Goes to show

For Irish Catholic-turned-ultra-Orthodox comic, the journey is the joke

With a possible TV deal in the offing, Yisrael Campbell brings new material to Jerusalem’s Khan Theater for a trial run

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Yisrael Campbell has turned his life journey into a standup act (Courtesy Yisrael Campbell)
Yisrael Campbell has turned his life journey into a standup act (Courtesy Yisrael Campbell)

One year ago, comedian Yisrael Campbell sat shiva for his Catholic mother, in a house with a Christmas tree.

It was probably one of the more difficult episodes in the many years since Campbell chose to convert to Judaism (which he famously did three times, through Reform, Conservative and Orthodox conversions), but it had the unexpected benefit of offering some brand new material for his show, “My Beard is My Best Friend,” which he’ll perform four times at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater on December 27 and 28.

This latest iteration of Campbell’s one-man show was prompted by a request from a Canadian production company to film Campbell for a possible future television presentation, but no matter where it ends up, it’s good “to carve out new ground,” said Gary Rudoren, who directed the show and is Campbell’s writing partner and close friend.

The show is a combination of classic Campbell material — the size 0 onesies worn by his now tween-age twins, his various conversions — and some “new material, as life progresses,” said Campbell.

Gary Rudoren (left) and Yisrael Campbell; writing partners and fast friends (Courtesy Gary Rudoren)

Seventeen years ago, Campbell — born in Philadelphia a Catholic of Irish and Italian descent —  came to Israel to study and decided to convert for a third time and live as an Orthodox Jew.

During that period he met his Israeli wife, Avital Hochstein Campbell, a Talmud teacher who is now a rabba (a female version of a rabbi). They live in Jerusalem with their four children, including a set of twins.

Campbell worked as a comedian throughout, including starring in an Off Broadway one-man show, “Circumcise Me,” which was also the name of a 2008 documentary feature about him.

While that show focused on his conversions and life decisions, Campbell has always tried to make his humor as accessible as possible, he said.

“A lot of Yisrael’s comedy isn’t based on being Jewish, but on his unusual choices,” said Rudoren.

The two have worked closely for the last six years, having met when  Rudoren lived in Israel from 2012 through 2016, when his wife, Jodi Rudoren, was the New York Times bureau chief in Israel.

The two men bonded over the fact that they each had a set of boy-girl twins and shared the pleasures of carpooling their kids around the city. They also found time to work with local comedy troupe Hahafuch and a video series featuring Campbell, and brought Campbell’s one-man show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

For the past few months, they’ve spent their time talking and Skyping about the script of the current show.

“I want to help Yisrael be the best version he can be,” said Rudoren, an alumnus of Chicago’s Annoyance Theater and NYC’s Magnet Theater, who teaches improv and recently co-produced and helped write a new web series, “MOMTRESS.” “Our conversation just flows and I also feel like I can get inside his head to shape material.”

As for Campbell, he’s happy that Rudoren’s back in town this week to direct this latest show.

“I make slow, procrastinating progress, and I have other projects and children to drive around in circles,” he said. “But there’s the benefit of being his good friend; it’s not just about the work. And it it doesn’t go to Netflix, we’ll have had fun working together.”

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