Arts & Culture

Comedian Yisrael Campbell Explains Why He Converted to Judaism Three Times

"My aunt was a nun, which makes Jesus my uncle! That's church doctrine — I'm not making that up. She was the bride of Christ. She's my aunt. He's my uncle. I only mention that in Jerusalem for parking! It … Read More

By / June 5, 2008

"My aunt was a nun, which makes Jesus my uncle! That's church doctrine — I'm not making that up. She was the bride of Christ. She's my aunt. He's my uncle. I only mention that in Jerusalem for parking! It doesn't get me far, but at the Scottish church, I park like that. I just pull in and say, "I'm the nephew. Please!" Comedian Yisrael Campbell, formerly known as Chris Campbell, had the audience at the National Jewish Outreach Program benefit in Manhattan roaring in their seats last month. Born and raised in suburban Philadelphia to an Irish-Catholic father and an Italian-Catholic mother, the 45-year-old Jerusalem resident described his journey to Judaism through his comedic monologue, "It's Not in Heaven." After struggling with substance abuse at age 16, Campbell’s search for "a higher power" led him to Judaism. At his Reform conversion in suburban Los Angeles in 1994, he was asked, "Do you throw your lot in with the Jewish people?" Here’s how he describes his thought process: “My name was Chris Campbell. I didn't have payos. I didn't have a beard. I didn't wear a hat or a kipah. I didn't wear black and blue [the blue shirt he chooses to wear instead of the traditional white one]. You look like that, your name is Chris Campbell, when they come for the Jews, you say, "They went that way!" Campbell's ex-wife is Egyptian and was raised Muslim. She took the course on basic Judaism at a Reform temple before she married him. Fast forward to a Conservative conversion, followed by his growing interest in Orthodoxy. "The Orthodox rabbi said, 'You're going to have to do everything all over again.' And I say, 'I'll do a third circumcision, but three circumcisions is not a religious covenant. It's a fetish!" Before he changed his name, El Al airline personnel asked Chris Campbell (who looked like he does in the photos) why he converted to Judaism. "They think I just forgot to switch the passport!" he quipped. "El Al is not interested in putting people on airplanes that are struggling to have a relationship with God. They don't even like vegetarian-meal requests!" He told me that his target audience is "anyone that has ever been on a spiritual search or endeavored to better understand issues of identity." Campbell performs with the Palestinian-Israeli Comedy Troupe. He has done a gig for Trinity College in Dublin. Campbell's plans to move to New York for a year, beginning late summer or early fall, with hopes of doing an off-Broadway run. His American-born wife, who grew up Modern Orthodox, and whom he met when she was his Talmud teacher in Jerusalem, is considering pursuing a Masters degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Of course, their three kids will also join them. Their last name is Campbell-Hochstein, but professionally he sticks with his original name.
The 2007 documentary about him, "Circumcise Me!", will be next be seen at the Dallas Jewish Film Festival in September and the East Valley Jewish Film Festival in Arizona in February. It's not often one hears the innermost thoughts of a convert, both pre- and post-conversion. After all, one isn't supposed to ask the convert about it and make him feel uncomfortable — he's now a member of the tribe. Asked why he dressed in the long, black bekeshah/kapata the comedian replied, "I don't really have a good reason. I like the way I look and it's the way I dress on Shabbos and on Yom Tov”—he pronounced it the old-fashioned Yiddish way, Yon Tif—“so I don't feel like it's a costume I put on to do the show. It's not how I dress every day, but I dress enough that way. But the kind of line I've come up is: 'My Conservative conversion upsets the Reform. The Orthodox conversion upsets the Conservative. And the only way I have to upset the Orthodox is to dress haredi!' "