NOVEMBER 6, 2008
I am still marvelling about the short (45-minute) documentary Circumcise Me, about “Jew by choice” Christopher Campbell, who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, converted to Judaism in Los Angeles, moved to Jerusalem and became Yisrael Campbell -– and then became a stand-up comedian.
By his own telling, he converted to Judaism three times -– leading to all sorts of jokes about circumcisions (the best of its kind since Billy Crystal).
How can a secular American non-Jew become so thoroughly Jewish that even his humour comes from that perennial source of Jewish comedy: pain?
Campbell does it, neatly capturing the existential pain of being a Jew in modern Israel, with the threat of suicide bombings (two of his close friends were killed in the Hebrew University cafeteria blast).
Campbell does something truly extraordinary: he takes his non-Jewish background outsider status to his new Jewish persona and translates the feelings and communicates them in simple, direct and absolutely hilarious ways.
His success is due to his “crossover” appeal: although strictly Orthodox (and looking like a Chassidic rabbi), he communicates directly with all Jews, irrespective of their affiliation.
How many Jews can get away with the line, “Is it warm in here, or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?” Campbell can.
Circumcise Me is one of the funniest films shown in Milwaukee cinemas this year
By David Luhrssen
SHEPHERD EXPRESS, MILWAUKEE
23 October 2008
"You're a little nervous about the gasmask, right?" asks Yisrael Campbell. With the mask draped over the shoulder of his black suit coat, the fiercely bearded comic in the Hasidic hat pauses for a sly moment to let the crowd at a Jerusalem comedy club respond with laughter. "You think you missed the nine o'clock news?"
Transforming anxiety into laughter has been the special gift of Jewish culture to America and the world, especially through the influence of Hollywood comedy from the Marx brothers through the Coen brothers. What's remarkable abut Campbell is that he grew up Irish Catholic in Philadelphia and converted to Judaism-not once but three times, moving steadily toward the roots from Reform through Conservative congregations before finally turning Orthodox and fulfilling the logic of his spiritual journey by moving to Israel.
The documentary on Campbell as a comic and seeker, Circumcise Me, is one of the funniest films shown in Milwaukee cinemas this year. It's a standout attraction at the 11th Annual Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival, held Oct. 26-Oct. 30 at the Marcus North Shore Cinema. Circumcise MeDans La Vie (Two Ladies) will be screened 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 28. and
Directors Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld show some fast moving snapshots of Campbell's adopted city, Jerusalem, a place where the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the profane, coexist in uneasy and discordant harmony. Jerusalem is the spiritual home of the three major monotheisms as well as the physical home of Jews and Arabs. Some of that tension plays out in Campbell's comedy sketches, which form the bulk of the movie.
Campbell is not a one-joke comedian, however. Some of his humor is universal. Campbell's affable mockery of GAP clothing for infants-the label declares the line suitable for children weighing 0-5 pounds-points to corporate absurdity the world over. Why the 0? What, some marketing director thinks parents of children weighing absolutely nothing are a target market?
In many of the sketches captured in Circumcise Me, Campbell makes himself the bull's-eye of his own congenial if sharply articulated humor. In his youth he was a common type who took the less common path. Disenchanted with Roman Catholicism from a young age, he decided he was spiritual, not religious, because he didn't like being told what to do or think. He had some drug problems, became infatuated with a Jewish girl and thought he might as well take Reform Judaism for a spin, fully expecting to like it as little as any other organized religion.
As it turned out, he liked it so much that he couldn't be satisfied with the Reform movement, which discards those parts of Jewish tradition that fit least comfortably into contemporary society. Campbell kept digging for the roots and asking himself what kind of Jew he wanted to be. "Is it warm in here or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?" he asks, breaking the ice with laughter for a casual young crowd at a Jerusalem club.
By the time he moved to Israel, the Palestinian Intifada was getting under way. Rioting rocked Jerusalem. Bombs exploded in the night. Campbell even incorporates a joke about an infamous Hamas "master bomb maker" into his act-a man with only one leg and one arm. Given the loss of those limbs, "I'd say he was only a mildly proficient bomb maker," Campbell quips.
But the comedian isn't laughing about the ugly "Separation Fence" erected to segregate Arabs from Jews. Violence has subsided since the wall went up, yet Campbell insists from experience that Arabs and Jews are brothers, great friends one on one but have become enemies in mass. Given the shrill political rhetoric from both sides, he is pessimistic about the prospects for peace.
By LEORA EREN FRUCHT
Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report.
Yisrael Campbell often looks like he's wandered into the wrong place. On this sweltering August day, the full-bearded 45-year-old with long, dangling sidelocks, a black fedora and a thick black jacket, is seated in a café in the German Colony, a chic, largely secular neighborhood in Jerusalem.
Campbell, acutely aware of how he stands out in his ultra-Orthodox garb, and always ready to mock himself, volunteers to fetch a pitcher of water in this self-service café. "I'm the only one dressed anything like a waiter," he quips, straightening his black jacket and getting up to bring the water.
Appearances can be misleading.
Campbell feels very much at home in this café, in this part of town (he lives in the adjacent neighborhood of Baka) and in this country - which is a little bit surprising for a Catholic-born American from Philadelphia who used to be called Chris.
