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 a journalist and illustrator who has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic. Salon and the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the novel Plus One about an interfaith family in Hollywood, and the nonfiction Rejuvenile: Kickball Cartoons Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown Up.