My Story: The screen test

JERUSALEM POST : July 10, 2008


They were turning people away at the door of the Lev Smadar cinema in Jerusalem's German Colony last Thursday night, and no one was more surprised than me.

It was the charity premiere of my first movie, Circumcise Me, an hour-long documentary about stand-up comedian Yisrael Campbell and the story of his three (count 'em) conversions to Judaism after a Catholic childhood in Philadelphia.

It was my first premiere. As the lights went down, I was terrified.

The movie theater is a short walk from my home. I knew half the audience. They had paid good money for an evening's entertainment and if it were a flop, I would be bumping into disappointed punters every time I went out to the shops.

The film is less than an hour long, but it had taken three years to reach this point. The project began as a kind of therapy from the daily blood and hatred of the intifada.

I was a foreign news correspondent in Jerusalem for USA Today, Canada's Globe & Mail and other newspapers. My codirector, photographer David Blumenfeld, was snapping for Time, Newsweek and other major publications. We teamed up to report news stories for papers around the world. Then the intifada erupted and we found ourselves dashing from one heartbreaking story to the next. I started reporting for CTV television in Canada, and David learned video news reporting in California. Before long, we were helping to produce documentaries.

It was after one particularly grueling session with a teenage would-be suicide bomber in an Israeli jail that David suggested it was time for us to make our own film. "Let's choose something fun," he suggested. "We need a break from all this."

The following evening, I went to the opening of the Off the Wall Comedy Club at the Little House Hotel in Baka. The headline comedian looked like a resident of Mea She'arim who had wandered into the wrong part of town. His name was Yisrael Campbell.

"Is it hot in here," he asks at the start of his show, "or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 17th century?" His story, captured in an hour-long show called "It's Not in Heaven," was one of the funniest I had ever heard. It was riveting, hilarious, moving and brilliantly told.

"I think I've found the subject of our film," I told David as soon as I got home.

He agreed. We invited Yisrael to coffee and he loved the idea. More important, we loved him. We were about to spend three years in each other's company, so we needed to get along. And he was trusting us with a project that could make or kill his career.

We decided to let Yisrael's story speak for itself. The show traces his evolution from a drug- and drink-soaked teenager growing up in a Catholic family in Philadelphia to his first encounter with Reform Judaism, his journey through Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy, his decision to move to Israel and the impact of the intifada on his wedding in Jerusalem, followed by the deaths of two friends in the Hebrew University bomb attack in July 2002.

We filmed six different shows and then took Yisrael to various locations: his yeshiva in Gush Etzion, the Old City, downtown Jerusalem and the scene of the Hebrew University bombing.

None of us was getting paid, so we squeezed it all in between our day jobs. The filming took nearly a year, and the editing took another six months. By the autumn of 2006 we were ready to show our first cut to close friends under the title "It's Not in Heaven." Many of our friends queried the title, and urged us to cut down a long section in the middle. We listened and re-edited the film, trimming the sections that sagged and adding more jokes from Yisrael's show. We restored a hilarious sequence about the baby clothes designed for his new-born twins that was originally left out. ("A pocket? A zero-pound baby has neither arms nor legs, it doesn't need a pocket.")

We paid particular attention to those sections of Yisrael's story that we thought could not be understood by a non-Jewish audience. We assumed our potential audiences in Europe and North America would not know anything about Israel, Judaism or the Middle East conflict.

We gave the film some structure by introducing Woody Allen-style titles using T-shirts on sale on Rehov Ben-Yehuda. On the day we went to film, we noticed a talented street guitarist. It took him less than five minutes to learn a theme tune we had written, and he played variations on it as we filmed the T-shirt captions.

Still searching for a final title, we submitted the film to one of Israel's top distributors. They hated it.

"Our films are serious," they told us. "This one has too many jokes." We were convinced they were wrong, that Israel isn't just about war and suicide attacks. Even when they are happening, normal life goes on. There are even people laughing in the midst of all that mayhem and sadness. We wanted to create an antidote to the news story that we ourselves were reporting every day. We wanted to show life in Israel in all its complexity, not just the violence and the politics. And our test screenings showed that most people who saw it, loved it.

Nearly a year after that first screening, we signed with 7th Art Releasing in Los Angeles, a boutique distributor that specializes in Jewish, Israeli, human rights and gay films. Our search for a title ended when David came up with the brilliant suggestion of Circumcise Me and then created a title sequence to fit that had us all in stitches.

7th Art began to roll the film out to festivals all across North America, with screenings in California, Minneapolis, Toronto, Dallas, Alabama, Louisiana, Palm Beach and others yet to be confirmed. It sold the film to the Jewish Television cable channel in New York and is currently in talks with Israeli TV.

Three days before the screening at the Smadar last week, we had less than 50 bookings for a theater that held more than 250 people. We had agonized over the date, the only open slot at the cinema. After it was booked, we discovered it clashed with the US ambassador's Fourth of July party, the Hartman High School graduation, concerts by Blondie, the Stranglers and Neshama Carlebach, two local weddings, a bachelor party and a big bar mitzva.

