NEW YORK – With his long beard, side curls, black hat, coat and trousers trailing white tsitsit strings, Yisrael Campbell looks like any other Orthodox Jew.

Not bad, for a Catholic kid from Philadelphia whose parents named him Chris.

Campbell’s embrace of a faith that prefers to turn converts away didn’t come cheaply, though. It required payment in blood — and not just from anywhere.

“Three circumcisions is not a religious covenant. It’s a fetish,” he jokes early on in his one-man show “Circumcise Me,” at off-Broadway’s Bleeker Street Theater.

“Circumcise Me,” which is slated for a 2011 U.S. tour with shows in Florida, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and California, details Campbell’s three successive conversions to all three major branches of Judaism — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — and each painful step along the way.

A lot of trouble to go through just to tell Jewish jokes.

“If it were just that, it would not be enough, I agree,” Campbell said recently over lunch at a Kosher restaurant in New York City. “But it’s certainly been a journey that’s fed a spiritual need.”

Campbell said he became intrigued with Judaism after reading Leon Uris’ “Exodus” and the story just continued to resonate for some reason, taking him deeper into the religion.

The show evolved out of an hour of standup comedy he began doing in Israel that eventually took him to South Africa, Canada and the United States, where he performed mostly for Jewish groups. It is the story of his transformation from a teenage alcoholic and drug abuser on the streets of Philadelphia to an Orthodox Jew and family man living in Jerusalem.

“Twenty-five years ago, I studied to be an actor and all I had to do to get a successful play was change my religion, my national origin, marital status, my name and that’s it,” he quips.

With his convert’s zeal tempered by an irreverent comic wit, Campbell paints an enlightening portrait of Orthodox Judaism, whose practitioners can often appear aloof and alien to outsiders.

The show also explores deeper issues such as the birth of Campbell’s premature twins and the death of two close friends in a 2002 Jerusalem suicide bombing.

“What he does is good for the Orthodox community — not that they care — but his charisma and warmth are so appealing,” says manager Neal Feinberg.

It’s somehow fitting that Feinberg is a former comedian whose black stereotype character “Colt 40 Feinberg” appeared on “The Howard Stern Show.”

“For me, I’d take off the (afro) wig and I was myself again,” Feinberg said. “Yis isn’t wearing a costume. The guy gets up at 6 a.m. and is reading prayers; he won’t eat at certain restaurants — it’s his life.”

Campbell said audience reaction runs the gamut from those who think he’s insane to those who say such things as, “We’re glad to have you on the team.”


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