DATE October 8, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Shalom Auslander, author of "Foreskin's Lament," on
trying to stop believing in God and succeeding logically but not
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Shalom Auslander, has written
a funny and angry memoir about religion. He was raised in an ultra-orthodox
Jewish family in an ultra-orthodox community in the town of Monsey, New York,
which is in the Catskill Mountains. He was brought up with strict rules and
regulations and a belief in a punitive--very punitive--God. His memoir is
about that upbringing and his efforts to stop believing in God or, as he puts
it, "to get the character out of my head, to re-frame him, to move on." The
memoir is called "Foreskin's Lament." Auslander is a regular contributor to
the public radio program "This American Life" and is the author of a 2005
short story collection called "Beware of God."
Shalom Auslander, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to begin with a reading
from your memoir, from the beginning of it.
Mr. SHALOM AUSLANDER: Sure. Here goes.
"When I was a child, my parents and teachers told me about a man who was very
strong. They told me he could destroy the whole world. They told me he could
lift mountains. They told me he could part the sea. It was important to keep
the man happy. When we obeyed what the man had commanded, the man liked us.
He liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn't like us. But when we
didn't obey what he had commanded, he didn't like us. He hated us. Some days
he hated us so much he killed us. Other days he let other people kill us. We
call these days `holidays.'
"On Purim, we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover, we
remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Hanukkah, we remembered how
the Greeks tried to kill us. Blessed is he, we prayed.
"As bad as these punishments could be, they were nothing compared to the
punishments meted out to us by the man himself. Then there would be famines.
Then there would be floods. Then there would be furious vengeance. Hitler
might have killed the Jews, but this man drowned the world. This was the song
we sang about him in kindergarten: `God is here, God is there, God is truly
everywhere.' Then snacks and a fitful nap.
"I was raised like a veal in the orthodox Jewish town of Monsey, New York,
where it was forbidden to eat veal together with dairy. Having eaten veal,
one was forbidden to eat dairy for six hours. Having eaten dairy, one was
forbidden to eat veal for three hours. One was forbidden to eat pig forever,
or at least, until the Messiah arrived. It was then, Rabbi Napier had taught
us in the fourth grade, that the wicked would be punished, the dead would be
resurrected, and pigs would become kosher.
"`Yay!' I said, high-fiving my best friend, Dov.
"`You should be so excited,' said Rabbi Napier, peering with disgust over the
top of his thick horn-rimmed glasses, `on the day of God's judgment.'
"The people of Monsey were terrified of God and they taught me to be terrified
of him, too."
GROSS: That's Shalom Auslander reading from his new memoir, "Foreskin's
Not to get into cheap psychology, but that is kind of like part of my
profession, I think. You grew up with this real angry god, with this idea of
a very angry god. But you also had a angry and punitive father in your home.
So do you think that having an angry father kind of exaggerated the notion of
the angry god and vice versa, that the idea of the angry god made the angry
father seem even more terrifying?
Mr. AUSLANDER: Absolutely. I think it might have been nice if this father
at home was balanced out by a god that my rabbis were telling me was
incredibly kind and forgiving and, hey, it's just a cheeseburger, he'll get
over it. Yeah. But it wasn't that. It was God's taking you out for a
cheeseburger and Dad's going to break your arms if you go in the garage again.
So everything sort of confirmed each other.
And I've been asked that. I've been asked, `do you, you know, your criticism
of religion are obviously all psychological and your ideas of God are just
that, are just based on your father.' And that's fine, but if that's all that
my view of religion is, then the view that religion is wonderful and loving
and kind is equally emotion-based. And I'm OK with both of those things
being. But the people who were saying `you're wrong and God's wonderful'
don't want to believe that their take on it is equally psychological.
GROSS: Now, you grew up in a community in Monsey, New York, which is upstate
New York. It's an area that's part, you know, Hasidic Jewish communities and
part like summer resorts. So growing up in a community that was all like
orthodox Jews, did you feel like that was what everybody else was like, too?
I mean, how insular was the community? Did you know people outside of the
community who were different from you?
Mr. AUSLANDER: I didn't. Not for a very long time. But it's a community
that's surrounded by non-Jewish communities, so you're--you know, Saturdays,
there are no lights on and you walk to synagogue, but there are cars driving
by. So there was this always--for me it was this notion of the people in the
cars. That's kind of how I imagined them. The people in the cars who look at
us and go home and watch television and have a barbecue and I don't get to do
that. So there was an awareness of the world outside, but it was not anything
I knew and I didn't know anyone in it, and it was dealt with pretty harshly by
the people who were training me. It was a world to be laughed at and scorned,
and they have no whatever--guidance or purpose, or they're fools and they
don't know the truth. So it wasn't like, you know, I particularly wanted to
belong to it, based on what they told me.