His metamorphosis into an Orthodox Jew who makes a living as a standup comic in Jerusalem is the focus of his one-man show and, more recently, of "Circumcise Me," a documentary on his life, which has been screened at film festivals in the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel and on the Jewish Channel (a national Jewish cable network in the United States). The 48-minute film charts an extraordinary spiritual, creative and occasionally absurd journey that includes three circumcisions along the way.
Fortunately, Campbell notes early on in his show and in the film, he underwent a medical circumcision right after birth, so the subsequent circumcisions - one for each of his three conversions to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, as he became increasingly observant - involved only a symbolic drawing of blood. Nevertheless, by the third time, he says, he began to grow weary of the ceremony. "Three circumcisions is not a religious covenant - it's a fetish," he laments in his show.
Campbell's mother was slated to become a nun before she met her husband-to-be and dropped out of the convent. But Campbell was no Sunday school prodigy. He describes his high school years as a blur of drugs and alcohol. "How Catholic was I? Catholic enough to know I was going to hell," he observes in his show. By 16, he had sobered up and embarked on the spiritual search that ultimately led him to Judaism.
Campbell, a large-built, soft-spoken man with a laid-back manner, is affable and funny, punctuating his story with one-liners. But much of the time, he is earnest and probing, not so much looking for a laugh, it seems, as for an answer. He talks about his views of the different branches of Judaism, his reluctance to live by a hodge podge of religious beliefs - a little Christianity, a little Buddhism - as some of his childhood friends do; and his appreciation of Jewish religious law and its impact on his life. His spiritual search, he notes, has always been closely linked to his artistic one.
The man, who describes himself as "a little bit of a class clown," moved to New York to study acting a few years after completing high school in Philadelphia. This fall, he notes, his show will run off-Broadway just a couple of blocks away from where he studied 20 years ago - at New York's Circle in the Square Drama School. "I really will have come full circle," he smiles, "but in the process, I will have changed my name, my religion, my nationality and my marital status.
"In those days," he continues, twirling a sidelock, "I used to dress in the standard actor 'uniform' - black turtleneck and black jeans. So I guess the only thing that hasn't changed is that I'm still in black," he says, casting an amused glance at his attire.
In the late 80s, he moved to Los Angeles, hoping to improve his prospects for an acting career. It was there that he saw an ad in a newspaper for a basic course in Judaism, given at a local Reform synagogue. Campbell says he thought he would become disillusioned with the religion, just as he had with Catholicism. But by the end of the course, he was more enthusiastic than ever and decided to convert.
What drew him to Judaism? Campbell admits he was deeply inspired by "Exodus" - not the Biblical book, he hastens to explain, but the Leon Uris novel.
But he also found Judaism to be a refreshing contrast to what he perceived as the dogmatic approach of Catholicism. "The idea that everything is up for discussion is an integral part of Judaism and that really attracted me," he says, recalling how his first rabbi raised doubts about some of the basic tenets of the Passover story. "He would ask: How is it that when the Jews left Egypt they had time to take all the gold and silver of the Egyptians, but," he continues, his voice rising in a tone of ridicule, "they didn't have time to wait for the bread to rise?"
Campbell shakes his head, still bemused by the rabbi's question, and reveals perhaps another source of his attraction to Judaism: "Rabbis are definitely much funnier than priests."
While studying at the Reform center in L.A., Campbell was also auditioning for commercials. Coincidentally, Campbell got his first audition the day after he completed his conversion. "Before that, I guess I didn't have the right connections," he quips, referring to the preponderance of Jews in the city's media industry. "When I told one of my relatives, he said: 'Wow! News travels fast.'"
During that same period, Campbell married the daughter of an Egyptian-born Muslim doctor. "The father said he wouldn't come to the wedding unless I converted to Islam," says Campbell, who declined. "I told him that if I belong to all three major religions in one calendar year, people are going to doubt my sincerity."
Campbell became hungry for greater ritual observance. When he asked how to put on phylacteries, his Reform rabbi directed him to another rabbi 75 miles away. "I figured there had to be someone closer who could help me," he recalls, explaining how he gravitated first to Conservative and eventually to Orthodox Judaism, where he says he feels most comfortable.
In the summer of 2000 he decided to come to Israel for a few months to study Hebrew. By then, he was turning down offers for commercials if they were being shot on Shabbat or Jewish holidays - something he admits was a bad career move: "A struggling actor in L.A. turns down work only on one condition: He's dead."
He loved Israel, he says, and decided to extend his stay for a year.
Campbell - who was by then divorced - fell in love with his substitute Talmud teacher at Jerusalem's Pardes Institute, Avital Hochstein. The couple married in 2002 and now live in Baka with their three young children.
Campbell's one-man show, "It's Not in Heaven," evolved from a talk he gave at Pardes about his unusual life. A number of members of the audience suggested he turn it into a book or stage production. He credits fellow American-born comedian David Kilimnick, founder of the Jerusalem-based Off the Wall Comedy Empire (a company of English-speaking comedians), for encouraging him to launch the show, in 2004. He has since performed all over Israel as well as in the United States and the United Kingdom. Campbell is also a member of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, a quartet of Palestinian and Jewish stand-up comics who say they try to bring peace, or at least a few laughs, to the Middle East. In the fall, Campbell will launch a new one-man show, "You Can Never Be Too Jewish" on off-Broadway.
There seems to be something inherently paradoxical about being Orthodox, which implies reverence, and being a comedian, which calls for irreverence. Yet, Campbell manages to be both. In his private life, he allows himself little leeway in his religious observance. (When he flew to the U.S. on Tisha B'av, he fasted for 32 hours instead of the mandatory 25 because he was flying across several time zones.) "Halakhic structure is for me a way of being in a relationship with God," he explains.