We started to panic. We posted flyers on lampposts up and down Rehov Emek Refaim and were slapped with a NIS 2,400 fine for illegal bill-posting by the municipality. We put the show up on Facebook and 38 people said they would come; 58 said they might. All we could do was sit and wait.

The last-minute rush for tickets so overwhelmed the box office that we were 20 minutes late starting. As the packed cinema was plunged into darkness, a wave of nausea washed over me. The screen went black, and the first credit appeared: "A Baka Films production." The audience laughed. It wasn't meant as a joke, but I didn't care. They kept on laughing, right to the end.

This Convert Walks Into a Bar, See…

July 6th, 2008 · Culture and Ideas, Judaism and Religion

Gershom Gorenberg

Yisrael Campbell is a tall guy with a receding hairline who wears a black hat, black jacket and sidecurls. The name on his passport, actually, is Christopher Campbell, and he has been circumcised three times. If you do not yet see the humor in this, you have not seen “Circumcise Me.” You should. Feel very guilty if you have not.

For a while now, ads for Campbell’s stand-up routine about his conversion from lapsed Catholic and ex-substance abuser to frum Jew have decorated Jerusalem’s public notice boards. What’s quite amazing about “Circumcise Me” is that journalists and first-time producers Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld successfully turned a spiel for microphone and small hall into a film.

Now in the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that Campbell is married to a woman who used to babysit my kids, and Matt Kalman belongs to my synagogue, and his daughter goes to school with mine, and he and I once covered the same antiquities trial, which was not the least bit funny except that the defendant claimed that he hadn’t forged the ancient ossuary, it looked fake because his mother had insisted on cleaning it. Also, Baka Productions produced the film, Baka being the heart of South Jerusalem, a shtetl small enough that, relatively speaking, this is a very casual connection among people who live here, so I am being completely objective, being that I laughed myself whoozy watching Campbell making jokes about having blood extracted from his penis, not something I normally consider a laughing matter.

Actually, some pieces of the film are delivered in a serious tone, as when Campbell explains, at the Western Wall, that God doesn’t need his prayers, but he needs to say them, a pretty ancient and basic Jewish idea. If you were silly enough to scrub the jokes out of Campbell’s spiel (the antiquities dealer’s mom might do the scrubbing), you’d be left with the classic sermon of the sinner become seeker who found the true faith. Every religious group loves this riff: I’ve seen posters up on those same notice boards for talks by an ex-Muslim (or was it an ex-minister?) become Orthodox Jew, which is only the flip side of video clips of Jews who have found Jesus or of books by ex-priests who have discovered the truth of atheism. Members of faith communities, especially people born into those communities, love to have the truth on which they have gambled confirmed by someone who came to it on his own. If he figured it out, why then it really is true. Remember the con artist at the camp meeting in Huckleberry Finn?

…He told them he was a pirate, been a pirate for thirty years, out in the Indian Ocean, and his crew was thinned out considerable, last spring, in a fight, and he was home now, to take out some fresh men, and thanks to goodness he’d been robbed last night, and put ashore off of a steamboat without a cent, and he was glad of it, it was the blessedest thing that ever happened to him, because he was a changed man now, and happy for the first time in his life; and poor as he was, he was going to start right off and work his way back to the Indian Ocean and put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirates into the true path ; for he could do it better than anybody else, being acquainted with all the pirate crews…

Except the jokes aren’t scrubbed out. Campbell tells about he and his fiancee planning their wedding in 2002, the height of the Second Intifada. It was to be an intimate little Israeli affair, just 380 people, and at some point as bombs kept going off around the country, the happy couple stopped arguing with the hotel over how many waiters there’d be and switched to how many armed guards, the couple wanted 12, the hotel offered 9 armed guards and 3 guys with walkie-talkies. “What are they going to do?” Campbell asks, and then imitates the guy with the walkie talkie when the terrorist arrives. “He’s here,” he says into his hand. This is not something to laugh about, which is just the kind of thing a Jew laughs about.

In his serious tone, talking about the wedding, Campbell quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel saying that when a Jew is truly sad he is silent, and when he’s even sadder, he sings. “So we sang,” he says. But the subtext is that when he’s sadder than that, he jokes. And when he’s not sadder than that. (In the Talmud, in Tractate Avoda Zara, there’s a debate about when God laughs, whether it’s every day no matter what or only when he hears a joke.)

Campbell lists off the five questions he had to answer in the affirmative to be accepted for his first conversion (the Reform one, followed by the Conservative and Orthodox ones). The whole film implies that there was one more requirement, that he had to go before the rabbinic court and say, “So this convert walks into a bar, see…” If he makes them laugh, he’s in. Otherwise, forget it. God doesn’t need his prayers, but he’d enjoy a nice one-liner.