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Jerusalem Diary: Monday 9 June

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

Yisrael Campbell, stand-up comedian
Yisrael (formerly Chris) Campbell has taken an unusual path from Catholicism to Orthodox Judaism

HAREDI STAND-UP

At first glance, Yisrael Campbell is a common-or-garden haredi (ultra-religious Jew). He has the beard and ringlets (peyot) and black hat.

At second glance, he appears haredi-with-a-twist. He is wearing a blue shirt, not the regulation white. Then there is the broad neck and well chiselled teeth.

Add the American accent, the job as a stand-up comic, and the fact that he was once called Chris, and the image of the traditional haredi recedes fast in the rearview mirror.

"How did I get here?" Yisrael Campbell asks, rhetorically, as we drink coffee in Café Hillel, on a leafy street in Jerusalem.

"As a late teen, I was a drug and alcohol addict. I met a group of people who said they could help me. Essentially, they said you have to find a power greater than yourself by which you can live."

Chris - as he was then - had already decided that, unlike the family he was born into, he was not a Catholic.

He acknowledges now that calling it a "spiritual search" sounds a "bit trite".

But ultimately, it led him to conversion into Reform Judaism (the most liberal strand of American Jewry), then a separate conversion to Conservative (middle-of-the-road) Judaism, and then - finally - in Israel, a conversion to Orthodox (highly religiously observant) Judaism.

That may sound like a straightforward, linear progression. It is not.

His conversion in Israel was overseen by the outgoing head of the State of Israel's Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman.

A boiling inter-rabbi argument has cast doubt on thousands of conversions performed under Rabbi Druckman's aegis.

"I've read that none of his conversions should count," Yisrael Campbell sighs. "Or, they shouldn't be trusted. Or some of them shouldn't count… I could be any of them. I probably shouldn't be trusted, anyway."

Yisrael Campbell recounts doing a gig in London, where - at the end of the show, much of which is devoted to his own religious odyssey - someone bounced up to him, and told him that his conversion would probably not be recognised by the London Beth Din (Court of Rabbis).

"Once I might have cared," Campbell says. "Now I thought," and at this point he finishes the sentence with a hand and arm gesture not normally associated with ascetic, pious types.

MAKING THE AUDIENCE UNCOMFORTABLE

As with the best comedy, Yisrael Campbell aims to make his audiences shift a little on their seats.

To a non-orthodox, or secular audience, he can achieve that by his very appearance.

Addressing religious Jews, in Jerusalem, "I'm doing my routine, and I say: 'This is the point where I'd like to thank our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.' You can just see the religious people looking at me, like, 'Our who?'."

I was ready to sign an autograph. Instead, I had to sign a cheque
Israel Campbell

Yisrael Campbell then goes off on a riff about how the prospect of a gay pride parade in the city brought together - uniquely - imams, rabbis and Christian clergy, who produced a joint appeal "saying please don't affect the peace of our city".

Pause.

"Where do they live?"

The vast majority of young haredi men are exempted from national service in Israel, in order that they continue, uninterrupted, their religious studies.

It is a cause of some resentment among many secular Israelis.

"Maybe the haredim should go in the army," suggests Yisrael Campbell. "The police said it would take 12,000 officers to protect the gay pride parade-goers against the haredim. I say: We don't even need to tell the haredim they're in the army. We'll just tell them there's a parade in Lebanon."

Yisrael Campbell may be about to hit the big time. He has just been booked for an off-Broadway run.

A documentary about him, Circumcise Me, has started on the international film festival circuit.

His new home-country, Israel, though, remains a place to puncture egos.

Recently, in between shows, Yisrael Campbell went out onto the street, to grab some air. Someone called out to him.

"I had this thought: 'I am about to be recognised for the first time.' I turned round, and the woman said, 'I just left your show, and I'd like my money back.' I was ready to sign an autograph. Instead, I had to sign a cheque."


A selection of your comments:

Apparently Yisrael actually having a "a broad neck and well chiselled teeth ... the American accent, the job as a stand-up comic" means "the image of the traditional haredi recedes fast in the rearview mirror" To what sort of closeted stereotype does the BBC attribute Orthodox (Haredi) Jews? There are over 1 million Haredim living in a America and being a stand-up comic (or 'badchan') is a time-honoured profession for a Hassidic Jew. Then again, as someone with a particularly good set of teeth, I probably can't speak on behalf of regular Haredim, right?
Ash, Tel Aviv, Israel

I have known Yisrael over the years of his journey. Even in his pain he was funny. What makes Yisrael a great person, in addition to his comedy, is the family he is part of in Israel - his loving wife and his gorgeous children. Yisrael is a blessing both to the Jewish People and to humanity.
David Novak, Manchester Center Vermont United States

Yisrael sounds fantastic. Like Matisyahu before him, he is showing a much more positive face of haredi life and outlook. The ultra orthodox community in Israel even has its own version of American idol - on dvd with performances cut to save the participants' embarassment. I love it! kol hakovod (well done)!
Deborah, London, England

As a Muslim, I can tell you that converts to any religion bring their unique spiritual richness and talents to the world. Diversity and tolerance in any religion is sacrosanct.
Samer Kader, Orlando, USA




TIM FRANKS' JERUSALEM DIARY

Tim Franks 29 March
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