A Therapeutic Film
The film "Circumcise Me" was a sort of therapy
for filmmakers Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld, both veteran news reporters who live in Jerusalem.
British-born Kalman, a reporter, and Canadian-born Blumenfeld, a photographer, have worked for leading media outlets, including Time, Newsweek and the Boston Globe.
"At the height of the intifada, David and I were doing a lot of work together, reporting mainly about guns, bombs, exploded buses and people dying," recalls Kalman. "We were also asked to produce other people's documentaries - and those were also about suicide bombings.
"After you've seen enough dead bodies lying on the pavement after a suicide bombing of a bus, you realize you're becoming inured to the shock. When you see people still fused to their seats inside this blackened shell, and all you're looking at is the camera angle, you realize that you're losing a bit of what makes you human.
"It got a bit grueling and depressing. So David suggested we do something of our own, something fun. Doing this film has enabled us as reporters to retrieve a little bit of our own humanity. Basically this has been just one big act of therapy."
On an evening in 2004, he recalls, "I went to the opening night of Off the Wall Comedy Club [an English-language comedy club in Jerusalem], and there was this haredi [ultra-Orthodox] guy standing in the corner. I felt like saying to him: 'You're in the wrong place - this is a comedy club. Can I direct you to Me'a She'arim [an ultra Orthodox neighborhood]?' And it turns out that he was the headliner."
Kalman, who founded a comedy club at his alma mater, Cambridge, was delighted. "I thought he was funny, talented, charismatic and found his story so compelling. It seemed like the obvious choice for a documentary. That night I called David and told him: 'We've got our subject.'"
Campbell readily agreed. "He had nothing better to do," quips Kalman as Campbell, seated nearby, nods in agreement.
The film is an abbreviated version of Campbell's standup comedy show which is itself a tapestry of his colorful life and observations about subjects close to his heart. The filmmakers shot six of his shows and conducted interviews with the comedian in different locations in Jerusalem. There is also footage of Campbell's father, a lapsed Catholic who remains perplexed but not bitter about his son's conversion. The movie is being screened at over a dozen film festivals in cities across the United States over the next few months (http://circumcise-me.blogspot.com).
"In a lot of documentaries, the filmmakers research the story, but in this case the story was right there," Kalman notes. He also says that he had grown tired of interviewing "cynical politicians" and terrorists, while ignoring what he regards as the real heroes of the story - ordinary people coping in an extraordinary situation. He wanted to show that side of Israeli reality, too.
"The fact is that even at the height of the intifada, people continued to laugh. There was still a life going on in Jerusalem against the background of this craziness. And as news reporters we never got to report that."
One segment of the film - and show - deals with Campbell's own intifada experiences, including the loss of two close friends killed in a terror attack at the Hebrew University cafeteria in July, 2002. He handles the subject with sensitivity, but doesn't refrain from telling jokes about terrorists.
"In this film, we wanted to tackle the intifada, but from a different angle," says Kalman. "We think it's the first intifada comedy."
Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report.
by simone August 03 2008
Israeli humor is hot these days, and Matthew Kalman, co-director (with David Blumenfeld) of Circumcise Me, a comic documentary starring Yisrael Campbell, is at the forefront of this trend. The film, which traces the life of Campbell, a Catholic boy turned Jewish comedian, is currently doing the film festival circuit, and in the near future, the directors hope to hold weekly showings at Jerusalem's Lev Smadar Cinema, which hosted the film's Israeli premier on July 3.
Can I get a brief genesis on the history of this movie ands how you got involved? I'm a reporter, and David [Blumenfeld] is a photographer, and we've been working together here in Israel for the last 10 years. A few years ago, we started doing a lot of documentary work. It was all about suicide bombers, the intifada, guys with masks, and it got grueling after a while. One day, we'd just finished interviewing a 16-year-old who wanted to blow himself up but was caught at a checkpoint before he made it to his destination. We went to interview him in jail, and on the way back, David said to me, "We've got to do something fun, something for ourselves." That night, I went to the opening of the Off the Wall Comedy Empire. I heard Yisrael Campbell perform his act, and I said to myself, "We've got our subject."
How did your past experiences in journalism influence this project? How did you find the transition from print journalist to documentary filmmaker? The thing about print journalism is that you have very little control over what actually appears in print. You don't choose the headline; you don't make the final editing decisions. There are many times where I'll focus on one thing and something else entirely will appear in the published version. Here, with this documentary, we have complete control over what actually appears on the screen. So it's much more creative. But it's also a much greater responsibility. When I write for a paper, I get up, do my work and then come home and turn on Seinfeld and it's no longer my responsibility. Here, David and I are completely responsible for how Yisrael is perceived by the world.
Yisrael Campbell's comedy is a major selling point, but his back story is also key to what you did with the movie. What kind of balance between profile and concert document were you trying to strike? This was a really easy film to make, because Yisrael is really funny, he's really talented, he already has a show, so all we really had to do was film him. What we wanted to do with this project is take his show, which has been performed to numerous audiences here in Israel, and make it accessible to people elsewhere, and not just to Jewish audiences but to a wide range of people. We had to explain the contexts in Campbell's show and take out the parts that had too much Hebrew (which meant removing some of the funniest parts of the show). We also wanted to tell as much as possible of Campbell's back-story using very elementary documentary techniques. For example, Yisrael's father only has a few lines but they are all about very transitional points in Yisrael's life and they help move the story along.
