Editor’s Notes: Humor for the High Holy Days

By David Horovitz September 7, 2007

Meet Yisrael Campbell, the Catholic convert to Orthodox Judaism with a message of mutual respect that’s highly appropriate for this time of year

Earlier this summer, a group of four comedians, billing themselves as the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, played a series of shows in Israel to packed houses, considerable acclaim and a significant degree of media interest.

It’s not every day, after all, that a Palestinian- American (Ray Hanania), a Jewish oleh (Charlie Warady), a black convert to Judaism (Aaron Freeman) and a Catholic convert who now appears to be haredi (Yisrael Campbell), perform together on stage before both Jewish and Palestinian audiences.

Plus they were funny:

Hanania: ‘I’m a Christian Palestinian journalist married to a Jew. (Long pause.) That’s why I have no friends at all.’ (Ba-boom!)

Hanania again: ‘In Israel, this is the Israeli- Palestinian Comedy Tour. In the West Bank, it’s Ray Hanania and three hostages. In Gaza, it’s the four hostages.’

Warady: ‘Did you see the gay parade in Jerusalem? Boys dancing with boys. Girls dancing with girls. It reminded me of an Orthodox wedding. But in color.

Warady again: ‘Olmert’s at 3 percent in the ratings… Thing is, there’s a 5% margin of error. That means there’s 2% of people who aren’t even born who hate him.’

Freeman: ‘This is the Israel-Palestine comedy tour. Our aim is to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 6 jokes. (Long pause.) ‘This is our 14th show.’

Freeman again: ‘Since we got here, the two-state solution is now a reality… Of course they’re both Palestinian.’

But it was Campbell who got the biggest laughs and the warmest applause at the show where I saw him, at Jerusalem’s Kol HaNeshama Reform synagogue. And that was because the Catholic convert with the peyot and the tzitzit delivered comedy with chayn – with charm and humility and even a certain spirituality.

He had some straightforward material: ‘I live in Baka. My parents live in Philadelphia. I couldn’t get any further away from them.’

But his best lines – which, unsurprisingly, don’t come off nearly as well in black on white as when delivered by a genial gent in soft tones from behind a beard and beneath a fedora – culminated riffs on his lifetime’s voyage of Catholic rejection and Jewish discovery.

Like how, when you leave Catholicism, you’re meant to tell the authorities that you’re going, but no, he hadn’t written to the pope – ‘the Nazi pope.’ (Ripple of laughter.) ‘Well, he wasn’t actually a Nazi, he just served in the Hitler Youth. (Laughter swells.) ‘And he deserted from the German Army in 1945. Hey, Hitler deserted the German Army in 1945; 1945 was not a good year to be in the German Army. (Huge applause.)

Or like when the rabbinical authorities told him that, although he’d been circumcised, he’d have to undergo another symbolic circumcision as part of his conversion. Only they used a Hebrew term he didn’t understand and wasn’t remotely fazed by, since it sounded, he said, like something that would come in a glass with an umbrella.

Or, best of all, when he recounted learning, in one of his introduction to Judaism courses, that on Hanukka you light the new candle first, so that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. And that you have two loaves of bread for the ‘Hamotzi’ blessing, so as not to embarrass the bread. And how he was thinking, as he came closer to the faith, that if Judaism displayed such sensitivity to the feelings of new candles and hallot, it was sure to be astoundingly welcoming to new Jews. Except that he’s since discovered that this isn’t always the case.

And here Campbell’s humor showed real Jewish soul, and the laughter in the audience began to mix with lots of nodding and appreciation.

LIKE HE tells it on stage, he was born Chris Campbell into a Catholic family in Philadelphia 44 years ago, but though he was baptized and sent to Catholic schools, his mother was already rejecting the faith and that was probably what first set him searching, too.

Tracking through his life over coffee in Jerusalem’s Cafe Hillel this week, Campbell, trusty hat on the seat alongside him, tzitzit out, twirling his right peyah intermittently, recalls troubled teen years with alcohol problems, a period of sobering up, and then the first encounter with Judaism when he dated a Jewish woman in Florida. ‘I’d been raised on a fear-driven God: ‘Don’t break the rules, or God will kill you. Literally. Maybe right now.’ If I’d break a rule, I’d look up and say sorry, just in case.’

She, by contrast, gave him insights into a warm and loving faith. And she gave him Leon Uris’s Exodus. ‘I read it, and fell in love with the Zionist enterprise,’ he says, smiling at that full-on enthusiasm of yesteryear. ‘As far as I was concerned, it was the fight for what was right, for justice.’

He was ready to come to Israel there and then, he remembers, and looked into a volunteer program. But a Miami rabbi talked him out of it: ‘You’re a Catholic. Why go to Israel?’

Jewish friends told him later that the rabbi had probably wanted him to argue, to prove his commitment. ‘But I’d come from the background of, ‘When the priest says no, he means it.’ So when the rabbi said no, I thought he meant it.’

