Claude Brodesser-Akner was raised in a Roman Catholic household, but when he met his wife-to-be, Taffy Akner, a few changes were undeniably coming his way. The story of his conversion to Orthodox Judaism, complete with a bris at age 33, was chronicled in his New York Times wedding announcement. Claude graciously took the time to answer some of our questions about his newfound Jewish life, and all the gritty details.
How many kids do you have and what are their names and ages?
I have two sons: Ezra Wolf Brodesser-Akner (3 years) and Haskel Fox Brodesser-Akner (7 mos.). And yes, when they’re old enough, each will be given a special, second steering wheel similar to those used on large fire trucks in order to get his full name around corners.
Are there any similarities between your Roman Catholic upbringing and your wife’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing?
Yes, and no: Aside from the obvious commonalities (both faiths share a heavy emphasis on ritual, have a separate liturgical language, and, yes, produce a surfeit of guilt), our experiences with religious life are totally divergent: I grew up in a strictly Roman Catholic house and parochial schools. But my wife–despite being sent to (and kicked out of)–some of the best yeshivot in Queens, cannot really be said to have had an “Orthodox” Jewish upbringing: She and her siblings grew up totally unaffiliated until she was 12 or so; and then, she can only be said to have “broken” with Orthodoxy inasmuch as her mother and sisters suddenly became religious and she elected not to go along for the ride.
By comparison, I broke with the Church many years before my conversion in 2006 not because of any ontological crisis of faith about whether there was a benign Creator, but over the way that the Church seemed unconscionably on the wrong side of history and morality on virtually every important topic: A woman’s right to choose, birth control, abstinence for clergy, its denial over a massive sex-abuse scandal, a belief in the infallibility of its Pontiff, etc.
Interestingly, we both now have the privilege of discovering Orthodox Judaism on our own terms, as free-thinking adults.
Many Jews are questioning whether circumcising their baby is fair, and propose waiting until the child is old enough to make the decision for himself. As a man who made that decision at age 33, would you recommend just getting it over with on day eight?
It’s funny, because it’s only now that I’ve become a parent myself that I can empathize with the position of some Jews who are reluctant to have their son circumcised. After my conversion (which did require a full-on circumcision by a mohel), I felt like the issue was a non-starter: We’re Jews; we do this. Period, end. But when you have a child, the idea of causing it pain produces a visceral reaction: “Please, don’t ask this of me!” But to be clear, I strongly recommend having the brit milah immediately, as is safely medically practicable. Here’s why: It’s not really just about the circumcision. Sure, the Torah issues the commandment to do so or else, but it also offers clear insight into why not doing so would be a bad thing for all concerned: It’s no accident that the ritual of Jewish circumcision is called a bris milah, (or a brit, if you’re an Israeli or speak Hebrew like one), as bris means “covenant”.
Like I was saying, the covenant is not really between the Creator and the circumcised Jewish child; it’s really between the Almighty and the parents and community of that circumcised child. In undertaking this ritual, we’re all saying, as Jews, “In a world that’s often callous and amoral, we’re different; we think different, and act different. And to show it, we’ve chosen to make our connection to godliness visible and indelible.” As painful as it might be in those few moments of and hours after, even more painful would be to reject a relationship with God.
How scared were you to meet your in-laws?
Claude's prize-winning Purim costume. Not pictured: white fishnets.
Terrified. We all met–me, my then-fiancée, her three sisters, their mother–at this kosher restaurant in midtown Manhattan called My Most Favorite Dessert. It was sheytl city, and I ordered a Grey Goose martini, up, with olives. My fiancée about died; ordering a drink before dinner?!? Only the most goyische thing one could do! My mother-in-law-to-be shot her a look that said, “Oh, I see: Not only a shaygetz, but an alcoholic shaygetz; bravo!” Still trying to warm her up at the end of the meal, I offered to split a slice a cheesecake with her, saying, “No one ever died from eating a little cheesecake.” To which she smiled wryly and said, “Really? I bet the graveyards are full of them.” That said, today, I am by far the favorite son-in-law, because I almost always call her on Friday afternoon to wish her a Good Shabbos. If you want the Godfather’s love and approval, you gotta kiss the ring, lads!
Are there any Jewish things that you find yourself doing with/for your kids that are surprisingly enjoyable (or awful)?
The other day, at Friday night dinner, my elder son, Ezra, who I think I said is just 3, asked to recite the blessing over the challah, and then nailed it. Admittedly, it’s a short one, but I was in nachas overload. So proud. Talk about a “kveller”; I was the uber-kveller: I was so overcome with pride, I could barely see or hear anymore: I was Helen Kveller!
Ok, one more circumcision question: on a scale of paper cut to bullet wound, how badly did it hurt? Would you do it again?
Again with my penis! What is it with you Jewish chicks?
Well, I’ve never been shot, thank God, but I have had a bottle of Miller High Life smashed over my head in a bar fight while a redneck held me in a headlock and ground it into my right ear, back when I was a bouncer in college (again: SO goyische!) and I’ve also gotten a compound wrist fracture from skateboarding (It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s..Supergoy!). The bris was certainly up there with both of those. As any boxing cornerman can tell you, head wounds tend to bleed a lot, but don’t hurt nearly as much. This didn’t bleed a lot, but it hurt like hellfire. Looking back, I would have made sure I had better drugs, definitely opiates. All I had was Tylenol.
On the second day, I was in so much pain, I went to see my doctor. When I told him what happened, he turned ashen faced and gave me about 30 tablets of Vicoprofen (hydrocodone and ibuprofen) and some Cipro on the spot. I was worried that it was infected, and that the pain-killer wasn’t strong enough. He said, “Trust me: I could sew up a dead possum in your chest, and it wouldn’t bother you all that much. Go home. Sleep.” My wife and I both took two tablets each. We sat on the sofa and watched The Newshour with Jim Lehrer on the TiVo. When the recording was over, the screen naturally froze. But we could only stare at it, uncomprehending. Finally, after about 10 unblinking minutes, I slurred to my wife, “Magic box has stopped,” and we went to sleep.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. But wait: I don’t actually have to do it again, do I? I mean, that’s not a thing in Judaism, is it? …is it?
Claude Brodesser-Akner is currently the West Coast Editor for New York magazine’s Vulture entertainment section. An award-winning media and entertainment journalist, he’s been covering industry since 1996, having worked as a reporter for Mediaweek, Variety, a bureau chief at Advertising Age and – don’t hold this against him – as one of the founding bloggers at TMZ. He also created and served five years as the host of the weekly public radio show “The Business” on KCRW, now hosted by Kim Masters. Claude lives in Los Angeles with his hot wife, Taffy, their two children, Ezra and Haskel, and the family goldfish, Bruce.