Saturday, July 26, 2014 Tammuz 28, 5774

'Circumcise Me': The Mohel the Merrier?

October 22, 2009 By:
Comment0
Enlarge Image »
Yisrael Campbell

They say the man works for tips. Dunno. Seems "Circumcise Me" comic Yisrael Campbell has his future pretty much sewn up.

The unorthodox Orthodox star of the documentary -- opening the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival on Saturday night, Oct. 24 -- and his off-Broadway play of the same name could have been as easily called "Yisrael Scissorhands."

Three times? Really?

"Yes, I did get circumcised three times," says the converted Catholic without even an "ouch" in his voice, regaling one with the dicey details of mohel information than a visitor needs to know about his Reform, Conservative and Orthodox circumcisions. After he discovered Judaism, the religion led him to the Promised Land away from the chaotic alcohol and drug-infused streets he had been traveling in and around Philly.

Those unsentimental journeys away from substance abuse are the substance of a satisfying film -- Campbell will also perform at the festival, held at the Gershman Y; for other films click here -- and play, opening after a set of previews, on Nov. 11 at New York's Bleecker Theatre (www.yisraelcampbell.com; 212-239-6200).

Nothing could be bleaker than the path he forged early on as a teen teaming with angst. But, allows Campbell, once known to his fellow students at Archbishop Carroll High as Chris, all's right with the world -- and his rite of passage couldn't have been righter.

So how did a one-time kid from the Ardmore area who "had some Jewish friends growing up and some Jewish neighbors across Haverford avenue," who also thought "Jews didn't believe in God" -- enter his new religion?

It was all a matter of Exodus.

With a tip of the kipah to the woman who gave him the Leon Uris novel to read, he took a novel approach out of his Catholic background.

"I became enamored of Israel after reading that," he recalls.

Enough so to explore Judaism, thinking it would wind up being just another of the wide range of avenues he was wandering down and wondering about.

But this one had his address.

And as he addresses his audiences now, attired in long layers of black and the blues of his former life -- "Is it hot in here? Or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 17th century?" -- this "first-born son of a manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman," whose aunt is a nun ("Which, of course, makes Jesus my uncle; that's good for getting parking in Jerusalem"), twirls his peyot as payoff to the naturalness he feels cutting loose about his circumcisions evidence.

"I hope it's enough," he says of the three-skin he sacrificed. "How much more can I give?"

He gives audience a chance to laugh, whether once working the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour (take my strife -- please!) or doing clubs here or in his adopted home of Israel.

Is this off-Broadway star the offspring that would have resulted had Lenny Bruce had sex with an Orthodox Jew, as the London Guardian once giggled?

As he prepares for his homecoming appearance at the Gershman Y, will Campbell's friends and family welcome him back as a Star of David or ward him off with a sign of the cross?

Campbell's soupcon of Philly life: Irish potato or matzah-ball soup?

"Two summers ago, I was visiting family in Ardmore and I see this woman getting off the train. Now, here I am in my [Orthodox attire], with my peyot, and I said, 'Meg?'

"She turned around and looked and said, 'Chris Campbell?' "

Did she do a novena?

"She looked at me and said, 'I can see that!' "

What she also saw was a past shared with Chris/Yisrael.

"She still goes to the same church as she did back then, St. Catherine's in Wayne. She was the girl I took to my junior prom."

Chances are, however, that they didn't play "Hatikvah" at that little get-together. But how did this all play out with Yisrael's parents?

"My mother actually came to my first conversion," says the man in black who bears no resemblance to either Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones.

And his father? Not the most observant of Catholics, observes his son the Jew. "When I explained to him that I couldn't turn lights on on Shabbat," and that even the refrigerator light that would go on when the fridge opened was restricted, his father eyed him and opined, "Do you really think God cares that a light goes on when you open the refrigerator door?"

Where did that sudden chill come from?

But, then, how best to answer such an unorthodox question.

"When Joseph Lieberman was running for vice president of the United States," recalls Campbell, "I said to my father, 'See, he's observant, too.'

"And he turned to me and said, 'Do you think God cares that the light goes on when Joseph Lieberman opens the refrigerator door?' "

Got ... guilt? "It's amazing how close Jewish families and Italian families are," relates Campbell of the guilt trips both take no matter how high the cost of gas.

Conversion was no hail Mary of a pass at redemption, no rush to judgment. But one thing he did learn from his former life is that confession is good for the soul, and he has one to make: "Rabbis," says Campbell, "are funnier than priests."

A rabbi, a priest walk into a bar ... who sets the comedy bar higher?

"All Jews," says Campbell, "have at least five minutes of material in them."

The documentary has 48; the off-Broadway show much more, although "there are no dancing girls or tigers."

No Siegfried and ... Freud?

No, he emphasizes, his theatrical event won't be the mea culpa of a convert. "And definitely there will be no re-enactments of my circumcision.

Cut to the bone: "That would just be foolish."

Not to mention squeamish. He's not married to the script yet, still tweaking it. But when it comes to marriage, Campbell is happily wed to Avital, a teacher of Talmud, with whom he shares a Jerusalem abode along with their three kids, including 5-year-old twins.

It is a second marriage: There was that first marriage, to an Egyptian Muslim.

"Had we stayed together, which we did not, she would have seen this," he says of his career, "as a development of what I was looking for."

Not that her Dad would look the other way. He weighed in this way: "He wanted me to convert to a Muslim. I said, now how would that look if I changed three religions in one year?"

Maybe Elijah never showed up at his seder because he didn't know if he had the right address? He can find him now in Center City and soon off-Broadway -- but never on Shabbat, says the Melina Mercouri of the midrash.

"My career has come full circle," marvels the one-time student at the Circle in the Square Theater, just a few square blocks away from where he will be opening on Nov. 11.

"I'm hoping for a long run, but I don't see it as 'The Fantasticks,' " he kibitzes of the longest running show in New York annals.

Is he circumspect about the prospects for "Circumcise Me"? "It's my story" after all, he says of who else might be able to do the play.

But what happens if he's still off-Broadway and they decide on a road tour?

He ponders. "Maybe," muses Yisrael Campbell, "we can get Tom Cruise ... ."

Comments on this Article

Sign up for our Newsletter

Advertisement