Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Bleecker Street Theatre, Manhattan
Good thing that we Jews can laugh at a joke, even when the joke is on us. We’re talking about “Circumcise Me,” a one-man show now running off-Broadway (at the Bleecker Street Theatre). Yisrael Campbell is the writer, storyteller, performer, all in one. Through it all, he gently tweaks the Jewish faith and practices, but comes down on the plus side of Judaism.
It is an amazing tale, full of startling, contradictory turns, all the more so because it is Campbell’s own true story. Campbell comes on stage, looking for all the world like an Orthodox Jew--which he is--bearded, bespectacled, and clad in traditional black coat and broad hat. “Is it hot in here,” he asks the audience, “or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?”
Whereupon he slides into a series of one-liners, some funny, some not so funny. O.K., we think, we have here a stand-up comic, but one who falls short of the best Jewish comics. This is no Jerry Seinfeld. Yet as we begin to realize that this is Campbell’s reality, the captivating tale takes over, becoming steadily more endearing and ultimately deeply moving.
What is his tale? It is a tale which involves Catholicism, drugs, alcohol, a career in acting, a move to Israel, three conversions to Judaism, and three circumcisions. He was born Christopher Campbell in a Philadelphia suburb, son of Catholic (Italian-Irish) parents. He began drinking at the age of nine, moving on to drugs and alcohol--but finally gaining sobriety at age sixteen. After high school he moved to Florida, for work in a rehab center. It was there that a young Jewish woman gave him a book which changed his life. It was Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus.” He was drawn to the heroics, to the spiritual message, to a life in Israel. But it was still a boyish dream, and he moved back to New York to pursue another interest—theater, studying at Circle in the Square Drama School.
On moving to California for his career, he also pursued his interest in Judaism. Signing up for a basic Judaism course, he assumed that more knowledge of Judaism would turn him off, just as Catholicism had done. He was, after all, not religious, but spiritual, he reasoned. The Judaism course had the opposite effect. The Jewish God, he felt, was one with whom one could argue and reason—unlike the judgmental Catholic God. Moreover, there was no longer a likelihood of going to Hell. He had found his path.
With his steadily growing commitment to Judaism, he moved from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox Judaism. Campbell had been circumcised, like many non-Jewish Americans, as an infant, but it was not a religious rite. Thus the new circumcisions (more symbolic than actual, but requiring blood from the involved body part). None of it was easy, as Jews do not accept converts easily. (How much easier to convert to Islam, he told the audience. No wonder there are millions of Moslems and so few Jews!)
But ultimately, Campbell did realize his dream, moving to Israel, where he married, had children, and now lives. His one-man show has proved highly successful in his adopted country, and he continues an acting career. As Campbell finished his moving tale, many of us sat in the audience, moved to tears and, somehow, grateful that we were Jews.
-- Irene Backalenick
March 16, 2010