Finally, we want to show people who don't live here what this place is like, so we filmed Yisrael driving along the security wall and visiting the Hebrew University, so that people can visualize the places he refers to. At one point, you see him at the café where his friends were blown up. For me, that's the emotional highlight of the film. It's a very powerful image that you can't do in print. You can describe, but to actually see it, to see Yisrael sitting on the memorial, is very powerful.
How would you describe the role and presence of the city of Jerusalem in the movie? Jerusalem is definitely one of the characters in the movie. In that way, I think we were very influenced by shows like NYPD Blue. We consciously modeled some shots from NYPD Blue and Seinfeld - the scenes of Yisrael in the comedy club and in various Jerusalem locales. We stole nakedly from all of our favorite programs. There's a very fine comedy called Just Shoot Me, and we used that as inspiration too. In that show they zoom in on all these different magazine covers shots, and we did the same thing with tourist t-shirts. It was brazen thievery.
What sort of audience have you found is attracted to this film? Who needs it the most and how do you plan on getting them to see it? This is a feel-good film about Israel and therefore Jewish audiences love it, English-speaking Israeli audiences love it and we think Jewish audiences abroad will have the same response. They're fed up of seeing Israel only through images of violence. This provides an alternative. It's about the intifada but it's also about how life is lived here. As journalists here, we always have to cover death, but there's also a gallows humor and we wanted to capture that absurdist, Life of Brian-type humor with this film.
For example, the day after the cease fire began in Gaza about a month ago, I was doing an interview with some Hamas guys there – it was this heavy interview about Israel and the intifada and they were all dressed up with masks and machine guns. As soon as we shut the camera off, they took of their masks and one of them says to my cameraman, "Are you Indian?" He said "Yes," and all of a sudden this Hamas fighter, who's holding an M-16 and packed with grenades, starts singing this song to him, an Indian song that he wanted translated. The cameraman said he wasn't able to translate, so he called his mother in England and here is this Hamas guy in full fighting gear singing on the phone to my cameraman's mother. It's this sort of humor that we wanted to show with the movie.
We're billing it as the first – and possibly last – real intifada comedy.
What was it like doing production in Jerusalem? Is it a case of dealing with logistical nightmares in order to capture peoples and places that you could never capture elsewhere, or was it a more nuanced experience? Can you share an anecdote that sums it up for you in your memories? Jerusalem is a great place to be a reporter, it's a great place to film because people here are so used to having cameras and television crews around them at all times. It was almost like having a professional cast of extras to work with. We saw the guitarist who plays the theme song playing on Ben Yehuda St., and we asked him if he wanted to be in the movie. He said yes right away and it took him all of about five minutes to learn the theme song.
Meah Shearim was the only place where filming was a little dicey. They're more wary of cameras there. In fact, we had an alternate beginning to the film which showed Yisrael emerging from a group of charedim, but the other charedim in the crowd were none too happy about it, so we decided to cut that part.
Photo of Matthew Kalman courtesy of David Blumenfeld; photo of the Circumcise Me cast and crew courtesy of Melissa Blumenfeld.
By Raphael Ahren
Yisrael Campbell had enough of circumcisions. Indeed, the Philadelphia-born standup comedian, who converted from Catholicism to Reform, then to Conservative and finally to Orthodox Judaism, has had his share of foreskin curtailments. The last time around, the rabbi told him that he'd have to do everything again. "I'll do a third circumcision," he said according to a sketch featured in a forthcoming documentary about his life, aptly called "Circumcise Me." "But I want you to know," the sketch continues, "three circumcisions is not a religious covenant. It's a fetish."
Seriously now, Campbell has at long last made peace with his Jewish identity. Even if the ultra-Orthodox won't accept him as a full Jew because his last conversion was done under Rabbi Haim Druckman, whose conversions have been declared null and void by their Supreme Rabbinic Court, Israel's leading English-speaking comedian does not intend to go through the process again.
"Maybe they not only converted me to Judaism this time, but to Israeli," he said during an interview this week. "I mean, that's it. Maspik (enough), I am done."
Campbell, whose first name used to be Christopher, is an interesting man. A drug addict in his youth, he was attracted to Judaism even though he did not like religion. He now looks like one of the many Haredi men who bustle around Jerusalem, where he has lived since 2000.
If one reads his biography superficially one might be tempted to call him the Matisyahu of standup comedy, as some have done. Like the Hasidic reggae star who was raised as a secular and began donning suits and black hats after becoming observant, Campbell turned his life around and turned his newfound spirituality into art.
Even "Circumcise Me," which was produced by Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld and is being screened at film festivals around the world, reinforces that notion. But a closer look reveals that while the kosher comedian might look Haredi his beliefs are rather more progressive. He attends Shira Hadasha, a synagogue on the liberal end of Modern Orthodoxy. When asked what he thinks of the recently passed law that permits Haredi schools not to teach English and math, he said it's admirable to spend as much time as they do studying Jewish texts, "but I don't think it's bad to be able to calculate a tip."
