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The Matisyahu of Stand Up Comedy

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Rabkin

For Yisrael Campbell, the journey from Catholicism to Judaism is a real laugh.

In a remote hall in the heart of Jerusalem, a man with a long beard, peot (side locks), a black hat and a black frock walks onto the stage. He begins to curl his peot in his hand and addresses the crowd. "I know what you are all thinking -- and no, these aren't peot, it's just the start of a comb-over." This is not a rabbi imparting deep spiritual truths about the world. This is stand up comedian Yisrael Campbell.

Yisrael Campbell was born Chris Campbell. He grew up Catholic, or as he says, "Vaguely Catholic but Catholic enough to know I was going to hell." While battling an alcohol and drug problem in his teens he was rehabilitated by a group who advised him that he needed some sort of spiritual assistance in order to affect a complete recovery. Soon thereafter, he found what he thought was spiritual guidance, but in an unlikely place: Leon Uris' novel .

Campbell was so inspired by the Uris tale that he went to his priest and announced his intention to move to Israel. The priest discouraged him – what's a nice Catholic boy doing moving to the Jewish homeland? "Because he was in a position of authority," Campbell relates, "I thought that he must have known something that I didn't, so I listened to him. But I was still very much fascinated with the story of the Jewish people."

Professionally, Campbell had a passion for the arts and moved to New York City to study drama at Circle in the Square. After a brief stint in a few off Broadway productions, he moved westward attempting to further his career in California. He did some commercial and film work and also performed stand up comedy with the likes of Kathy Griffin and Jeanine Garofalo. His career seemed to be progressing, but spiritually, he sensed that he was stagnating.

Fortuitously, he came across an ad for a course in Judaism being given at a local reform synagogue. According to Campbell, he was planning on learning a little bit about Judaism and moving on. But that didn't quite happen. "I fell in love with Judaism, and eventually decided to do a reform conversion." Describing the ceremony he explains, "I didn't stand before a Beth Din (religious court) it was more of a commitment ceremony, where I held a Torah scroll and answered a series of questions including, ‘Have you thrown in your lot with the Jewish people, come what may?'"

Although still a novice, he already sensed some tension between the various movements. "When I was going to the reform temple, I bought a black hat and started wearing it. Someone said to me, ‘Don't wear that hat -- it's Orthodox.' I said, ‘No, look -- it's actually Canadian.'"

"I bought a black hat and started wearing it. Someone said to me, ‘don't wear that hat – it's Orthodox.' I said, ‘No, look - it's actually Canadian.'"

After spending a few years in the reform movement, he thirsted for more ritual which led him to the conservative movement. This time, his conversion included immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) and a hatafat dam brit (ceremonial circumcision).

Becoming progressively more observant, Campbell decided to finally visit the source that had inspired his journey to Judaism in the first place -- the Land of Israel. In 2000, he left for what he thought would be a four-month period of study. Seven years later, he now calls Israel home.

Before his departure, Campbell found himself in a difficult position professionally. On one hand, he was becoming more observant. But on the other hand, some of the acting jobs he was being offered were on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. To help guide him in this quandary, he sought the advice of Mark Schiff, a comedian and an observant Jew himself. "Mark asked me, ‘Is it going to be a nationally syndicated commercial?' So I started wondering if there was an exemption to working on Shabbos in nationally syndicated commercial situations. I told him that the commercial was in fact not a national. ‘Good,' Mark said. ‘Because those are even harder to turn down.'"

Campbell added, "My agent thought it was cute when I started wearing a kippah, not so cute when I started turning down jobs on Shabbos."

Upon arriving in Israel, Campbell immediately embarked on a course of intense Jewish study, and a third conversion – this time in an Orthodox framework. If ever questioned, he cites his three circumcisions as proof that he is really sincere about being Jewish.

Soon after arriving in Israel, Campbell met Avital - the woman who he was going to marry. The wedding date was set to take place in March of 2002, but the second Intifada had just begun, and sadly, March was the month in which the most Jewish people were killed in a "non-war" situation since the State of Israel had been created. This was the backdrop against which Campbell's wedding was set.

"I thought to myself -- are we crazy? 400 people in a public place? But someone read me a quote: ‘When a Jew is sad, he cries; when he is even sadder, he is silent; and if he is even sadder still, he sings.' So I realized that we simply had to go on with our wedding."

Campbell also notes that in the middle of the festive dancing, while he was being twirled around the room by one of his friends, he remembered the question that had been asked, ""Do I throw my lot with the Jewish people, come what may?' I realized that I did, in a much more significant and deeper way that I ever thought possible."

Shortly after the wedding, tragedy struck when two of Yisrael's close friends -- Ben Blutstein and Marla Bennet -- were killed in a suicide bombing at Hebrew University along with seven others. While Campbell was sitting with their bodies at Ben Gurion Airport reciting passages from Psalms, he had another chance to reflect on the direction that his life had taken.

"I always wondered what my reaction would be to something like this -- would I want to leave? But it made me want to stay more. I think the State of Israel needs to exist in the Land of Israel, and for that to happen Jewish people need to live here. Granted, if all Jews in the world moved here, I would never get a parking spot. But it's important that the Jews be here. I loved living in the U.S. but I never felt like my life made a difference there. By simply living in Israel my life -- and the lives of my three children -- make a difference."

"By simply living in Israel, my life -- and the lives of my three children -- make a difference."

Finally finding his place in the world physically and spiritually, Campbell has now taken aim at returning to his roots professionally. He developed and performs a monologue called Not in Heaven which examines his journey, his conversions, and his thoughts on life. He riffs on the idiosyncrasies of Israeli society, and how his new homeland relates to a comedian who was once Catholic but now looks like a charedi Jew. "When I show up on a flight on El Al, and they see that my passport says "Chris Campbell," they don't ask me if I packed my own luggage, they ask me where the bomb is."

He has met with such success in Israel that he has decided to take his show on the road to North America. He readily admits that he doesn't expect to get an HBO special once he steps off the plane, although that would be nice. "I think the world would be a better place if a guy who looked like me had an HBO comedy special. It expands our collective human experience. And the more we know about our fellow man, the better off we are."

Yisrael Campbell has certainly acquired a significant amount of experience during his interesting journey. He has also, without a doubt, thrown his lot in with the Jewish people, come what may.

To watch Yisrael Campbell perform, click here.

To contact or book Yisrael for a show click here.


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