GROSS: Now, you're a writer. And as you explained in the book, any paper
with one of God's many names on it, one of the many names used for God,
becomes like a holy document. So what were you taught to do with paper that
had God's name on it?
Mr. AUSLANDER: Hm. Well, the problem with--well, first of all, if God's
name was on a piece of paper it has to be buried. It goes into a special box
in the synagogue, and once in however many days, the rabbis take it outside,
dig a hole and bury it. The difficulty that I had was that my name is one of
God's 72 names, so it became very complicated to, for instance, take tests or
write what I did this summer without creating a holy document, which sounds
like something--again, it sounds like not a bad premise for, you know, a
Buster Keaton film or something. But they explained to me that my name was
God's name and that I couldn't therefore write it out completely. In Hebrew
my name is spelled with four letters, and I could only write the first three
letters with a little apostrophe at the end, signifying the last letter.
That's not great for me, because my name went from being Shalom to Shlo, which
was easy to tease me about. But I was also able to sort of write my name on
other kids' papers if they got in my way or bothered me, and then they'd have
to go bring their composition upstairs and bury it in the synagogue.
So these kind of things--like my mother would write in on a lunch bag and I'd
get in trouble. Also, my lunch is in this box, my underpants--anything that
had my name on it was all of a sudden holy.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Shalom Auslander, and
his new memoir "Foreskin's Lament" is about growing up in an ultra-orthodox
Jewish community in the Catskills in New York.
There was a period where you were in Israel. You were sent to a school there
that was basically for kids who had fallen out of the fold and this was
supposed to get them back in line. And it kind of did for a while. Why?
Mr. AUSLANDER: Because I was away from my family. I didn't particularly
like my family, and it worked like any other cult organization works. It
isn't an intellectual change, it's an emotional one. They open up their
houses to the students. I was loved by a new father and a new mother because
the rabbi's there. You ate lunch at their houses. You ate dinner at their
houses. You were the main focus of this entire little town, halfway between
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And when, at home, everybody was either busy killing
each other and can't notice you or is so worried about God killing them that
your behavior is more of a threat than it is anything else, that's incredibly
appealing and it's a really, really, really effective lure.
And so I didn't do very much the first year I was there until the end of the
year when I sort of had gone through this subtle acceptance, and then had to
book a ticket home. And when you're faced with that choice that starkly, it
was stay here and sort of put on the hat and get on the pants and believe, or
go home. Well, that's about the easiest decision I ever had to make.
GROSS: And so what did you do?
Mr. AUSLANDER: I stayed. I wigged out. I bought the hat. I went and
bought a fedora, that's what I did. And I studied 10 hours a day. And I'd
been raised with a lot of that stuff, so I was fairly good at a lot of the
Talmudic back-and-forth and learning and studying and memorizing. And I, you
know, I rose to the top. And they loved me for it. I was the next, you know,
the second or third or fourth coming, whichever they're up to.
GROSS: What did it feel like to, for a short time, really believe and give
yourself over to the faith?
Mr. AUSLANDER: It was great believing it in the beginning because not only
was I accepted by these families, but, you know, `everything's going to be OK.
All you've got to do is stay here in this town and everything's going to be
all right.' And then next week, it's, `OK, all you've got to do is stay here
in this town and not drive on Saturday and pray three times a day and
everything's going to be OK.' And the week after that it's, `well, all you
have to do is stay in this town, not drive on Saturday, pray three times a
day, not eat this, wash your hands before and after, say this blessing, dip
yourself in water at the end of the day and everything's going to be OK.' And
that's just January, you know? And you're there for a year. And these things
just accrue until you don't look like yourself, you don't sound like yourself.
And it's defeating, because ultimately you are not going to sort of pay this
godfather enough to not get angry.
GROSS: My guest is Shalom Auslander. His new memoir is called "Foreskin's
Lament." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Shalom Auslander. His new funny but angry memoir is about
growing up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and later abandoning
So when did you give up on living out the ultra-orthodox Jewish life?