So why the Haredi garb? Campbell's first answer is a joke from his standup show, which has become the most popular act on the Jerusalem Anglo comedy scene: "When I did the Conservative conversion, it upset the Reforms. When I did the Orthodox conversion, it upset the Conservatives. The only thing I have to upset the Orthodox is to dress Haredi." He then explained that he doesn't play by the rules of traditional chromatics. Even his rabbi was surprised that Campbell sometimes wore a black hat but no suit jacket. "Apparently, nobody does that," the comedian said. "You first wear a jacket, and then maybe you wear a hat also. I didn't come to it from that side of it."
Campbell's Haredi dress serves two additional purposes. Firstly, he enjoys being easily recognizable as Jewish. During his honeymoon in Italy, he was asked on the street about the day Passover starts and whether there is a seder in Venice. "We became a Jewish information booth. I love that," he said. Then there is also the question of religious identity. "Jews don't need to do anything to feel Jewish, their whole life has been Jewish. For me, when I go home [to the U.S.], nobody is Jewish. It helps me to dress the part."
There are aspects of ultra-Orthodoxy that Campbell admires, such as the slow, devoted manner of prayer. But he still feels strongly about the non-Orthodox movements to which he once belonged. Many Orthodox Jews would say that the Reform and Conservative movements lead Jews astray from authentic religion, but for Campbell they brought him closer. He became Orthodox more because he longed for regular ritual practice and a sense of belonging than for theological reasons. He wanted to put on tefillin and pray three times a day. In the Reform movement, he said, "there just wasn't the opportunity to do that." Even the Conservative movement didn't offer the kind of community he sought. "The rabbis were religious but the general population was not. And I really wanted a community," he said.
Two circumcisions later, Campbell maintains that the Reform movement gave him his "most Jewish welcome to Judaism." They gave credence and credit to his spiritual journey.
In contrast, he compares his Orthodox conversion to getting a driver's license. "Imagine you walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles and said: 'I want to tell you guys why I want to drive. I want to go to the sea, and then I want to go the desert, and then I want to go to the mountains.' They'd say, 'Shut up and just take the test. If you pass, you get the license.' Nobody cared why I wanted to be Jewish. In fact, everyone was suspicious why I wanted to become Jewish."
A modern man at heart, Campbell also struggles with certain Orthodox beliefs, such as the renewal of animal sacrifices in the Temple. "The traffic in Jerusalem is already horrible, one can barely drive in the Old City now. Could you imagine if everybody were carrying a cow in their car?" jokes Campbell, who will be performing his one-man show off-Broadway in New York this fall.
Despite these reservations, Campbell's long and sometimes painful journey to spiritual fulfillment has arrived at Orthodoxy, and he is sure it will be his last stop.
"The questions that I can't answer don't trouble me as much as what it offers me," he said. "Ultimately," he added half-jokingly, "I like the separation of men and women in prayer. It easier for me to focus both on my prayer - and on where the women are."
JERUSALEM POST : July 10, 2008
By MATTHEW KALMAN
They were turning people away at the door of the Lev Smadar cinema in Jerusalem's German Colony last Thursday night, and no one was more surprised than me.
It was the charity premiere of my first movie, Circumcise Me, an hour-long documentary about stand-up comedian Yisrael Campbell and the story of his three (count 'em) conversions to Judaism after a Catholic childhood in Philadelphia.
It was my first premiere. As the lights went down, I was terrified.
The movie theater is a short walk from my home. I knew half the audience. They had paid good money for an evening's entertainment and if it were a flop, I would be bumping into disappointed punters every time I went out to the shops.
The film is less than an hour long, but it had taken three years to reach this point. The project began as a kind of therapy from the daily blood and hatred of the intifada.
I was a foreign news correspondent in Jerusalem for USA Today, Canada's Globe & Mail and other newspapers. My codirector, photographer David Blumenfeld, was snapping for Time, Newsweek and other major publications. We teamed up to report news stories for papers around the world. Then the intifada erupted and we found ourselves dashing from one heartbreaking story to the next. I started reporting for CTV television in Canada, and David learned video news reporting in California. Before long, we were helping to produce documentaries.
It was after one particularly grueling session with a teenage would-be suicide bomber in an Israeli jail that David suggested it was time for us to make our own film. "Let's choose something fun," he suggested. "We need a break from all this."
The following evening, I went to the opening of the Off the Wall Comedy Club at the Little House Hotel in Baka. The headline comedian looked like a resident of Mea She'arim who had wandered into the wrong part of town. His name was Yisrael Campbell.
"Is it hot in here," he asks at the start of his show, "or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 17th century?" His story, captured in an hour-long show called "It's Not in Heaven," was one of the funniest I had ever heard. It was riveting, hilarious, moving and brilliantly told.
"I think I've found the subject of our film," I told David as soon as I got home.
He agreed. We invited Yisrael to coffee and he loved the idea. More important, we loved him. We were about to spend three years in each other's company, so we needed to get along. And he was trusting us with a project that could make or kill his career.
We decided to let Yisrael's story speak for itself. The show traces his evolution from a drug- and drink-soaked teenager growing up in a Catholic family in Philadelphia to his first encounter with Reform Judaism, his journey through Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy, his decision to move to Israel and the impact of the intifada on his wedding in Jerusalem, followed by the deaths of two friends in the Hebrew University bomb attack in July 2002.
We filmed six different shows and then took Yisrael to various locations: his yeshiva in Gush Etzion, the Old City, downtown Jerusalem and the scene of the Hebrew University bombing.