As the years went by, nonetheless, Campbell got drawn deeper into Judaism – first through the Reform movement in Los Angeles, where he’d moved to try to make it as an actor.

His first conversion (of three) was through the Reform, and included saying yes to five questions. The true significance of one of them, ‘Will you throw in your lot with the Jewish people,’ would only hit him two decades later, when he was getting married at the height of the terror campaign in 2002 and inviting all of his and his bride-to-be’s family to celebrate at a Jerusalem hotel days after the nearby Moment cafe had been blown up and shortly before the Park Hotel in Netanya would be destroyed on Seder night.

After a couple of years at a Reform community, Campbell asked a fellow congregant – ‘Florence Adler, she was 85′ – what Conservative Judaism was like, and she told him ‘If you find out, we’re never going to see you again.’ And so it proved.

On the day of his conversion through the Conservatives in California, he got an audition for an acting role. ‘Wow,’ said one of his uncles, ‘word travels fast.’ Evidently, comedy runs in the family.

Doing the odd commercial and working as a limo driver, Campbell, in time, was also becoming ever-more observant, keeping kashrut and Shabbat. ‘My agents thought it was cute at first when I put on a kippa, less so when I turned down work. I had to turn down a Shabbat job, and another on the eighth day of Pessah. My agent at the time leapt out of her chair and shouted at me, ‘I happen to know that Pessah only has seven days.”

He came to Israel, finally, in the summer of 2000 – ‘I landed here on the same day that Barak arrived at Camp David’ – to take courses at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, but extended a stay of a few weeks to a year, and then another, and another.

And after being rebuffed a few times by Orthodox rabbis, he was finally able to convert one last time, with one last ceremonial snip. (At a key test, he was asked what blessing he’d make over Coke. ‘I really wanted to say, ‘God bless America,’ but I held myself back.’) He fell in love (with a Pardes teacher), married, had twins ‘and then a singleton, as it says in the twin literature,’ and built a new, fulfilling life.

He dresses kind of haredi, except that he eschews the black jacket – ‘I’m wearing three shirts already’ – and prefers a blue shirt to a white. And he prays at the self- styled ‘halakhic egalitarian’ Shira Hadasha congregation. So classify him as you wish.

THE STAND UP routine emerged from an invitation from Pardes to tell his story to an advanced learning seminar. It went down well. ‘Some of them told me, you should package this.’ So he did.

He played some Purim parties. Got spotted. Got invited to a Dead Sea hotel one Pessah. Someone from England saw him, and invited him to Manchester. He’s done the Limmud annual study gatherings in the UK and US. (You can see his Website at www.yisraelcampbell.com) Intermingling stand-up with continued Jewish study, he performs for birthright alumni events and for solidarity missions of Diaspora Jews. ‘I resonate with them: my search for God; they’re generally searching for identity, or strengthening it, too.’

And he’s just come back from New York, where he made a first foray into the Catskills and is hopefully being set up for an off-Broadway run.

The Israeli-Palestinian gigs were a case of one improbable contact leading to another – ‘I know a guy who’s Black and a convert.’ ‘Really? I know a guy who’s black and a convert.’ (Think about it.) And they’re playing here again in November.

‘I don’t pretend to think that if we all get together and laugh, the conflict will end,’ he says. But he does think the laughter can help.

He no longer looks at Israel from the glowing innocent perspective of the Exodus reader of half-a-lifetime back. ‘It was easier, three or four years ago, when we had an external enemy. Lately, waking up to the internal rot – the corruption, the probes…’ He tails off. ‘Ari Ben-Canaan’s father, walking to the Yishuv from Ukraine, would have been disappointed.’

Then he brightens, and paraphrases Winston Churchill: ‘What is it they say? ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms.’ Well, I suppose Israel is the worst Jewish state, except there are no others.’

Campbell says he does comedy ‘because it’s what I do best,’ but also that some of the material is indeed aimed at conveying a deeper message, with a particular resonance at this period of the Jewish calendar – an emphasis on ‘Torah values relating to how we should interact with our fellow man… which you can do much better when you have people laughing.’

For instance, with that Hanukkah candle riff, ‘I couldn’t just say, ‘Sometimes we don’t treat each other so well.’ But I can make that same point with the joke.’

The fact is, he says quietly, ‘I’ve been trying since I was 16 to have a relationship with God, and some of my friends really tell me they have a deep connection. Well, I don’t get a sense of that connection. If and when I feel any spiritual interaction with God, it’s in that moment of connection between human beings.’

And that, he says, is what he hopes his comedy helps foster – drawing people in, making them laugh, reminding them they’re alive, sharing an experience.

MY FAVORITE Campbell line is a gentle throwaway, when he talks about having changed his first name from Chris to Yisrael. ‘Yisrael Campbell,’ he says softly, letting it hang in the air for a few seconds. ‘On average, it’s a Jewish name.’

On average, he’s a precious, life-affirming comedian.

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