Yisrael Campbell: Circumsize Him (Part One)

By Andrew Singer

Ultra-Orthodox Jews.  You see them all around New York City.  Walking around with their black hats, black coats, beards and peyot (curly sidelocks of hair by their ears).  You may often wonder what they’re like as people.  Yisrael Campbell is not one of them, but he’s the closest most people outside the fold will get to meeting one.

“You can tell I’m not Ultra-Orthodox because I’m wearing a blue button-up shirt and not a white one.” He comes across as very warm and friendly, loving coffee as well as the chance to share his journey from being a drug-addicted Catholic to an Orthodox Jew, which he happens to do currently in his wildly successful Off Broadway one-man show Circumsize Me.  City Scoops had the chance to ask him additional questions about his life experiences and the performance world in general in a multi-part interview.


City Scoops: When looking for a deeper religious experience, why not become a more devout Catholic or switch to a different religious?  Why choose Judaism in particular?

Yisrael Campbell: Christianity didn’t speak to me.  That could’ve been because it was the religion of my childhood, and it was given to me by people who weren’t particularly happy with being Catholic either.

When I met Judaism, I met it as an adult, and I met it from a lot of people who were strong proponents of it.  Then again, I had met numerous Christians in my 20s; a mix of Catholics, Lutherans and other branches.  I was not impressed with their version of confession.  Sometimes they didn’t even speak with a priest; they simply said it in their prayers alone.

One of the things I liked so much about Judaism was the idea that G-d didn’t want to forgive my sins until I had spoken to the person I’d harmed here on Earth.  That seemed a much better way to work things out.  I may not understand all tenets of Christian theology, but after several attempts to make Christianity my spiritual practice, it just never ultimately spoke to me.  Whereas Judaism did, and my connection with it grew and grew.  It’s not a perfect system either by any stretch, but it works for me.

Another facet I enjoy is how the Talmud (the written-down oral law) contains a mix of contradictions.  It presents both sides of opinions about various matters, and it doesn’t label either the majority or the minority statements as right or wrong.  I find in general that Christianity tends to have a more strict sense of right and wrong, where you either got it, or you didn’t.  I like how in Judaism, it’s up to you personally to read both sides and decide for yourself.  I find that to be much more true to life.

That definitely ties into your own name Yisrael (”One Who Wrestles With G-d”).  Even if G-d himself states something, you still might disagree with it.  Tell us how that relates to the original title of the show, “It’s Not in Heaven”.

That’s a quote from the bible (”Lo Ba’Shamayim He”).  In the Gemara (part of the Talmud containing rabbinical commentaries and analysis), there’s this argument between one rabbi and a bunch of other rabbis.  None of the rabbis will say that this one rabbi’s right, even though he performs a series of greater and greater miracles to prove his point.

Finally, a voice comes out from heaven and says, “He’s right!” but even then, the rabbis won’t concede, stating that they are the ones on earth with the Torah, and it’s not up to those in heaven to tell them what to think.  Arguing with G-d is so not Christian but very Jewish.

I think it’s a great story, but telling it in the middle of my show would make everybody’s eyes glaze over, and then they definitely would want to literally circumsize me.  But it’s a very important theme of the show.


Why did you go through three conversions?  Why not just immediately become Orthodox (instead of becoming Reform and Conservative first)?  Or even just stick with being Reform?

When I first started, I had no idea that I was doing Reform / Conservative / Orthodox.  I met a group of people, and I thought I was converting to “Judaism”.  It was only after the first conversion that I started to flesh out that this was a reform conversion and not everyone accepted it.  And I realized that as Reform Jews, we didn’t even do all of the activities that everybody else was doing.  Some of the prayers we did weren’t the whole prayers.

A lot of it was in English, I imagine.

And then it was a natural progression.  I was in a couple of situations where Orthodox people told me that I wasn’t Jewish.  So when I wanted to put on tefillin (arm bindings worn during prayer), I realized I needed to take more steps, so I went to the Conservative synagogue.  They were welcoming, but then they did kind of guide me to do a beit din (a rabinnical court of Judaism), which I hadn’t yet done.

I’m not sure it would’ve worked out the same if I’d gone straight to the Orthodox.  The idea on a theological, philosophical level is that you pull the convert closer with their right hand, which is your stronger hand…

And then they push you away with their left hand.

Which is your weaker hand.  So the idea is that the pull is stronger toward and weaker against, but in my experience, it appears to be that more people either push you away with both hands or at least push you away with the right hand.

In retrospect, I’m kind of glad that by the time I started meeting that heavy resistance, I already considered myself a Jew on several levels.  I had already built up a level of Jewish experience.


Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview, coming soon!

Circumsize Me is performed weekly from Wednesday through Sunday at Bleeker Street Theater on 45 Bleeker St in NoHo.  The show is currently running at present through May 16.  Purchase Tickets.

All photos by Carol Rosegg.

Andrew Singer performs all over the NYC as comedic rapper “soce, the elemental wizard.” He has toured Europe and the U.S., and been featured on numerous media outlets, including MTV, VH1, Here TV, Logo, The Source, Out, Howard Stern and Sirius Shade 45.  His music is available on iTunes, and you can catch him performing at a weekly stand-up comedy show with Abbi Crutchfield called Positively Awesome.

Last 5 posts by Andrew Singer

Posted on 12 Feb 2010 at 7:20am
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