None of us was getting paid, so we squeezed it all in between our day jobs. The filming took nearly a year, and the editing took another six months. By the autumn of 2006 we were ready to show our first cut to close friends under the title "It's Not in Heaven." Many of our friends queried the title, and urged us to cut down a long section in the middle. We listened and re-edited the film, trimming the sections that sagged and adding more jokes from Yisrael's show. We restored a hilarious sequence about the baby clothes designed for his new-born twins that was originally left out. ("A pocket? A zero-pound baby has neither arms nor legs, it doesn't need a pocket.")
We paid particular attention to those sections of Yisrael's story that we thought could not be understood by a non-Jewish audience. We assumed our potential audiences in Europe and North America would not know anything about Israel, Judaism or the Middle East conflict.
We gave the film some structure by introducing Woody Allen-style titles using T-shirts on sale on Rehov Ben-Yehuda. On the day we went to film, we noticed a talented street guitarist. It took him less than five minutes to learn a theme tune we had written, and he played variations on it as we filmed the T-shirt captions.
Still searching for a final title, we submitted the film to one of Israel's top distributors. They hated it.
"Our films are serious," they told us. "This one has too many jokes." We were convinced they were wrong, that Israel isn't just about war and suicide attacks. Even when they are happening, normal life goes on. There are even people laughing in the midst of all that mayhem and sadness. We wanted to create an antidote to the news story that we ourselves were reporting every day. We wanted to show life in Israel in all its complexity, not just the violence and the politics. And our test screenings showed that most people who saw it, loved it.
Nearly a year after that first screening, we signed with 7th Art Releasing in Los Angeles, a boutique distributor that specializes in Jewish, Israeli, human rights and gay films. Our search for a title ended when David came up with the brilliant suggestion of Circumcise Me and then created a title sequence to fit that had us all in stitches.
7th Art began to roll the film out to festivals all across North America, with screenings in California, Minneapolis, Toronto, Dallas, Alabama, Louisiana, Palm Beach and others yet to be confirmed. It sold the film to the Jewish Television cable channel in New York and is currently in talks with Israeli TV.
Three days before the screening at the Smadar last week, we had less than 50 bookings for a theater that held more than 250 people. We had agonized over the date, the only open slot at the cinema. After it was booked, we discovered it clashed with the US ambassador's Fourth of July party, the Hartman High School graduation, concerts by Blondie, the Stranglers and Neshama Carlebach, two local weddings, a bachelor party and a big bar mitzva.
We started to panic. We posted flyers on lampposts up and down Rehov Emek Refaim and were slapped with a NIS 2,400 fine for illegal bill-posting by the municipality. We put the show up on Facebook and 38 people said they would come; 58 said they might. All we could do was sit and wait.
The last-minute rush for tickets so overwhelmed the box office that we were 20 minutes late starting. As the packed cinema was plunged into darkness, a wave of nausea washed over me. The screen went black, and the first credit appeared: "A Baka Films production." The audience laughed. It wasn't meant as a joke, but I didn't care. They kept on laughing, right to the end.
July 6th, 2008 · Culture and Ideas, Judaism and Religion
Yisrael Campbell is a tall guy with a receding hairline who wears a black hat, black jacket and sidecurls. The name on his passport, actually, is Christopher Campbell, and he has been circumcised three times. If you do not yet see the humor in this, you have not seen “Circumcise Me.” You should. Feel very guilty if you have not.
For a while now, ads for Campbell’s stand-up routine about his conversion from lapsed Catholic and ex-substance abuser to frum Jew have decorated Jerusalem’s public notice boards. What’s quite amazing about “Circumcise Me” is that journalists and first-time producers Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld successfully turned a spiel for microphone and small hall into a film.
Now in the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that Campbell is married to a woman who used to babysit my kids, and Matt Kalman belongs to my synagogue, and his daughter goes to school with mine, and he and I once covered the same antiquities trial, which was not the least bit funny except that the defendant claimed that he hadn’t forged the ancient ossuary, it looked fake because his mother had insisted on cleaning it. Also, Baka Productions produced the film, Baka being the heart of South Jerusalem, a shtetl small enough that, relatively speaking, this is a very casual connection among people who live here, so I am being completely objective, being that I laughed myself whoozy watching Campbell making jokes about having blood extracted from his penis, not something I normally consider a laughing matter.
Actually, some pieces of the film are delivered in a serious tone, as when Campbell explains, at the Western Wall, that God doesn’t need his prayers, but he needs to say them, a pretty ancient and basic Jewish idea. If you were silly enough to scrub the jokes out of Campbell’s spiel (the antiquities dealer’s mom might do the scrubbing), you’d be left with the classic sermon of the sinner become seeker who found the true faith. Every religious group loves this riff: I’ve seen posters up on those same notice boards for talks by an ex-Muslim (or was it an ex-minister?) become Orthodox Jew, which is only the flip side of video clips of Jews who have found Jesus or of books by ex-priests who have discovered the truth of atheism. Members of faith communities, especially people born into those communities, love to have the truth on which they have gambled confirmed by someone who came to it on his own. If he figured it out, why then it really is true. Remember the con artist at the camp meeting in Huckleberry Finn?
