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."