Meet the comedian who guides visitors at Israel's Holocaust museum

Yisrael Campbell believes there are some similarities between the two vocations

Yisrael Campbell began doing standup comedy as a way to 'get some control over my career and life'. Photo: Carol Rosegg
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Perhaps more than most other museums, it is a good idea to get a guide at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, the world’s primary Holocaust memorial.

International tourists and diplomats criss-cross the busy permanent exhibition alongside Israeli students, soldiers and police, and then outside into a vast site comprising gardens, memorials and research centres.

No matter how well designed the museum, it is hard to comprehend its terrible subject. It is not uncommon to see visitors become visibly emotional, particularly at the Hall of Names, a vast circular room lined with bookshelves filled with volumes containing the names of victims. Empty shelves show that decades after the Holocaust, researchers have still not fully documented the horror.

The National was lucky enough to be taken round Yad Vashem by Yisrael Campbell, who did an excellent job of presenting the topic, while also being very interesting himself.

He dresses much like an ultra-Orthodox Jew, but is frequently in the company of secular people. He says he came to Israel for deeply religious and spiritual reasons, but that his "hard drive" remains "western democratic". He says his early life was full of rebellion, yet today he is clearly guided by a very strong faith.

Perhaps the main clue that his story is different to the typical Israeli's is his surname.

Born into a Catholic-American family, he embarked on a long conversion to Judaism after troubled teenage years, which were followed by drama school and soul-searching stints in New York City and Los Angeles.

The surname Campbell stuck, but after years under the guidance of various synagogues, he changed his first name from Christopher to Yisrael.

Like his name, his two vocations are also a stark contrast. Campbell is a guide at Yad Vashem and a stand-up comedian, a profession he began to pursue when he was still in the US as a way to “get some control over my career and life”.

“People say these two jobs are polar opposites,” Campbell told The National.

“In some ways they are. I mean, I certainly don't seek to make people laugh at Yad Vashem, and I certainly don't seek to make people cry in my comedy.”

But he does see a link between the two.

“And then a friend of mine one day says to me, no, those two roles aren’t as different as it might seem. You just want to affect people with your words.”

It was, after all, powerful words that partly inspired Campbell’s conversion.

“Much of my early attraction to Judaism came from the writing that emerged from the Holocaust – Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, for example. These stories of survival. Portraits of courage that are just incredible. I remember reading them and thinking back to me trying to survive life in the suburbs, and here these guys were living through Auschwitz.

“My friend was right. I want my speech, my words, to have meaning, whether that's to make people laugh, or to make people aware of the Holocaust, and perhaps to cry. Those are both very powerful things, perhaps the most powerful to do with words.”

Updated: August 12, 2023, 3:40 AM