…He told them he was a pirate, been a pirate for thirty years, out in the Indian Ocean, and his crew was thinned out considerable, last spring, in a fight, and he was home now, to take out some fresh men, and thanks to goodness he’d been robbed last night, and put ashore off of a steamboat without a cent, and he was glad of it, it was the blessedest thing that ever happened to him, because he was a changed man now, and happy for the first time in his life; and poor as he was, he was going to start right off and work his way back to the Indian Ocean and put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirates into the true path ; for he could do it better than anybody else, being acquainted with all the pirate crews…
Except the jokes aren’t scrubbed out. Campbell tells about he and his fiancee planning their wedding in 2002, the height of the Second Intifada. It was to be an intimate little Israeli affair, just 380 people, and at some point as bombs kept going off around the country, the happy couple stopped arguing with the hotel over how many waiters there’d be and switched to how many armed guards, the couple wanted 12, the hotel offered 9 armed guards and 3 guys with walkie-talkies. “What are they going to do?” Campbell asks, and then imitates the guy with the walkie talkie when the terrorist arrives. “He’s here,” he says into his hand. This is not something to laugh about, which is just the kind of thing a Jew laughs about.
In his serious tone, talking about the wedding, Campbell quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel saying that when a Jew is truly sad he is silent, and when he’s even sadder, he sings. “So we sang,” he says. But the subtext is that when he’s sadder than that, he jokes. And when he’s not sadder than that. (In the Talmud, in Tractate Avoda Zara, there’s a debate about when God laughs, whether it’s every day no matter what or only when he hears a joke.)
Campbell lists off the five questions he had to answer in the affirmative to be accepted for his first conversion (the Reform one, followed by the Conservative and Orthodox ones). The whole film implies that there was one more requirement, that he had to go before the rabbinic court and say, “So this convert walks into a bar, see…” If he makes them laugh, he’s in. Otherwise, forget it. God doesn’t need his prayers, but he’d enjoy a nice one-liner.
May 5, 2008
It's no joke. While making Circumcise Me, his new documentary about comedian Yisrael Campbell, filmmaker David Blumenfeld found the cutting process to be the most difficult part.
The film, by first time directors Blumenfeld, a photographer, and his partner, journalist Matthew Kalman, captures Campbell's unique journey from a Philadelphia-bred, Catholic Christopher Campbell to Yisrael Campbell, an hassidic Jerusalem-based standup comedian.
Circumcise Me, named after the three conversion processes Campbell has gone through since deciding to throw in his lot with the Jewish people, is being screened today at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival as part of its Comedy on Wry series.
"The way I see the film is the back story of how I came to the jokes I do. The film in many places flushes that out," said Campbell.
While the mohels presumably knew exactly what to clip off in the ceremonial circumcisions Campbell has undergone, Blumenfeld and Kalman were far less scientific, but just as meticulous, in their efforts to trim Campbell's often hilarious and poignant monologues into a cohesive film.
"We basically followed Yisrael's script. We didn't want to stray too far from his performance, the film is about him and it's his story," said Blumenfeld.
We did move things around a bit many times, so the story would flow - cutting things out was the hardest part. There were times when I loved a joke and I really wanted it in, and it sort of depended how strongly we each felt about it. If Matthew just didn't like that joke, and I felt strongly enough about it, then we'd keep it in. It was a real collaborative process. It all depended on who won the last debate."
Campbell's story is well known to Jerusalem Post readers. As he explains it in his show and in the film, "I'm the first-born son a manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman. This makes me wildly emotional... in a very quiet way."
With a style that careens from reflective to bellowing, Campbell has become a staple on the Anglo comedy network in Israel, and on frequent tours to the North America at colleges, Hillels and through Federations, as he describes his journey through teen substance abuse, a frustrating career as an actor in Los Angeles, and a growing interest in Judaism which led him to convert and move to Israel in 2000.
It was at a show in Jerusalem three years ago that Blumenfeld and Kalman first saw Campbell and were inspired to approach him about making a film about his life. The two had been collaborating for years on news stories for the international media, and had evolved into creating video feature segments for outlets like Britain's Channel 4 and Reuters.
"Israel's a very heavy place to work, and we were already thinking along the lines of finding a story that's both fun and funny to develop into a film," said Blumenfeld, sitting together with Campbell at a Jerusalem café a few days before they were flying to Toronto to be present at the screening.
"Matthew went to see Yisrael at the Little House in Baka, immediately the next morning, he calls me up and says I saw this guy, and he might be the story we've been looking for. He's hilarious, he's got a really juicy story and he seems like a real character. So I went to see him, and we sat down afterwards and talked, We said we're new at this but we'd really like to do your story if you're interested."
For Campbell, the decision wasn't difficult.
"When they approached me, It was a choice of a two-picture film with Spielberg, or Matthew and David's first film. This kind of decision has landed my career where it is today," he said affably, his haredi appearance contrasting with his earthy worldliness and comfort at secular delights like cappuccino.
"A couple of times early in my career, I had been nervous about things like this and put the brakes on, and essentially foiled things from happening. So for whatever reason, I was in a place where I said, 'sure, let's go for it. I've never been the subject of a film, let's do it.'"
BLUMENFELD AND Kalman began shooting Campbell's shows, and filming interview with him and his father about his conversion, not exactly knowing which direction they wanted to take it in.
"We wanted to follow the theme of his shows, but through additional footage and interviews we also wanted to put our voice into it," said Blumenfeld, a native of Toronto who first visited Israel in 1999, and has lived here ever since.
Among those touches are recurring scenes of downtown Jerusalem featuring a display of tourist t-shirts behind a street musician playing a haunting guitar line composed by Kalman. The camera focuses in a different t-shirt whose message - "Guns & Moses," "I Got Stoned in Jerusalem" - act as chapter headings for the film.
