Jewish Journal


October 18, 2007

Books: ‘The Year of Living Biblically’ includes a beard, snakes and peaches


A.J. Jacobs beard progression during his year of living biblically. Photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster

A.J. Jacobs beard progression during his year of living biblically. Photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Remember Amelia Bedelia? She's the bumbling housekeeper of the beloved children's books of the 1970s by Peggy Parish who took all instructions literally, so when her list said she should "draw the drapes," she took out her pen and paper and drew a picture of the drapes. When it said, "dust the furniture," Amelia Bedelia, perplexed but obedient, sprinkled dust all around the room. In the end, she was saved from unemployment because of her fabulous lemon meringue pies, as well as the fact that she was truly endearing.

But in real life, people who take things literally are often annoying.

That's an initial reaction to Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacob's quest in his new book, "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible" (Simon and Schuster, $25).

He's going to take the Bible literally, I'm thinking for the first quarter of the book. Why doesn't he just become Orthodox? After all, Jacobs is Jewish. He's of the "High Holy Days, 20-minute Passover seder" Jews but a Jew nonetheless. Why doesn't he just follow the path of the increasing ba'alei teshuva, returnees to the faith, who have taken on a tradition that's been hammered out for centuries by rabbis and scholars who are far more knowledgeable? (Not to say that Jacobs isn't smart -- his last book, "The Know-It-All," catalogued his year reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. But that can't compare to scholars who study Talmud 24 hours a day, six days a week.)

In these objections, I am echoed by Jacobs' Aunt Kate, the black sheep of his secular family, who became Orthodox after marrying the cultish weirdo and now ex-Uncle Gil, one of the many ultrareligious characters who spice up the book. (The still-Orthodox Kate is more of an affront to his ultrasecular mother, who spits at a Chasid and scoffs at those on the religious extreme, than Aunt Marni, a vegan hippie, an extremist at the other end of the spectrum.)

"It's misguided," Kate tells her nephew. "You need the oral law. You can't just obey the written law. It doesn't make sense without the oral law."

But it makes sense for Jacobs, whose "religion," first and foremost, is rugged individualism. An atheist (even though he calls himself agnostic, for most of the book he struggles with the existence of God), whose faith in science, evolution and rationalism trumps tradition, Jacobs decides he must figure out how to follow the Bible -- both Jewish and Christian -- on his own.

Yes, he does have a spiritual advisory board, including rabbis, ministers and priests (and also informally comes to include the kindly Mr. Berkowitz, an inspector for shatnez, the commandment to not wear clothes made of a wool and linen blend, one of the top five perplexing biblical commandments Jacobs tackles). And Jacobs does have dozens, if not hundreds of books, Web sites and religious experts to consult, not to mention a humorous and comprehensive Esquire-like index: "Berkowitz, Mr. (Bill), AJ chided for missing prayers by," p 250. But he's going to do it himself because it's his visit to the spiritual world, an opportunity to discover his possible "hidden, mystical side."

"If I wanted to understand my forefathers, this year would let me live like they did but with less leprosy," he writes.

The year of living biblically would also let him explore biblical literalism, which 33 percent to 55 percent of Americans follow, according to Jacobs' research.

"But my suspicion was that almost everyone's literalism consisted of picking and choosing.... Not me," Jacobs thinks at the outset of his journey. "I would do exactly what the Bible said, and in so doing, I'd discover what's great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated."

Most importantly, Jacobs is doing it on his own because he needs a book.

And if ever there was a moment in time -- and in American publishing -- for a book about living the Bible, this is it.

God is hip right now -- whether God's "Not Great" (Christopher Hitchens), a "Delusion" (Richard Dawkins) or a "Failed Hypothesis" (Victor J. Stenger) -- God is the cause for all good/evil in the world.

Which is what some believers and practitioners of religion might initially find annoying about Jacobs' quest: He's doing it for a book, like a game with his own rules (finding the original intent). He doesn't much believe in God, although he'd like to, so for him, the whole endeavor is much like reading the encyclopedia, except he wears kooky white clothes and grows a beard of such proportions it has to wear a hair mask in the hospital delivery room. It's just a stunt.

Or is it? "You're dealing with explosive stuff," one of his spiritual advisers cautions, adding that it's going to be hard to be objective. "People a lot smarter than you have devoted their lives to this. So you have to admit there is a possibility that you will be profoundly changed by the end."

One certainly hopes so. In the beginning of the book, Jacobs seems like a cheeky, narcissistic twit more obsessed with the state of his facial hair and his rankings on Amazon than anyone remotely interested in anything resembling a spiritual quest. Yes, he's really funny -- in that Jon Stewart/Beavis and Butt-head way -- but he's not necessarily the nicest human being on the planet.

But you know who is a saint? Jacobs' wife, Julie. With one toddler son and twins on the way during this quest, how she puts up with her husband's disorderly beard -- and conduct -- is nothing short of a miracle. It seems like the only thing she gains is the superpower to get answers to the question, "What are you thinking about?" when Jacobs really decides to stop all lying.

And his quest to take things literally often seems antithetical to religion. For example, when he tells his wife he can't take the dirty diapers to the trash -- "I use the Sabbath to weasel out of household tasks" -- he's reminiscent of the thousands of people who are so rigid in their practice (say, praying three times a day) they might miss the bigger picture (helping their wives, spending time with their family). But as he lives his journey of the Bible, he can't remain 100 percent literal (be fruitful and multiply doesn't mean "loading up on peaches at Whole Foods Market" and "helping my niece with her algebra homework," he writes), and he certainly can't remain who he was when he began.

The book is divided by 12 months of the year and subdivided by biblical commandments, from the mainstream commandments not to kill, lie, cheat or steal to the more obscure ones of blowing the trumpet at the new moon, snake handling and stoning the sinners (for which he finds a self-proclaimed adulterer in the park to dribble pebbles at). He spends eight months on the Torah and four on the Christian Bible, amasses a list of 700 rules, spends a night with the Amish, dances with Chasidim on Simchat Torah, tours the Creation Museum in Kentucky and just for good measure goes to a meeting with the New York City Atheists.

But Jacobs doesn't only spend time with those on the fringes of religion (gay evangelicals, Samaritans and Red Letter Christians [literal adherence to Jesus' teachings]) and on the obscure laws. Somewhere along the way -- as he prays three times a day, gives thanks to God for every mundane occurrence, gives more charity, watches his words and stops working on the Sabbath -- he actually seems to become a better person: less self-involved, more caring, more emotional for sure and, at times, even spiritual. Some days he even believes in God. "I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred," he says toward the end of the quest.

Does A.J. convert to his spiritual alter ego, Jacob? Will he wear dirty white garments for the rest of his life and let his beard take over his apartment? Of course not.

His project comes to an end -- the 12 months are up, his wife has just given birth, his book must be published -- but it's not clear there will be an end to his quest.

Because it's a human quest -- to find spirituality, to discover God, to figure out how to be in this world and how to raise one's children -- it's also an age-old Jewish quest -- searching for answers, questioning God, studying oneself (obsessively, humorously, sincerely and irreverently). Yup, all Jewish.

So while the book, which is categorized as "humor," may explain religion in a palatable way to the many secular rationalists in the Blue States who would never understand it from a religious person's point of view, "The Year of Living Biblically" can remind even the faithful, even those who "pick and choose" their levels of observance, why they do what they do. And that's not annoying.

A.J. Jacobs will be appearing at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Saturday, Oct. 27, 4 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.vromansbookstore.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp.

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