Yisrael Campbell, formerly Christopher Campbell, has taken a long and difficult road in converting to Judaism. Born a Catholic, Campbell converted to Judaism three complete times, beginning with Reform Judaism and finishing at Orthodox Judaism. What three complete conversions also mean, of course, is three complete circumcisions. Hence the title of Campbell’s new comedic play, Circumcise Me, narrated in genuine Gentile shtick. The play originally ran off-Broadway. It was scheduled to run for eight weeks but ended up showing for eight months.
“In the ‘80s, no one had to become religious to be spiritual,” Campbell, a rabbi currently living in Jerusalem, explained. “People were developing their own spiritual path, but that didn’t speak to me. I tried meditation and spiritual paths outside religions. Meanwhile, I’d been given books about Judaism, the Holocaust and Israel. It all resonated with me, but religion put me off.”
The play, starring Campbell himself, follows Campbell’s journey from being a Catholic, struggling with an alcohol and drug problem, and through his three conversions to his current life in Jerusalem. As Campbell joked one night during a stand-up act, “People always ask me, ‘How Catholic were you?’ Catholic enough to know I was going to hell… so I switched religions.”
As a child, Campbell’s aunt was a nun, and his mother had almost followed in her sister’s footsteps. In searching for what it was he wanted out of life, Campbell developed his drug and alcohol problem, which he came to terms with in his teen years.
“Years [after the ‘80s], I realized I’m not finding anything else,” Campbell said. “I realized I was so enamored of the Jewish experience. Not the religion but the experience. So I took a class on Judaism in Bel Air. I thought it was going to dispel my attraction, but instead of thinking it was crazy, I ended up wanting to convert. So I thought, ‘How hard could it be to convert to Judaism? Not like I was trying to become a citizen of Monaco or Switzerland.’ Turns out it’s not so easy.”
Campbell, who dresses in traditional Orthodox clothing, has no qualms about poking fun at his journey from Gentile to Jew. During one of his acts, he once quipped, “When a guy like me shows up to El Al with a name like Christopher Campbell… they don’t ask if I packed my bags. They wanna know where the bomb is.”
While the play is primarily comedic, there are some more serious and dramatic moments in order to put Campbell’s journey into perspective. Campbell lost two close friends in the terrorist bombing of Hebrew University’s cafeteria in 2002. The film also touches on moments in Campbell’s life when he struggles between his Catholic and Jewish identity and wonders if people accept him as Jewish.
“There is no message of wrong, wrong, wrong and I finally did it right,” Campbell said, referring to his transition through from a different religion through different kinds of Judaism. “It’s not an outreach piece for the Orthodox. It’s for the people who want to seek out that which will satisfy.”
Circumcise Me will be showing on Thursday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 13, at 4 p.m. at the Myers Theater in the Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County. Tickets for each show are $35 for JCC members, $45 for the general public. For tickets, call (949) 435-3400 or visit www.jccoc.org.