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Because God Loves Stories

Yisrael CampbellFilmed at JW3 2013

When given the honour of a JDOV talk I wanted to resist simply doing my show. When I sat and thought what’s the most important thing to say I realised that it’s  “the story” that has been the connecting factor of my life. Both the stories of others that have helped guide me as well as the story of my life that has helped ground me. Often it’s been the “Folk story” or “fictional story” from which I’ve learned more than the Truth.

Yisrael Campbell is a comedian who lives in Jerusalem Israel with his wife and four children. In 2009 his critically acclaimed show “Circumcise Me” which he wrote and starred in ran Off Broadway for eight months. He currently tours with his stand up comedy throughout the United States and Canada as well as appearing in England Ireland and South Africa. His videoblog which is directed by Gary Rudoren The Times of Yisrael can be seen on the Times of Israel. He is currently developing a web series called Hi Yisrael with Gary.

When the Baal Shem Tov was dying, he gathered together his followers (Chassidim) and gave them each a job. The big jobs went to the big guys, the little jobs to the little guys, and when he was done there was still one Hassid left. And he bought him in and said, your job is to go all over Europe to tell stories of our life and our work. Not a great job, and the hassid said, as we all do when we get such a job. “For how long?” The Baal Shem Tov told him that he would know when to stop.

And when the time came he started out and he criss-crossed Europe for years telling the stories of their life and their work. And one day, he woke up and he said “I think I’m done”. Then he heard of an Italian nobleman who was paying gold ducat’s to hear new stories of The Baal Shem Tov. The Hassid thought maybe I’m not done, done. And made his way to the nobleman’s castle, and he was sat down and he couldn’t think of a single story, not one. He sat there all day, the nobleman expectant, but nothing. Finally at the end of the day the nobleman said get some food, some rest, play tennis, (late 1700’s) whatever you want but nothing. The second day again nothing, and in the middle of the third day the Hassid said, “I have to go, this is humiliating, this is embarrassing. I am the storyteller of the Baal Shem Tov, that’s all I do I have to leave. And he made his way out and as he started down the path leading from the nobleman’s castle towards the village, and he remembered one story, seeming inconsequential, seemingly insignificant. And he made his way back and he said to the nobleman, “look, I’m going to tell you this story, but I’m not going to take any money. I just want to prove to you that I am who I say I am”. And he started the story….

One spring season the Baal Shem Tov told me to harness the horses, we were going to Turkey, now, everyone knew that Turkey, in sprint at Easter was not a good place for Jews. And I said that, I said “I don’t think we should go” and he said “get the horses we’re going to Turkey”. And while we made our way there I thought, OK we’ll hide with the Jews and the Jews were hiding when we arrived and the Baal Shem Tov, threw open the shutters that looked out on the town square, just as the Christian procession was entering the town square! The Baal Shem Tov said: “Get the Bishop”

“I don’t think I should get the Bishop, he has the hat, the stick. He doesn’t look happy”.
“Get the bishop” and somehow I made it to the Bishop and he wasn’t happy but said he would come after the mass. And he did and they when into a back room for three hours. And at the end of that time the Baal Shem Tov came out and said “get the horses ready we are going home”, and I said “The Horses are already ready”. And that was it, the story ended but before he could apologize the nobleman said “I was there that day, I was that bishop. I come from a long line of rabbis but the persecution was so bad, that converted to Christianity. The Christians, of course, were so pleased that, in time, they even made me a bishop. And I went along with the persecution of my own people. So when you came and told me that the Baal Shem Tov wanted to talk to me, I knew that I had to go to him. And when I spoke to him I said ‘is there any way that I can be forgiven? And he said go and live a live a quiet life of good deeds and if ever anyone comes and tells your story then you’ll will know that you have been forgiven and you have been healed. Three days ago you came and you couldn’t tell my story, I recognized you but you didn’t recognize me but now today you have remembered my story and now I know that I’ve been forgiven and I have been healed”.

When I was nine years old I took my first drink. I waited, I could have used a drink on my way to kindergarten. You can’t tell me that a shot of Bourbon wouldn’t have taken to edge of naptime. I drank in a way that Karl Jung described as being the equivalent of our ‘spiritual thirst for wholeness’. Expressed in medieval language as the Union with God. I was seeking spirit in a way that was killing friends, killing them dead. I know I was there at their funerals.

On Feb 5th 1980 I walked into a church basement and listened to a group of people tell their stories not mine, no one knew I was there and when they told their stories, I heard my story and I knew that if they could heal, I could heal. I knew if they could be forgiven, I could be forgiven.

15 years later I was dying again, a spiritual death not on the outside but on the inside. Not as spectacularly but just as dead. I was shown a group of stories, stories of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, Leon Uris and Laura Levinson. Laura was a beautiful young Jewish woman – Jewish, not religious, not frum, Jewish. She showed me a group of stories that started me on a path which brings me to you today.

How does an Irish/Italian, Catholic kid from Philadelphia come to stand before you? An orthodox Jew, living in Jerusalem. This is my story. It is a story that has covered three conversions to Judaism and Aliah to Israel. Three times being told ‘welcome, no wait’ and the fourth time ‘Regah, regah, leat, laet’. You can imagine that when I show up for an ELAL flight with a passport that says Christopher Campbell, they’re like ‘we got him!’ because they think I just forgot to switch the passport.

And they would ask, why did you convert to Judaism? And I would tell them the whole story. I would say I was seeking a community of people that I could struggle to have a relationship with god, perhaps not have that relationship, but struggle to have the relationship with god. ELAL is not interested in putting people on airplanes that are struggling to have a relationship with god. They don’t even like vegetarian meal requests.

It seems unfair that I went on a spiritual search and now my four children will have to serve in the Israeli army. But this is a life story, not a fairy tale.

Almost 30 years ago I walked into my therapists office and said “I know exactly what I want to do with my life.
He said “Okay?”
I said, “Well it’s two things actually, the disciplined part of me and the undisciplined. The disciplined part of me wants to be a cop, and the undisciplined part wants to be an actor”. He sat up straight and leaned forward. Always a bad sign.

“You think wearing a uniform and telling people where to park is discipline. Then how about this; You are in New York City, you can barely afford to eat, you haven’t had a date in six months, you have rats in the walls of your apartment. But eight times a week you have to be happy go lucky on stage. Or, you are finally getting recognized for your work, people are taking notice, you have a nice new apt and a beautiful girlfriend and 8 times you have to get on stage and be a miserable, whiny, sniveling, self-pitying slob on stage. If you think shiny shoes and a gun is discipline then go be a cop”.

So I started to study acting, when there wasn’t enough work I turned to stand-up comedy which was really just a refinement of telling my story rather than someone else’s.

It was that great Hassid, William Shakespeare who wrote
To thine own self be true,
And now comes the part nobody remembers, Shakespeare wrote To thine own self be true, for a surely as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.

When the Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain place of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the danger would be averted, the miracle accomplished.

Later, when his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven. He would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe! I do not know how to light the fire, but I can still say the prayer and again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, for the same reason, had to intervene with heaven. He would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place. And it would be enough.

Generations later, when it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, “Dear to God, I don’t know how to light the fire and I don’t know the words of the prayer, I don’t even know the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and that must be sufficient.” And it was.

God made man because God loves stories.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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