Chris Campbell was first circumcised at birth. It was in the hospital and, as he was born a Catholic, for medical reasons only. But after an alcoholic childhood, the Philly native converted to reform Judaism at the age of 31 and had some scissors taken to his schlong a second time. In 2001, Campbell’s schmeckle was mangled a possibly record-breaking third time as part of his conversion to the Orthodox sect.
Now the renamed (and bearded) Yisrael, is sharing his schicker-cum-superJew life story on stage with his one-man show, Circumcise Me. And, naturally, I’ll interview anyone who has a one-man show about his schmeckle.
So you had your chorizo chopped three times?
The second time, for reform conversion, was because the mikvah lady said it was important. The rabbi was fine with my circumcision from birth, but that’s Judaism. The rabbi says ‘No,’ the mikvah lady says ‘Yes, you do it!’ The third time, for my Orthodox conversion, was at 38 years of age.
Did each schmeckle-cutting hurt the same? Or did it become enjoyable on some level?
I don’t remember the first one, as that is the one that must have hurt the most. The next two were with the point of either a scalpel in the American case or an exacto knife in the Israeli case. These two were really just a pinprick with a really big pin. Honestly, they were no more painful than a misstep with orthodontics.
Why did you convert to Judaism? Why not become a Buddhist?
Because I love to talk. I spent an afternoon in a Zen monastery in Los Angeles, but first I got a speeding ticket on my way there. When I told the California highway patrolman where I was going, he said, ‘You better slow down or you are going to screw up your chi.’ Only in California.
When I got there, we meditated in silence. They stated that you were allowed to fart but not to cough, one being involuntary and one not. Really, isn’t that reason enough to be a Jew? I go to shul for hours longer than that meditation, but I talk the whole time.
You’re a practicing Orthodox Jew. Do you identify with others in this particular facet of Judaism? Or do you recognize, as in any form of organized religion, the contradictions and sexisms? How do you continue living the way you do knowing the certain dysfunctions in the faith?
I’m a practicing Orthodox Jew, but, as to which group or sect or Hasidim that I belong to, my answer is simply ‘Jewish.’ It seems to me that the religious have no corner on dysfunction. The irreligious do a pretty good job too. A religious way of life is an interesting attempt to be part of a community. Plus, left to my own devices, I’m an asshole.
In regards to the modeling gig you recently did for one of our advertisers (below), your character is satirizing the Diamond District stereotype–the Hasid notorious for corrupt business in order to turn a profit. Having converted to Orthodoxy, how does it feel to inherit such a negative stereotype?
It’s interesting because those aren’t the parts of the stereotype that first jump out at me. Of course, I get that they’re there, but I don’t need those aspects. Those I had as an Italian.
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As for Circumcise Me, are you planning to perform at any other venues aside from Bleecker Street Theatre?
For now Bleecker Street is our only shot. I’ve got a wife and three kids, ages five and under in tow, and another one, G-d willing, coming along in January.
We don’t pack up so easy. When I travel with my family is when I realize that 40 years in the desert was as fast as they could go.
How bad was your alcoholism? And what made you kick the habit? What do you miss from that time? Do these questions make you want to drive to the liquor store right now?
I drank from 9 to 16. I didn’t lose corporations, wives or my liver, but do you know a nine-year-old you think should be drinking? My life was a mess and alcohol only made it messier. As for these questions to make me drink, I just sat in on The Joey Reynolds Show for two hours. If that didn’t make me want to drink, nothing will.
Did you smoke cigarettes?
I smoked cigarettes from 12 to 25. Until about three weeks after I was mugged on the A-train and fractured my larynx. I needed those three weeks for my nerves. But there I was, two months out of drama school and unable to talk above a whisper. Go figure. It seemed like a good time to quit. I now smoke the occasional Cuban cigar. In Israel, they are legal.
I know a bartender who, when on the wagon, drinks tomato juice as a substitute. What about you?
Don’t spend much time in bars. When I do, I order a Shirley Temple, but then I won’t pick it up for modesty’s sake.
Ever partake in marijuana or drugs?
I literally smoked a ton of pot. In those days, it was sold by the ounce and the quarter pound. And I stole a lot of my mother’s pills. It was a great shock the day I found out I was on a three-day run of estrogen. She’d been depressed for many years, and I’d been stealing her anti-depressants. Suddenly, she was going through menopause and I was about to change my life in a very significant way.
Lastly, can you settle an ongoing argument in our office? Who is more world renowned: Dudu Fisher or Matisyahu?
I would say Matisyahu, but only out of selfishness because I’ve been called the ‘Matisyahu of Stand-up Comedy,’ never the ‘Dudu Fisher of Stand-up Comedy.’