The ProsenPeople

30 Days, 30 Authors: Christopher Noxon

Friday, November 25, 2016 | Permalink

Christopher Noxon is an author, journalist and illustrator.

He’s the author of the novel Plus One, which “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner called “well-observed, honest, and laugh-out-loud funny” and Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown Up, which Ira Glass, host of public radio’s This American Life, called “an eye opener.” The book was featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, CNN’s “In the Money,” NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” As a journalist, he has written for The New Yorker, Details, The New York Times MagazineLos Angeles Magazine, and SalonHe lives in Los Angeles with his wife, television writer/producer Jenji Kohan, and their three children.

The Origins of the Undo List

Friday, November 27, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Christopher Noxon shared the beginnings of his journey from “doing Jew” to being Jewish and the profound importance he found in ritualized rites of passage for young adults. He has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I started observing Shabbat fifteen years before I formally converted to Judaism. It began, as these things so often do, with bossy grandparents: my wife’s parents hosted dinner Friday nights and would start bugging us on Tuesday to bring the kids over. Jenji’s mom cooked like a school lunch lady and the rush-hour drive across LA wasn’t exactly nourishing to the soul, but I began feeling a real loss when we didn’t make it. Shabbat was a marker, a reset button.

Even though I wasn’t Jewish and had no plans at the time to convert, I liked the “island in time” that Shabbat represented and was curious about creating boundaries that would allow for rest and recharge. I read Abraham Joshua Heschel and began to appreciate the value in dedicating one day a week to slowing down, connecting and checking in with oneself and loved ones. No way was I ready for traditional prohibitions on driving, spending money, or using the phone—but I loved the spirit behind being shomer Shabbat and wanted to create some version for my family and self.

If the idea behind Shabbat was to wake us up, to remove whatever interferes with our appreciation of what’s truly important, I didn’t have to look far to identify the biggest source of distraction.

Our family spends an inordinate—but hardly unusual—amount of time looking at screens. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, TVs, video games—our lives are largely lived in digital space. We work, shop, socialize, study, relax, play—all connected to some sort of device. Our kids have grown up like this—but Jenji and I remember when life was lived offline in three dimensions, or as the kids say, IRL (“in real life”).

This would be our family’s version of Shabbat: one full day IRL.

For us that meant no TV, no email, no social media from sunset Friday to sundown Saturday. Using the phone is okay, we decided, as are movies in a movie theater—but for us, the goal was to stay away from any screens that isolate us from one other and the world around us.

The kids weren’t thrilled about it, and both Jenji and I would sometimes cheat (no one can see you on your iPad when you’re on the toilet!), but I think we all came to appreciate screen-free Saturdays. We had a few amazing “reading parties” splayed out on blankets on the front lawn with dogs, games, and bowls of grapes. We planned outings with friends to places in the city we wouldn’t have visited otherwise—Watts Towers, the Self-Realization Fellowship gardens, waterfalls in the San Gabriel Mountains…

Next we started marking Saturday sundown havdalah around our backyard firepit with a song, a big cup of wine, and a satchel of scented cloves. The traditional elements were nice, but havdalah only came alive after we took a suggestion from my friend Rachel to start a family practice called “take forward, leave behind.” Each member of the family names things from the past week we want to continue (laying off carbs, say, or getting to bed before midnight) and discontinue (texting in the car, fighting with siblings).

Excited by our progress, I joined up with some friends and started an online newsletter called The Undo List, offering tips and inspiration for others observing a weekly “Tech-Free Sabbath.”

Here, with some reinterpretation and experimentation, was something truly useful, an ancient practice given a modern spin that made our lives better.

Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Details and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.

Everyone Wants to Be Invited

Wednesday, November 25, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Christopher Noxon shared his journey from “doing Jew” to being Jewish. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Growing up, whatever spiritual yearnings I had were satisfied by Star Wars. My best friend Jimmy was an altar boy who prayed to a spooky guy on the cross; I was good with Obi-Wan.

The first Jewish ritual I ever experienced was my friend Michael Landsberg’s bar mitzvah. The service was long and boring, but afterward there was a chocolate fountain and a live disco band.

At the time I my parents were divorced and I lived with my mom and her girlfriend Pam. Besides being committed feminists, they were spiritual seekers who did consciousness-raising retreats in the Sequoias. There was talk in our house of the “cosmic muffin.”

So I complained: “How come Michael got a bar mitzvah and all I got was a green t-shirt with the text of the Equal Rights Amendment?” I think Robert Bly and Iron John had been in the Utne Reader that month, because mom got to work creating a YOUTHHOOD RITE OF PASSAGE RITUAL.

A few weeks later, mom and Pam took me out to a friend’s beach house in Zuma and we did this whole thing –I have dim memories wearing some kind of robe while candles were lit, bongos were beaten, and long silences were observed. Mom made up a scroll with calligraphy on parchment.

And then we went skinny dipping. Me, my mom and Pam, jumping in the black-bottom pool. Because that’s what you did in 1981 with your two moms.

In the end, my rite of passage hadn’t been all that different from Michael’s. We both had our scrolls. And like Michael, we got pictures—he got a portrait of himself wearing a wide-collared tan suit and staring out the window of Wilshire Blvd Temple… and I got a photo of myself, crouching next to a stone bunny rabbit, wet and butt naked.

Which only reinforces for me that even in its most humiliating, fuzzy-headed, woo-woo form, the rite-of-passage ritual is a good thing. It’s affirming. It’s important. I’m glad my moms did it for me.

When my two oldest kids reached adolescence, I was happy to support their bnei mitzvah. But while I was happy to send them to Hebrew school organize the party and otherwise buy into the bar mitzvah industrial complex, I was deeply dissatisfied with the traditional route.