Mr. AUSLANDER: I don't know that I've given up the mindset, which is what
the book is about. In terms of practice, I came back from there. I just kind
of, one day--a number of things happened that I talk about in the book, a
number of incidents. A incredibly sort of sweet, innocent second-year student
came, the year I was there for my second year, and in an incident on a highway
became paralyzed from the neck down. And that kind of threw me, and it didn't
make any sense to me. And my grandfather, who was a very good man, was going
through very hard times. And I started to get exhausted, because belief can
be incredibly exhausting, and I started to get tired of it. And I saw myself
one day in the store window of the hat store that I went to buy my hat, and
just didn't even recognize myself. And something inside said, `You've got to
get out of here. If it's true and if you believe it and if it's all exactly
the way they say it is, then living this way in Manhattan shouldn't change
anything. You know, truth is truth here or there so let me go there and see
if anything changes.' And it did very quickly--as the prostitute I went to the
first week back can attest.
GROSS: Oh, jeez.
Mr. AUSLANDER: That was after going to McDonald's. So it was sort of this
kind of, you know, sin binge that I went on, even though I was still dressing
GROSS: Can I confess to you what this reminded me of when I was reading about
you returning home and going to the prostitute and binging on un-kosher fast
foods and stuff and...
Mr. AUSLANDER: Your life?
GROSS: No! No, what I was thinking of was the something like the 9/11
hijackers who apparently, before getting on the planes to, you know, ram into
the towers and the Pentagon...
Mr. AUSLANDER: Hm. Right.
GROSS: ...went to these like strip clubs.
Mr. AUSLANDER: Yeah.
GROSS: You know, that's what I was thinking about.
Mr. AUSLANDER: Yeah, yeah. That was because of all of those connections.
That was a real...
GROSS: And not because I expected you to fly into, you know, a building.
Just because of that sense of this kind of pent-up feeling that is not allowed
to be expressed
Mr. AUSLANDER: Right.
GROSS: And that kind of sneaks out in ways...
Mr. AUSLANDER: Sure.
GROSS: ...that are, you know, sometimes pretty sordid because it's the only
sneaky way you can get them out, you know. Yeah.
Mr. AUSLANDER: Sure. I mean--in fact, I looked--to me, it was--I did see
that and think, I wasn't that far. Not just the stripper but, I mean, the
flying planes into building. I mean, believing what I believed, if enough
people had told me that my people were suffering for a certain reason and this
was not only cool with God but it was something he wanted, and I had no other
options and whatever else was going on, I'm not sure I wouldn't be there. I'm
not sure--I think I could get my head around that. Like, I just, I feel like
I can get there. And religion gives you an entire philosophy that leads up to
it, even if the moderates refuse to accept that.
I watched and heard about all those--of all the terrorists and got a little
frightened, got a little--I'm not--I can see getting there. And when the news
programs finally started showing pictures of madrassas and seeing these little
kids, you know, shuffling back and forth with these books in front of them,
then well, it's not that different than Yeshiva of Spring Valley was.
Different books and a different dress code, but other than that, everything
was pretty much the same.
GROSS: You know, there are going to be people who are going to be very angry
hearing you say that and completely disagree with you, don't you think?
Mr. AUSLANDER: Sure.
GROSS: I mean, do you think there's people who had a completely different
experience of it than you did?
Mr. AUSLANDER: I think so, yeah. I'm not--and that's why I said, I'm not
that concerned with theology at this point. This is what I experienced.
Mr. AUSLANDER: This is what I was told. I had no--I gain nothing by
exaggerating any of this stuff. I think if anyone's upset about it and they
read the book, honestly, they'll see that I'm not going out of my way to twist
anything around. And there's enough people from Judaism and from Christianity
and Islam who will say this is very, very, very similar to the things they
were taught and the things they were told. But if there are people who have
great experiences with it, I don't have any problem with it either. But that
doesn't negate or cancel out everything I was told.
GROSS: There's a short passage I want you to read from your memoir,
"Foreskin's Lament." It's on page 72.
Mr. AUSLANDER: (Reading) "The people who raised me will say that I am not
religious. They are mistaken. What I am not is observant. But I am
painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious, and I have watched
lately, dumbfounded and distraught, as around the world more and more people
seem to be finding gods, each one more hateful and bloodthirsty than the next,
as I'm doing my best to lose him. I'm failing miserably. I believe in God.
It's been a real problem for me."
GROSS: In what sense, like, are you having trouble getting away from God even
though you've stopped practicing religion and you don't believe anymore?
Mr. AUSLANDER: The trouble is that all of the things that I can do to get
rid of him are intellectual, and all of the things that put him inside of me
are emotional. The Jesuits have an incredibly creepy expression: "Give me a
boy until he's seven and I'll show you the man." And they know the score.
They know that getting in there early and twisting the wires up makes it very
difficult later in life to untwist them, which is what gets me incredibly
angry when people representing those people will say, `You should grow up.
You should ignore it. You should get a new idea of God' when they're the ones
who went in there that early and crisscrossed everything.
