The kindest cut

HAARETZ : August 1, 2008
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."

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