History has seen some unusual converts to Judaism, from movie star Elizabeth Taylor to soul singer Jackie Wilson, but few could be as funny – or as bloody-minded – as Yisrael Campbell. The American-born standup comedian, a former Catholic of Italian-Irish heritage, became first a Reform, then a Conservative and, finally, an Orthodox Jew. And when I say “bloody-minded,” I’m being literal: Each step required the circumcised-at-birth Campbell to undergo the ritual again, symbolically, in a process that involved drawing blood from the… well, you get the picture.
Circumcise Me!, which opens the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company’s fifth season, is Campbell’s lighthearted recounting of his multiple conversions. He calls his touring one-man show – originally produced off-Broadway in 2009 – a “spiritual quest.” But it’s more like an escalating love affair with a religion and all its trappings.
Those trappings are the first thing you notice. Short, dumpy and balding, Campbell takes the stage of the St. Lawrence Centre’s Jane Mallett Theatre in a black hat and long black coat – “dressed for Poland in the 1700s,” as he puts it. But it’s not just the garb, the yarmulke on his head or his patriarch’s beard, it’s also his wry asides and fine eye for the absurd that suggest someone thoroughly Jewish.
You’d never know he was born Christopher Campbell, in 1963, and grew up a troubled kid in the Philadelphia suburbs who was “Catholic enough to know I was going to Hell.” He doesn’t make the connection explicitly, but his later religious fervour may be a manifestation of an addictive personality. Bored and restless, he began guzzling beer at the age of 9. By 16, he was an alcoholic.
Not long after smashing into – ironically enough – a priest’s car, while driving drunk, Campbell ran away to Florida and finally sobered up. It was there that a young woman turned him on to the popular Leon Uris novel Exodus. He became entranced by its romantic account of the founding of Israel.
Later, living in Los Angeles, he was intrigued by a newspaper ad offering an introductory course in Judaism. That led him to a synagogue and one “Rabbi Jim,” who oversaw the first of his conversions. Campbell is particularly good at using Seinfeld-style observational humour to capture the bemusement of a newcomer encountering some of Judaism’s strange – and endearing – traditions. (Among other things, Rabbi Jim tells him that, in a Sabbath meal, the challah bread is respectfully covered so that it won’t be offended by the blessing being given to the wine.)
The more Campbell learns about his new religion, the more he is drawn to its “old school” forms. His passion takes him from a second conversion – complete with the joys of going kosher – to a third, this time in his newly adopted home of Israel. Along the way, he gains and loses a Muslim Egyptian wife – at one point he made the mistake of taking her to a Passover seder, with its commemoration of the 10 plagues visited on Egypt. But he also acquires a growing sense of community. That becomes poignantly clear when the show, directed by Sam Gold, briefly takes a dramatic turn as Campbell relives the anxiety and grief for his friends after a Jerusalem bombing.
Despite having been in Israel since the second intifada, Campbell doesn’t offer his view on Mideast politics beyond describing the day-to-day experiences of living with continuous strife. (His involvement with a touring group of Israeli and Palestinian comedians gives some idea of where his sentiments lie.) That might be a wise choice. But the more significant question that he leaves unanswered is why he finds the Jewish faith more compelling than any other world religion.
While Campbell is witty and eloquent in addressing Judaism’s surface strengths and foibles, he never delves into its belief system. It makes you wonder how much his devotion is just a matter of chance. If, instead of Exodus, he’d read, say, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, would he have become a Buddhist instead?
Maybe Campbell has chosen not to go there, but it feels like a gap in what otherwise seems to be a candid spiritual memoir. One would like to think that his repeated submissions to the mohel’s knife are a sign of a deep religious conviction and not just, as he himself jokes, a fetish.
Circumcise Me! runs until Nov. 6.
- Written and performed by Yisrael Campbell
- Directed by Sam Gold
- A Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company presentation
- At the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto