People ask me, “How Catholic were you?” Catholic enough to know I was going to hell. So I switched religions!
-Yisrael Campbell in Circumcise Me
I just saw Circumcise Me, the autobiographical one-man comedy show from Yisrael Campbell of Jerusalem (formerly Christopher Campbell of suburban Philadelphia). Born to a “manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman,” by the time he hit his twenties (I think), he was already a recovering alcoholic and drug addict living in L.A.
There, he converted to Judaism with a Reform Rabbi, Rabbi Jim, and got circumcised. Eventually, he wanted more, so he joined a Conservative shul and got circumcised again. Eventually, he moved to Jerusalem where he got a third circumcision.
If this isn’t a recipe for the most original hour and fifteen minutes of dick jokes I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is.
Of course, it’s more than just dick jokes. It’s a very poignant story as well. By the age of 17 or so he was already a sober alcoholic. He moved to Jerusalem as the second intifada began and lost friends from yeshiva (, no less) in a restaurant bombing.
I absolutely laughed the hardest when he started shouting about the absurd baby clothes he and his wife (his former Talmud instructor at Pardes) brought their prematurely born twins home in. He pulled out an example, a tiny article from The Gap. The Gap, it seems, has labeled this article as appropriate for “Premies, 0-5 lbs.” “Might I point out that a 0-pound baby does not need clothes!?” he shouts.
The audience was overwhelmingly bizarre. They looked like a fairly educated group, mostly Jews, including the couple sitting next to me: he with his payot and she with her wig. Most of the crowd looked significantly less Orthodox than Yisrael, but what how he identifies is hard to pin down, which might be the thing I appreciated most about him.
Yisrael is someone who at various times in his life has taken three major streams of Judaism seriously. His current practice seems to be drawn rather eclectically from several (e.g. he studied at Pardes, but is dressed, as he pointed out, “for 17th century Poland”). Yisrael seems to be in a unique place to understand more Jews’ viewpoints than most people born into Judaism will ever be able to. If I saw him walking down the street, I’d say he’s a chasid, but here he is doing a one-man off-Broadway show!
As a Reform Jew myself, I’m always on edge when someone says that they used to be Reform but are now “more traditional.” Yet Yisrael makes more fun of himself and of his current path than anything else, which I definitely appreciated. Yet his show was also one of those times when I found myself setting aside ideology and framing and whatever else drives me up a wall all day and simply agreeing that this is a deeply sincere man who has been deeply changed for the better by his transformation into a Jew. And his other transformation into a Jew. And the third one too.
“Circumcise Me” plays Wednesdays at 3pm, Thursdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 7pm at the Bleecker Street Theatre in New York City. And it’s well worth it. It’s been extended through the end of February.