And so, I can read everything. I can read Spinoza and I can read Hitchens and
I can read every book ever written about religion and the secular world and
just how silly it all is, and I'll put the book down and I'll wonder where my
son is and I'll assume he's dead.
GROSS: In addition to trying to get God out of your life and finding that you
can't do it even though you've stopped believing and certainly have stopped
practicing, you've tried divorcing yourself from your parents, too. Why did
you want to do that, and how successful have you been?
Mr. AUSLANDER: I've been successful in that regard. Most of that was
because they made me a very angry person. There was--you need things from
parents, and when you don't get them and when you get the opposite, it hurts.
But the real hurt is, for me anyway--and it does connect to religion in a
way--the real hurt was continuing and insisting on believing in a myth that
wasn't true. And that that myth, in family terms, was that we were a good
family, that we all loved each other. And insisting that that was true caused
a lot of pain and made the breaking away very slow and very painful. You
know, going to houses of my siblings or my parents for holidays when they
clearly resented the way I was, they didn't like who I'd become, they wished I
was somebody else. But they're inviting me because that's what families do,
and I'm going because that's what a son does was tortuous.
And I got to a point in my life where I looked at the world currently around
me, and that included an amazing marriage to an incredible woman, a job that I
was at least successful in, if not happy in, a psychiatrist who is on my side
and trying to help me. And every one of those things was at risk by staying
in touch with a family that didn't really like me all that much, because I
became very angry, and our marriage in the early years was very difficult
because I insisted on believing that my old family was still there. And it
wasn't until I said, `OK, well it's us'-- meaning me and my wife--`or them'
that the decision became clear.
GROSS: Shalom Auslander's new memoir is called "Foreskin's Lament." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Shalom Auslander. His
new funny but angry memoir, "Foreskin's Lament," is about growing up in an
ultra-orthodox Jewish family in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community. The book
is also about how he eventually abandoned religion. When we left off, he was
talking about how, after he stopped practicing Judaism, he divorced himself
from his ultra-orthodox parents and siblings.
You write that after you got married and you had a son, you were afraid that
the baby would bring your family back into your life. So if you were afraid
of bringing your family--and by that I mean, like, your parents and siblings
back into your life, how do you prevent that from happening after you have a
baby, which everybody in the family would obviously want to see?
Mr. AUSLANDER: By defending the walls of our family. It was a big part of
our discussion, going through the pregnancy and birth of how do we do this?
And I remember saying to my psychiatrist, who was saying, you know, `this is
important for you to do, to keep this distance,' I wasn't sure I could be that
much of a--and I'm not sure of what the word is to use, but I wasn't sure I
could be that kind of person. And he assured me that I could be, even though
in my head it was a bad thing to do.
But it becomes, you know--anybody with a child wants to have their family in
their lives, but it was also a point where I knew that family wasn't going to
be good for me and it was going to be incredibly bad for my son. I did not
want him to be around the person that I was when I was angry. We had
a--because neither of us are in contact with our families, we had birth doula
help us and a post-birth doula. And I remember the birth doula, when we first
met her, sort of asking us if we'd have parents there at the birth, and I
said, `No, we don't speak to our family.' And she said, `Oh, that's very sad.'
And very quickly I said, `Well, it's not as sad as when we do.' And that's the
truth. It's not something you want to do, but you're faced with a decision,
the lesser of two pains.
GROSS: You know, your memoir's called "Foreskin's Lament," and part of what
your memoir's about is deciding whether or not you wanted to circumcise your
son. And of course circumcision is, you know, like part of what signifies you
as Jewish. It's like the most basic of ceremonies for male babies, and of
course a lot of people just get circumcised even if they're not Jewish, like
in the hospital. It must have been a really hard decision for you to make.
Mr. AUSLANDER: It was incredibly difficult. And it was at that point, or
afterward, that I realized that that's really what the book was about. I'd
spent most of the time writing stories that took place in the past and I was
furious. I was absolutely furious when, here I was, my wife and I had been
married 15 years before we had a son, trying to work out all of the problems
that we each had--and they were considerable--and we get to a point where
we're hiking through the woods one day with our dogs and it's a beautiful day
out and we're incredibly happy and we say, `Let's share this with somebody'
and we decide to have a child. And then I was enraged that when a nurse
turned to me and said, `It's a boy,' it turned my life upside down. I wasn't
sitting there saying, `Oh, I can't wait to get him a little Rangers uniform'
or `It's going to be so much fun playing football with him' or `Isn't it going
to be great having a little boy?' Instead what my mind became incredibly
occupied with was, `Do I mutilate this kid or don't I?'