"Aside from being a cameraman or an editor, this was the first film I've been in charge of. I thought the t-shirts could be used to divide the film into chapters, but Matthew didn't like it, he thought it was too obvious. It was one of the disputes I won," said Blumenfeld.
"I was actually flying to the US, when I saw the ultimate slogan - boxer shorts which said 'I'm Jewish, wanna check?' That completed the circle there."
Because the directors filmed Campbell's shows over a series of two years, some unexpected changes occurred, including a switch of glass frames for Campbell and a noticeable weight loss - elements which the filmmakers took pains to cover up.
"We rented some frames that looked like his old ones, and we asked him to gain some weight for our interview segments," said Blumenfeld.
"It was very Deniro-esque, I had to gain weight to play myself," laughed Campbell, hinting at a sense of awkwardness he felt at being the focus of a film.
"Even today, I was telling somebody we were going to Toronto, and it feels so strange to say 'there's a documentary about me'.
Like then I should give a reason why I would need a documentary done about me - like I grew up in Chernobyl or something," he said.
While the film contains more than its fair share of belly laughs, as Campbell describes his first visit to the mikve, rants about baby clothes and Israeli drivers, and expands on El Al security for a traveler named Christopher Campbell who's dressed like a haredi ("We found one! Where's the bomb?"), there are also serious moments when he talks about living through the Second Intifada and losing two close friends in the 2002 bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria on Mount Scopus.
Blumenfeld and Kalman interspersed Campbell's observations as he sat in the refurbished eatery with clips and photos of the actual results of the carnage - elements that all the principals felt walks a fine balance between keeping the film focused on Campbell and branching out into the "matzav."
"When I do the show and talk about those things (losing friends at the HU cafeteria bombing), I don't have anything but my voice and my words. I think that with the use of archival footage, the danger is there to really go over the top. There's more than enough photos available to make it a movie about a pigua (terror attack). I think we hit a nice balance though," said Campbell.
Blumenfeld agrees that the focus of the film remains squarely on Campbell, and it's the subject matter which shifts the mood, rather than the additional shots he and Kalman injected into the film.
"We wanted to get at a situation where people were laughing one minute and crying the next, which is really like Israel."
And a lot like Yisrael Campbell's shows.
GLOBE AND MAIL : May 5, 2008
If you were introduced to someone named Christopher Campbell, it's a pretty safe bet he wouldn't be an orthodox Jew. There are certainly Jews named Campbell (although almost invariably the name has been anglicized by a previous generation) and there are, no doubt, even a few Jewish Christophers to be found. But the likelihood of a man named Christopher Campbell wearing the traditional garb, observing the Sabbath and the other 612 commandments of Judaism, living in the holy city of Jerusalem, praying three times a day and studying with rabbis, is more than a little remote.
Let me introduce you, then, to Yisrael (née Christopher) Campbell, 45 years old, a former teenage alcoholic and drug addict, the son of a woman who had wanted to be a nun, a Catholic convert to Judaism (not once but three times, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox), who also happens to be one of Israel's busiest and funniest stand-up comics.
Campbell's remarkable story and his delightfully comic dissection of it are the subject of It's Not in Heaven, a.k.a Circumcise Me.
This 44-minute documentary, produced by two Jerusalem-based former Canadians, David Blumenfeld and Matthew Kalman, plays tonight at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Campbell, black hat, beard and all, will be in attendance and perform part of his act.
Apart from the fact that he does not speak Yiddish - a gap in his knowledge base, he confesses, that earns him puzzled glances from Orthodox brethren - Campbell might very well have stepped out of a 17th-century Polish shtetl: black hat, frock coat and peyos (side curls). About the latter, Campbell quips: "They're not really peyos, just the beginning of a comb-over."
In an interview, he said his path from the Catholicism of his Philadelphia childhood ("I was raised Catholic enough to know I was going to hell") to Orthodox Judaism was gradual, induced by a spiritual crisis that hit him in adolescence.
His first answer to it was alcohol. By the time he was 16, Campbell was a full-fledged alcoholic. In his late teens, a Jewish friend and fellow addict introduced him to Exodus. Not the Biblical account - rather, Leon Uris's novel about the creation of the state of Israel. A priest later talked him out of moving there immediately, but Campbell, sober at 17, was so intrigued that, a few years later, he started studying Judaism in Los Angeles and ended up converting in the easiest way, under the aegis of the Reform movement. "I was speaking spiritually, trying to find something that made sense."
But a spiritual hunger remained and he found himself wanting more - more ritual, more knowledge, a greater effort to connect with God. He converted Conservative and, then, making what was to be a four-month visit to Israel eight years ago, decided to stay and take the final leap into Orthodoxy. Avital, his first teacher of Gemara (the commentaries on the Talmud), became his second wife (his first was Muslim). Married at the height of the second intifada, they now have three children, including four-year-old twins.
Sober for 28 years, Campbell now performs regularly at Jerusalem's Comedy Basement, has toured parts of the United States, mounted one off-Broadway show (another is planned), and travelled with a joint Jewish-Muslim stand-up troupe. He's certainly in demand: He made 10 trips abroad between December and the end of April.
His parents have fully accepted his conversion, though he likes to joke that his aunt is still a nun. "Which of course makes Jesus my uncle. It's good for getting parking in Jerusalem."