Friends with teenage kids agreed: the usual routine had become rote, stale and superficial. And so, on a big group camping trip a few years ago, we invented a supplementary ritual. All it took was a bunch of guys, some shared wisdom, and a gorilla suit.

On our first day at the camp, I charged out of my cabin in full gorilla getup. I grabbed hold of a 13-year-old kid who had just been bar mitzvah-ed and escorted him up a nearby bluff, where all the men sat cross-legged in a circle. We proceeded to go around and share “secrets of manhood.”

The secrets ranged from the practical to the profound. One guy talked how hardship creates character. An electrician advised Isaac to “always buy real estate.” Someone said that, “when you’re out on a date, always let a woman through the door first. You look gentlemanly and you can check out her tuchus.”

But the thing I remember most was a friend who whispered, “Everyone wants to be invited.

The kid liked it and the men did too and we’ve done it three times since, most recently with a mix of boys and girls and a giant chicken costume.

Who knows? Maybe Good Life Gorilla or the Wisdom Chicken will catch on and thousands of teens will one day know the terror of being kidnapped by their elders in animal costumes. None of the “secrets” we’ve shared have been revelatory, but there’s something profound about even the promise of learning a forbidden thing. It’s all about what that guy whispered at the first circle: “Everyone wants to be invited.” Being pulled aside by the adults, singled out and invited into a new world, told you belong in an actual community—that’s a huge part of what coming of age is really about.

Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Details and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.

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May As Well Be Called Jesus

Monday, November 23, 2015 | Permalink

Christopher Noxon is the author of Plus One and a recent inductee into the Tribe, completing his conversion to Judaism this past August. He will be blogging about his experience all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

It’s right there in the first six letters of my name—the boy from Bethlehem, the Jewish carpenter, the King of Kings!

I may as well be called Jesus.

The truth is, religion was never much of anything in my family. My dad is descended from Canadian Quakers but never went to church in his life. He and my mom, a beatnik-feminist who later became Buddhist, named me not for the star of the New Testament but after Winnie the Pooh’s curly-haired plus one, Christopher Robin. (Fun fact: the real-life Christopher Robin wasn’t even Christian—he grew up to be, like my dad, an avowed atheist.)

My Jewish journey began twenty years ago when I met and fell in love with Jenji, a Beverly Hills comedy writer who proudly identified as Jewish—at least in the won’t-buy-a-German car-or-eat-ham-but-will-have-the-shrimp-if-it’s-fresh-and-chilled kind of way.

Early on in our marriage, I consented to her demand that we raise the children Jewish. Whatever doubts I had about the Almighty or gefilte fish, I figured our three kids would only benefit from a solid foundation in what I understood to be a foundational tradition of the Western civilized world. If all else failed, I figured it would give them something to rebel against besides their crazy goy dad.

And that was that; I was content to remain on the sidelines. At the synagogue day school where we sent the kids, when they talked about “interfaith families,” I proudly identified myself as the inter.

At various points, I considered converting. While we were dating, Jenji and I took an Intro to Judaism class at the University of Judaism—unfortunately, it had all the appeal and mystery of a court-mandated driver’s ed course. Also, every time I opened the Torah I’d land on a furious warning about God's wrath; or instructions on sacrificing animals or keeping slaves; or worst of all, a call to stone homosexuals or heretics or those who dare to work on the Sabbath.

I asked friends what they made of these passages and got more or less the same response: Relax! It's literature! Only really nutty Jews view the Torah as literal truth, and the story of Judaism is in large part the story of a never-ending argument over the texts.

Years went by, and I settled into what might be called Jewish adjacency. I was a flaming shaygetz in a world of Jews. A caretaking support goy.

As an unofficial, unaffiliated friend of the Tribe, I found a certain freedom. I couldn’t don the prayer shawl or offer an aliyah at my kids’ bar and bat mitzvah, but with a few exceptions I was welcomed to participate. It was kind of great, actually. Friends born into it dealt with complicated familial associations or pangs of guilt or embarrassment as they made peace with their Judaism. Every prayer offered or dreidel spun conjured complicated memories of overbearing mothers, horrible Hebrew schools, and anguish over Israel. Their practice of Judaism was wrapped up in thorny questions of identity and heritage.

I had none of that. I could approach Judaism unburdened by questions of whether doing this practice or not made me a “good” or “bad” Jew. I could “do” Judaism, enacting the spirit of the practice without worrying about the labels associated with it.

When people asked, I’d say I wasn’t Jewish but that I was “doing Jew.” In thinking about what that meant, I stumbled upon what felt like a core truth about myself, the faith and, ultimately, the God question I’d started with. At a study group one night I heard Rabbi Eddie Feinstein teach about the concept of God not as an omnipotent determinant force but as an ongoing action of creativity and caring. Like any great simple truth, this one—God as verb, not noun— got under my skin and seeped into my thinking.

The whole question of religious practice was reframed, thinking of God less as an almighty force but as a process undertaken by people acting out a spirit of kindness, creativity and love.

The Torah was still mostly offputting, but I came to love the act of bumping up against it, pulling out strands that made sense and railing against interpretations that didn’t. It was all about action—living not judging, channeling not obeying, connecting not corralling.

This, of course, is a central tenet of Judaism; it’s a faith of deeds, not creeds.

It all started to make a lot more sense. After years and years of “doing Jewish” I started thinking seriously about being Jewish. I felt like I’d been living in a foreign country for most of my adult life with a green card—I could work here, but I didn’t have the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. I wanted in.

Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Details, and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.

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