Culture: A Jewish Journey

Yisrael Campbell looked distinguished when he walked in front of a crowded Underwood Room Saturday night to perform a comedy routine he called, “It’s Not in Heaven.” Along with his long beard and sidelocks, he was dressed completely in black from his shoes to the black baseball cap that he later removed to reveal a black yarmulke. “My name is Yisrael Campbell,” he said, “the first name’s very Jewish.” After this statement, there was a long, deliberate silence, which was one of the comedic tools that Campbell used throughout his humorous routine. “The Campbell’s not so Jewish,” he commented and then quickly added, “I grew up Catholic. People ask, you know, how Catholic were you? I was really only vaguely Catholic. But vaguely Catholic is Catholic enough. Let’s say that I was Catholic enough to know I was going to hell. So I joined a religion that doesn’t believe in hell.” Why would a Catholic boy from a Philadelphia suburb named Chris Campbell ever change his name, convert to Orthodox Judaism and, eventually move to Jerusalem? Apparently, his quiet, wholesome, normal upbringing was not enough to satisfy him. Tired of living somewhere where “nothing happened,” he moved to Jerusalem, where, as he phrased it, “far too much happens.” He then proceeded to explain the roots of his transition in a humorous and motivational hour-long conversation. “I’m the first-born son of a manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman,” said Campbell, “which makes me wildly emotional in a very quiet way.” He continued “My aunt, though, was a nun, which makes Jesus my uncle. I’m not making that up, that’s church doctrine. She’s my aunt, she’s a bride of Christ, he’s my uncle.” After undergoing an intervention for alcoholism in his junior year of high school, Mr. Campbell was told he should look for a greater power to which he could commit his life. Heeding this advice, Yisrael, then still Chris, graduated from high school and moved to south Florida, where he met Lara Levenson, a Jewish woman who introduced him to the religion. Campbell then detailed the three conversions he had to go through to become Orthodox and included stories of the three ritual circumcisions which accompanied these conversations. He spoke about his love for Judaism, about learning Hebrew in Jerusalem, about marrying his substitute Hebrew teacher, and about what it is like to live in Jerusalem today. Although Campbell’s overall routine was humorous, there were somber moments in the Underwood Room when he spoke of the violence in the Middle East and his friends who died in a bombing. I was greatly amused by Mr. Campbell’s recollections of the people and trials he encountered on his journey to becoming an Orthodox Jew. He recounted the conflict within the religion: some rabbis did not accept conversions performed by another rabbi, and, in Jerusalem, it took fourteen months for his conversion to Orthodoxy to be accepted by the very organization that performed it! In the end, as he said, “I thought, once I had three conversions…everyone’s going to love me … turns out nobody loves me. The Reform think I should have stopped there. The conservative don’t know why I went beyond that, and the Orthodox distrust all converts…pretty much all people.”