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Spiritual seeker Campbell creates unique Jewish humor

By Susan Ellman

April 1st, 2011

Stand-up comic Yisrael Campbell’s advertisement says, “He’s just your average Irish, Italian Catholic kid from Philly, Comic Actor, Sober Alcoholic, Recovering Drug Addict, Husband, Father, Reform, Conservative, Unorthodox, Orthodox Jew.

Yisrael Campbell

Yisrael Campbell

But his performance is definitely not an act. He was born Christopher Campbell; he once married a Muslim; and he converted to Judaism three times.

As his publicity material states, he was born to be funny, and the Jewish part came later. He studied theater in New York, then got involved with stand-up comedy before he began the spiritual quest that led him to Judaism.

He will bring his off Broadway one-man show, “Circumcise Me,” on tour to Milwaukee on Saturday, April 9, 8:30 p.m., at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.

In a telephone interview, Campbell informative and thought-provoking, and also accessible, personable, and candid about his life.

When asked about how he came to Orthodox Judaism, he said, “I don’t bring a lot of the baggage to religious observance that Jews do who grew up as Jews. I come to being Jewish from a spiritual search.

I’m not a ba’al teshuvah [non-Orthodox Jew who becomes Orthodox], or one of these people who think they’ve found the truth and everyone else is wrong. I had a good experience with Reform and Conservative Judaism, but I wanted to have more ritual and be part of the larger community.”

The title of his show may seem startling or risqué, but in fact it evolved from something more scholarly.

“The original name for the show was ‘It’s Not in Heaven,’” he said. “That came from the [Talmud Tractate] Baba Kamma story where the two Talmudic scholars disagreed. The voice of God came down from heaven and said which one was right, and the other one said, ‘It [the Torah] is not in Heaven’ [Deuteronomy 30:12].

“But we didn’t want to take seven minutes of the show explaining all that, and we thought we’d close on opening night, especially if we had a man with a black hat come out all by himself and talk. There was another documentary called ‘Supersize Me’” and the new title played on that.

When asked why he dressed in the long, black clothing of a haredi Orthodox Jew, Campbell replied, “I don’t really have a good reason. I like the way I look and it’s the way I dress on Shabbos and on [Jewish holidays], so I don't feel like it’s a costume I put on to do the show. It’s not how I dress every day, but I dress enough that way.

“But the kind of line I’ve come up with is: ‘My Conservative conversion upsets the Reform. The Orthodox conversion upsets the Conservative. And the only way I have to upset the Orthodox is to dress haredi!’”

However, he told The Chronicle that his blue shirt is to upset the haredim.

Campbell said he does not modify his show in response to local conditions or current events. “It is the Off-Broadway show, and I do the same show wherever we are,” he said, “but I open it up for questions and answers at the end.”

His coming performance will be his first time in Milwaukee, but he wanted Chronicle readers to know that his mother attended Cardinal Stritch College (now University).

For tickets and more information, call the JCC, 414-964-4444.

Milwaukeean Susan Ellman, MLIS, has taught history and English composition at the high school level, and is a freelance writer at work on a historical novel.