Yuks and yarmulkes from a Jewish comic

A portrait of a Jewish stand-up comedian, 'Circumcise Me' is one of dozens of movies playing the Austin Jewish Film Festival

By Chris Garcia


Friday, January 23, 2009

Though the title of "Circumcise Me" makes clever punnery of Morgan Spurlock's gruesome McDonald's gorge-fest "Super Size Me," the two documentaries share more than titular kinship.

Both are humorously insightful, plumbing in wry ways culture, values and politics. And both examine extremist practices: "Super Size Me" takes on the idea of devouring gobs of greasy, fatty junk food in the name of pseudo-health science. More squeamishly for some of us, "Circumcise Me" discusses one man's experience in getting circumcised, not once, not twice, but three times. (Wince.)

The man is Jewish stand-up comic Yisrael Campbell, who was raised Catholic and circumcised at birth. He converted to Judaism three times as an adult — to Reform, then Conservative, then Orthodox. Protesting that he'd already endured the procedure as an infant, a rabbi told him that it's the difference between a "medical procedure" and a "religious covenant."

All right, Campbell shrugs, standing on a bright stage in the documentary, gripping a microphone. "I'll do three circumcisions. But I want you to know that three circumcisions is not a religious covenant. It's a fetish."


Relating this story, Campbell is dressed in full Orthodox Jewish raiments. He perspires and gesticulates, punching the palm of his thick hand for emphasis. And a small audience erupts into knowing laughter, their open-mouth faces beaming with recognition.

The film's full title is "Circumcise Me: The Comedy of Yisrael Campbell" and was directed by David Blumenfeld and Matthew Kalman. It screens Thursday at the Arbor as part of the Austin Jewish Film Festival, which begins Saturday and runs through Jan. 30 at various venues.

At 48 minutes and a low budget, it's a small movie that exudes an enormous spirit of faith, understanding and fellowship, wrapped in wisdom and wisecracks. Campbell, who was born Chris Campbell in the suburbs of Philadelphia in 1963, strikes a jovial and clear-eyed figure. He strives for religious grace and yearns, like so many, for better days in a strife-riven Israel he has called home for years. (Though he concedes in the film that it's "near impossible that there will be an actual peace.")

As a teenager in America, Campbell became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Catholicism wasn't fulfilling his dire spiritual needs, so he began to explore. Long story short — Campbell's telling is far more entertaining than what we can fit here — he found Judaism.

He also found confusion, cultural shock, a wife, a divorce, another wife, twin baby daughters and the risks of living in a geographical powder keg. On stage, Campbell is bearish, like a middle-aged Seth Rogen. His delivery verges on shouting, words enunciated in a guttural baby tiger growl.

Off stage, the comic is philosophical and soft-spoken. He mitigates very real anxieties with calibrated irreverence that lets some of the air out of strict religious decorum. A comedian with a gimmick — Campbell appeared in Austin last week as part of the Israeli/Palestinian Comedy Tour — he dresses the part, with an unruly beard, traditional peyos, brimmed black hat and thick black overcoat.

"Is it warm in here, or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?" he asks the audience.

It's Campbell's candid chatter, not the static video of his performance dominating the movie, that gives "Circumcise Me" a lingering thoughtfulness. He reveals as much about life, religion and comedy as he does about himself.

"I don't know what else to do (but) to turn my own discomfort, my own pain, into laughter. A joke is how I cope," Campbell says. "I used to think that it was a less than exemplary way to cope. I'm not sure that's the case any more. I think it's a valid way to deal with pain and loss."

'Circumcise Me' screens with 'Praise HA!,' Wendy Corn and Andrew Guidone's short documentary about the power of comedy as a universal balm, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Arbor.

1 comment:

arnie draiman said...

my niece will be attending on thursday in austin....cool.