Behind the lens of Jewish cinema

NOVEMBER 6, 2008

I am still marvelling about the short (45-minute) documentary Circumcise Me, about “Jew by choice” Christopher Campbell, who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, converted to Judaism in Los Angeles, moved to Jerusalem and became Yisrael Campbell -– and then became a stand-up comedian.

By his own telling, he converted to Judaism three times -– leading to all sorts of jokes about circumcisions (the best of its kind since Billy Crystal).

How can a secular American non-Jew become so thoroughly Jewish that even his humour comes from that perennial source of Jewish comedy: pain?

Campbell does it, neatly capturing the existential pain of being a Jew in modern Israel, with the threat of suicide bombings (two of his close friends were killed in the Hebrew University cafeteria blast).

Campbell does something truly extraordinary: he takes his non-Jewish background outsider status to his new Jewish persona and translates the feelings and communicates them in simple, direct and absolutely hilarious ways.

His success is due to his “crossover” appeal: although strictly Orthodox (and looking like a Chassidic rabbi), he communicates directly with all Jews, irrespective of their affiliation.

How many Jews can get away with the line, “Is it warm in here, or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?” Campbell can.