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10.21.09

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Phaedra

TAKE MY MOHEL, PLEASE: Comedian Yisrael Campbell cracks wise in the documentary 'Circumcise Me.'

Cutting-Edge Humor

Converted comedian Yisrael Campbell gives it all he's got in 'Circumcise Me' doc at S.V. Jewish Film Festival

By Richard von Busack


SINCE I GOT into alternative journalism precisely because I wanted to write about genitals, the title of the film Circumcise Me caught my attention. It fills but one of the evenings at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, which runs through Nov. 22.

Here is the local premiere of Paul (Taxi Driver) Schrader's newest film, Adam Resurrected, based on Yoram Kaniuk's novel. Here also is a reprise of the excellent docudrama Blessed Is the Match about Hannah Senesh, RAF warrior and martyr (at age 23) to the Nazis, with a personal appearance by director Roberta Grossman Oct. 25. Further offerings include a dramatic film about the sinking of the Altalena, as well as several episodes of the hip Israeli TV show S'rugim. Guess what I pulled off the pile of screeners first? The moral is: You indie filmmakers out there, give your movie a title that sits up and barks.

After figuring Circumcise Me (Nov. 22, 5:30pm) to be a documentary about this, the unkindest cut of all, the film turned out to be the true-life story of Philadelphia-bred standup comedian Yisrael Campbell, born Chris Campbell—Chris, as in "Christian," since his mom was an ex-nun and his aunt is still in a convent ("That means Jesus is my uncle!").

The genial, plump Campbell reminisces about how he came to leave Catholicism to follow the path to conversion trodden, so long ago, by Sammy Davis Jr. As part of this conversion, Campbell made the demand of the title. Even after seeing the movie, I'm a bit unclear on how this works, but apparently the comedian went through three rounds of paying his due to Abraham. He has two kids today, so anyway, the mohels must have left something.

We see Campbell in live performances at a Jerusalem nightclub amusingly named "Off the Wall." Jews in standup comedy, who'da thunk? The film offers some "but seriously, folks" moments, among them Campbell's solemn visit to the Wailing Wall. The interesting scenes of Jerusalem include Campbell's sad accounts of friends killed by bombs in the Intifada. Still, Campbell has enough mirth to jest about a news item: the capture of the triple-amputee Hamas "master bomber" who, through misfired bombs, gave up rather more to Allah than Campbell gave up to Jehovah. "I'm not going to say he's a master," Campbell comments. "I'm going to say he's mildly proficient." The evening also features a live appearance by local comedian Jeff Applebaum.

But seriously, folks. The plethora of Jewish cinema lately, from the excellent A Serious Man to the gloomy but unquestionably Jewish Where the Wild Things Are includes this week's screening, a documentary on the man who is unquestionably the most controversial figure in the history of Israel. It's been so long since Ariel Sharon entered his persistent vegetative state that Dror Moreh's documentary Sharon (Oct. 25, 3pm, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Palo Alto) can get different angles on the subject. Sharon winds back from the former prime minister's surprise decision to endorse the clearing of the settlements in Gaza and Samara. That Sharon would ever be PM of Israel surprised everyone, particularly his wife, Lily, quoted by a witness: "Arinka, you'll never be prime minister, they hate you too much."

Even Uri Shani, Sharon's former chief of staff, admits that Sharon's victory was seen by some as "a reason to leave" Israel. As the film Waltzing With Bashir explains, Sharon was occupying the ground in Lebanon when the Phalangists massacred Arab civilians. The portly PM's side of the story was that he was "being blamed for Christians killing Arabs."

This charge of abetting a massacre never left Sharon's neck, and it was only a combination of matters that overcame voter resistance. One big factor was the increasingly terrorized quality of Israeli life as one suicide bombing after another took hundreds of Israeli lives. Another factor was the series of ad campaigns that made Sharon look like Cincinnatus or George Washington—a farmer called out to aid his nation, an image bolstered with "morning in Israel" shots of Sharon's cows in their fields.

This multiwar veteran was at first the hawkiest of hawks, and, by any definition of the word, a racist: often Sharon privately quoted his mother's advice never to trust the Arabs. Unexpectedly, Sharon grew into a statesman, restraining the worst of the revanchists after the grisly attacks on a disco in 2001 and supervising the pulling back of the occupations and the settlements that he once encouraged. "It was like cutting off his hand," says a crony here.

Sharon, then, was converted to political realism late in life. In this, and a few other things, he took what interviewee Condoleezza Rice defines as "the high ground." The problem, of course, is Condi's idea of the high ground; sometimes, the ground is so high, one fails to discern the difference between revolutionary groups far below. Sharon is most shocking when it reveals secret dealings about how W forced Sharon to abandon his plan to assassinate Yassir Arafat.

Still, one sees Sharon in different lights—as a lonely widower, as a good friend, as a man who cared enough about art to get up before dawn to see a Picasso show at the Tel Aviv museum. Sharon's interest to American non-Jews ought to be obvious, since whatever Israel does or will do is your tax dollars at work. The interest to documentary makers should also be obvious—how do you deal with the question of whether a great man is great because he could have been so much worse?


THE SILICON VALLEY JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL runs through Nov. 22 at Camera 12 in San Jose, Camera 7 in Campbell and locations in Palo Alto. See www.sfjff.org for schedule.

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