew then that though I was a convert and an immigrant, I had never felt more Jewish or more Israeli." ROUTINE In the mornings, Campbell learns at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat with Rabbi Chaim Brovender. "In the afternoons, I babysit. A friend pointed out that if they're your kids, it's not called babysitting - It's called parenting. They were right. If it were babysitting, I'd get paid." Campbell performs evenings, "whenever possible," appearing weekly. FINANCES "The plan is to get every English-speaker in Israel to give me NIS 40 and come see my show, and that should balance things out," Campbell laughs. He was managing the "first couple of years here on a fellowship. Now I'm doing the shows; my wife teaches and works; we have some investment money; we're receiving some help. It's very patchy - like most people I know in Israel." LIVING ENVIRONMENT Campbell and his wife own an apartment in an Arab house "which is problematic in a million different ways," he says. "My neighbor got mad at me one morning for living in an Arab house and having a blue ribbon on my car. He accused me of living in a stolen Arab house. I told him I was living in a stolen Arab country." CIRCLE "I can definitely say that I mix in a primarily Anglo-Saxon circle of friends," Campbell admits, but adds that all his American-born, Israel-reared wife's childhood friends are Israeli. While not sure Israel's "standupist" community is aware of him or other Anglos comics, he says he can see himself playing to tough Israeli crowds. MILITARY Ribbon color-war politics aside, Campbell says he has no ideological bias against serving. "It's a state surrounded by 200 million sworn enemies. I don't think the occupation is the only problem. I believe Hamas, I believe Islamic Jihad; when they say they want to liberate Palestine - and by that they mean Tel Aviv - I believe them. They seem to be sincere. "If [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon reads The Jerusalem Post," he says, "[I would tell him to] create a national service for people who are too old to do the army. I would feel more a part of the country; I would feel more a part of the society. What it would take to make me a useful part of the military would take up too much time and energy. It's an old Woody Allen joke, 'in the event of war, I'm classified P-4 - I'm a hostage.'" Campbell's most moving experience was cradling one of his 13-month-old twins at the hospital soon after birth and thinking, "This baby's going to live in this country in a way that I probably never will. She's going to go into the army; her brother too." IDENTIFICATION "In the same way that we're physical beings, and we're psychological beings - we're [also] spiritual beings," Campbell says. "Questions of action are more important than questions of belief, and that fits Judaism as I understand it." He and his wife attend Shira Hadasha in the German Colony. "So there I stand with the black hat, looking haredi... and people ask if it's OK to eat at the kiddush, if it's OK for women to read from the Torah... now I just tell them I think it is," he says slyly. FAITH "There's a Gemara in 'Ta'anit' where, I think, Elijah's walking through the market with a rabbi... and the rabbi says 'Who of these people has a place in the world to come?' Elijah says, 'no one.' And there were these two people... and he says, 'They have a place in the world to come.' And they say, we are comedians, we make people laugh. We bring people together through laughter.'" LANGUAGES "I speak English at home... I joined a religion that said there was no hell, and then I found out there is a hell in Judaism - it's called ulpan." PLANS Looking to the future, Campbell wants "to continue learning," adding, "I'm going to continue performing," and saying he plans to write a new show. "I don't know if I want to be a rabbi, but I want to know what rabbis know," he says. To propose an immigrant for an 'Arrivals' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: upfront@jpost.com

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