This Convert Walks Into a Bar, See…

July 6th, 2008 · Culture and Ideas, Judaism and Religion

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

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