Christopher Noxon: A Hollywood husband converts

October 29, 2015

Christopher Noxon is frank about the reason he avoided converting to Judaism for almost two decades. 

“It was the little matter of the damn prick,” he said, explaining he had a “feminist response” to the requirement that he undergo a symbolic circumcision by spilling some blood via pinprick — from a sensitive place. 

“My body, my choice,” Noxon said wryly. “If it’s not OK for a government to mandate how women treat their reproductive organs, why is it OK for the Jews to mandate how I deal with mine?” 

Besides, he was already technically circumcised, so what was the point? 

Noxon, a journalist and author, has been living a Jewish life for 18 years. In 1997, he married Jenji Kohan, the Emmy-winning creator of “Orange Is the New Black” and “Weeds,” who is Jewish. Together, they are raising three Jewish children, going to temple, and observing Shabbat and other holy days. 

Noxon also is active in Jewish organizations — he participates in identity-building programs with Reboot, serves on the board of the Silverlake Independent JCC and helped create East Side Jews, a community of young creative types who gather in East L.A. for Jewish ritual events. 

Why, for so many years, he chose not to make things official was a question that constantly trailed him.

“The question would come up and I’d say, ‘I’m all about doing, and not being,’ ” Noxon said. “I became an evangelist for [that]. Eventually, I just got sick of that conversation.”

Just before the High Holy Days, Noxon stood before a beit din, or rabbinical court, with Rabbis Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom), Sharon Brous (IKAR) and Adam Greenwald (American Jewish University) — and became a Jew. It was the culmination of a long journey of religious and spiritual self-discovery, and included Torah study, mikveh, and yes, finally, brit milah, or ritual circumcision. 

Noxon was surprised by how powerful it was to go from flirting to full commitment. “It was as if I had been living in a foreign country for most of my adult life,” Noxon said. “Over the years, I decided I was Jewish-adjacent. I had a green card, which allowed me to work, but I wanted to get citizenship. I wanted full rights and privileges.”

Although Noxon could function comfortably at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), where his children went to school, and also at IKAR, where he and his family attended services, he was barred from full participation. When his eldest son became a  bar mitzvah at IKAR, he was not allowed an aliyah and refrained from wearing a tallit during services. Sometimes, he found his freedom liberating — he could do as little or as much as he liked — but other times, a feeling of incompleteness weighed on him. “I was always the ‘inter-Jew,’ ” Noxon said, “and [my wife] was the full.” 

Noxon’s childhood was mostly devoid of religion. He described his father as having some Quaker stock, though he identifies as Canadian and atheist. His mother, on the other hand, he described as “Buddhist and a lesbian and a feminist.” She came out when he was 10, and Noxon said the experience of growing up in an estrogen-fueled environment softened him. “I’m a huge girly man,” he said. “I wish I had more of that agro-male testosterone that needs to be curbed.” 

On the subject of how he met his wife, Noxon is sweetly sentimental. 

“We met cute,” he said, “and then it became a reality fight scene.” 

Well, not exactly: The couple actually met when a group of friends organized Sunday kickball games at a park in Silver Lake. He even proposed right there in the kickball field, rolling Kohan a ball with a ring tossing around inside of it. They were in love, and religion was not going to stop them. 

“Jenji always knew the kids were going to be raised Jewish,” Noxon said. “That was really important to her and she made that clear really early on, and I was on board for that.” 

But then there was the matter of her parents — Hollywood comedy writers Buz and Rhea Kohan — and the matter of his name: Christopher.

“Well, I can’t put that on a wedding invitation!” Rhea Kohan reportedly said when Jenji revealed whom she was dating. Like a good Jewish mother, Rhea put her daughter on the phone with a rabbi, Noxon recalled, who implored, “Can’t you just be friends?” 

Although he was not compelled to convert, Noxon said he understood that Judaism was “a deep and durable tradition” and that his family could only benefit from such a lifestyle. Before they married, he took an Introduction to Judaism course, but found it wanting. 

“It was horrible,” he said. “It was like a court-mandated Drivers Ed, all about learning the prayers and holidays. There was no ‘why,’ no kind of deep soul-searching or trying to understand the deeper soul of the tradition. It was only what you needed to know to pass the test.”

Over time, Noxon began accompanying his wife to various Reboot events and soon discovered that “I liked talking about Jewish identity a lot more than she did,” he said. “At Reboot, I heard a lot of anguish surrounding Jewish identity. It was freighted with all this baggage, questions of identity were so thorny and problematic — and I didn’t have to worry about any of that because I wasn’t Jewish. I could just do it, and see what effect it had on my life.”

But there also was the big theological problem of God. Did it even make sense to pursue a deeper engagement in Judaism without faith? 

A decade ago, Noxon was knee-deep in books about atheism by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and was pretty convinced that the God of the Bible wasn’t an idea he could wrap his arms around. But then, he attended a salon where Feinstein was teaching about God and he found himself questioning his own doubt.

“He just sort of rocked me,” Noxon said. “He introduced me to the idea of process theology and God as a verb, not as a noun, so that when we say ‘God,’ we are talking about acts of kindness and love and creativity. We’re not talking about the judge in the sky. And [that] really resonated. It was my ‘aha’ moment.” 

When Noxon first began to consider conversion, he was looking for a shortcut. It wasn’t until he watched his daughter’s hard work in preparing for her bat mitzvah that he realized, “There’s no way I can do the gentlemen’s club version of this.” He re-enrolled in an Introduction to Judaism class at American Jewish University with Greenwald, who was interested in asking the deeper questions about identity and ritual and faith that had been missing the first time around. In the 18 years since the first class, something had changed in Noxon. “I was ready,” he said. “I wanted in.” 

Noxon even surrendered to the dreaded prick, he said, describing it as “juicy,” “bizarre,” “weird” and “surreal,” insisting on saving the details for his own written account, which he hopes to publish. He also went into the mikveh, an experience he found “really intense and intimate and raw and sensual.” And finally, he stood in front of the beit din, defending an elaborate essay he had written about his Jewish journey, as the rabbis interrogated him about his knowledge and his commitment to mitzvot. 

His wife was present for much of this, quietly cheering him from the sidelines. 

“I think Christopher’s conversion is awesome, truly,” Kohan emailed from the set of her show. “But it’s really been his personal journey and one that he’s taken without pressure or prodding from me. I’m thrilled that he’s found his people.”

“There was no pressure at all, ever, from her to do this,” Noxon added. “I think she’s happy for me. I think she hopes I feel a sense of belonging that I didn’t have before. Aside from that, the only thing that’s changed is that, over the holidays, I want to go to temple. I’m the Super Jew of the family and everybody else is like, ‘Ugh, Dad, please!’ ”

On his first Shabbat as a full Jew, Noxon said he opened the Los Angeles Times and read his horoscope, as he often does, and it said something that astonished him and gave meaning to every step of his journey, including the “damn prick”: “The difference between a team and a tribe runs deep. The ideology you share with a tribe is as complicated of a matchup as DNA. …

“It was a super God moment!” Noxon said.

“I went from being a team member to a member of the tribe. And it took the bloodletting to do that. It took the cut. That, I guess, is the ultimate symbolism.”

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