Jewish convert writes comedy show about how he was circumcised three times
Yisrael Campbell’s stand up at the JW3 also talks about addiction and terrorism
What happens if you’re born Catholic, medically circumcised at birth – then convert to Judaism in later life?
The answer is you have a ritual circumcision, drawing blood from the tip of the penis while prayers are said.
And what if you then shift from a liberal to a more Orthodox sect and the rabbi doesn’t trust that the first ceremony was conducted correctly?
You then become one of the few souls to be circumcised three times.
“In 1963 Philadelphia practically everyone was circumcised on medical grounds and obviously you can’t be circumcised again because there’s nothing left,” says comedian Yisrael Campbell.
“Circumcision isn’t a medical procedure, it’s a covenant of faith between you, God and continuing generations so I had to go through a religious exercise which I promise you is no fun at all.”
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Campbell’s autobiographical stand-up show makes hay with his unique status but, between the laughs, the US-born comedian smuggles in more serious topics of addiction and terrorism.
Speaking from his home in Jerusalem, he says: “I have an Italian mother who was manically depressive and an Irish dad who was pathologically silent so I am wildly emotional in a very quiet way.”
So how Catholic was he? “Enough to know I was going to hell,” he riffs.
“My aunt was a nun and my mother spent a year in the convent but left the church because she wanted out. At that time there were no alternative spiritual movements for her to turn to.
“On one hand there was her animosity to the church and the feeling these people were wrong, on the other hand every Christmas and Easter this nun would stay with us for several days.
“My mother wasn’t anti-religious, she just had deeply un-met spiritual needs and my desire to have an ongoing spiritual life sprang from the same place.”
Born Christopher, Campbell’s spiritual quest followed a period in his teens when he fell into addiction.
“From 12 to 16, I went to a lot of funerals where friends had crashed cars into trees, and woke up in some weird places. It affected my school work, family and relationships. I was one of those kids who had a lot of fear and anxiety and didn’t know where I came from. When I drank or took a pill, everything made sense. I was less self-conscious and the fear had gone.”
He’s remained sober since the age of 16 and his journey towards faith started with the Reform Movement “the most liberal, least law-based community” who were welcoming and interested in his spiritual journey. He then crossed over to the Orthodox where he found fulfilment in more proscribed ways of living a good life.
“It’s ultimately not a question of faith but of action. It’s not about what you believe, but what have you done?”
A decade ago, he fell for his Talmud teacher. They married and now have four children.
“It’s not a fairytale or a Disney story, there were complications and difficulties, there are cultural differences.
“The show is a very serious story – there’s a whole piece about the bombing of Hebrew University which left nine people dead, two of them my closest friends.
“Comedy allows me to talk about things I otherwise couldn’t. If I told you I was doing a show about alcoholism, spiritualism and murder, and how many times blood has been drawn from the top of my penis, you might not want to take that call!”
Circumcise Me! is at JW3 Community Centre in Finchley Road on Saturday, December 14 at 7.30pm. www.jw3.org.uk