And I was furious that because a maniac 6,000 years ago did this and someone
wrote a story about it, here I was--and the joy of becoming a father was
utterly overwhelmed by this process, this decision. And I didn't get to enjoy
the prospect of being a father. It was this craziness from the past coming
out and stealing something that should have been purely joyous.
GROSS: You really do have a lot of anger.
Mr. AUSLANDER: Yes. It's charming, isn't it? You know, anger gets a bad
rap. I think anger gets a bad rap. It's not--anger was bad for me when I was
self-inflicting it on myself, when I was turning it against my wife, who I
wasn't angry at because I was afraid to point the gun at the people who
deserved it, when I was afraid to express it properly. But everything I read
that I like, all the music I like, all the comedians I like, everything I like
comes from that place, and why shouldn't it? We're afraid of it. We're
terrified of it.
GROSS: So, you know, would you tell our listeners whether or not you decided
to circumcise your son?
Mr. AUSLANDER: I think it's very funny that talking about my son's willy
ruins the book. So his name is Pax, and if you're listening to this in 20
years, apologies ahead of time. But the birth was difficult. We didn't
decide. We went into labor--isn't that great how I say, "We went into labor"
like I had to do all the work, we went into labor not knowing what we were
going to do. And our son kind of had a very difficult time getting into this
world, and without going into too many details, I was afraid that God might
make it very easy for him to leave. And it was right after that, right after
he was born and everything was sort of OK, after a very harrowing few hours,
that a doctor came in and asked if we were going to circumcise. And we looked
at each other and my wife shrugged and I shrugged, and then I thought, `I'm
not messing around with this guy right now.' There's this tiny little boy
hooked up to a bunch of tubes. And I said, `Yeah, we will.'
And I also mention in the book that the next day, or a few hours after that--I
think it was the next day--they came and they took his little, you know,
sealed cart that he was in and rolled him down the hall and did it and I
couldn't watch. I walked out and heard him screaming, and I say in the book
that the moment my son became a Jew was the moment I felt least like one.
GROSS: Well, Shalom Auslander, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. AUSLANDER: Thank you.
GROSS: Shalom Auslander's new memoir is called "Foreskin's Lament."
Coming up, A.J. Jacobs, a secular Jew, spends a year trying to follow the
Bible's rules as literally as possible. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: A.J. Jacobs, author of "The Year of Living Biblically,"
on spending a year trying to follow the rules of the Bible as
literally as possible
TERRY GROSS, host:
A.J. Jacobs says he was agnostic before he even knew what the word meant. He
was brought up in a secular Jewish family. He describes his encounters with
the Bible as brief and superficial, but for one year he took on a kind of
extreme project, to follow every rule in the Bible as literally as possible.
Jacobs' new memoir is called "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble
Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible." His previous memoir, "The
Know-It-All," was about reading all the volumes of the "Encyclopedia
Britannica" from cover to cover. Jacobs is an editor at large at Esquire.
Let's start with a reading from the beginning of "The Year of Living
Mr. A.J. JACOBS: (Reading) "My quest has been this: to live the ultimate
biblical life. Or, more precisely, to follow the Bible as literally as
possible. To obey the Ten Commandments, to be fruitful and multiple, to love
my neighbor, to tithe my income, but also to abide by the oft-neglected rules,
to avoid wearing clothes of mixed fibers, to stone adulterers, and, naturally,
to leave the edges of my beard unshaven, Leviticus 19:27.
"I'm trying to obey the entire Bible, without picking and choosing.
"To back up, I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am
officially Jewish but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an
Italian restaurant, which is to say not very. I attended no Hebrew school,
ate no matzoh. The closest my family came to observing Judaism was that
paradoxical classic of assimilation, a star of David on top of our Christmas
"For a long time, I thought that religion, for all the good that it does,
seemed too risky for our modern world, the potential for abuse too high. I
figured it would slowly fade away like other archaic things. Science was on
the march. Someday soon we'd all be living in a neo-Enlightenment paradise
where every decision was made with steely, Spock-like logic.
"As you might have noticed, I was spectacularly mistaken. The influence of
the Bible and religion as a whole remains a mighty force, perhaps even
stronger than it was when I was a kid. So in the last few years, religion has
become my fixation. Is half the world suffering from a massive delusion, or
is my blindness to spirituality a huge defect in my personality? What if I'm
missing out on part of being human, like a guy who goes through life without
ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love. And most important, I now have a
young son. If my lack of religion is a flaw, I don't want to pass it on to
him. So I knew I wanted to explore religion. I just needed to figure out
GROSS: That's A.J. Jacobs, reading from his new book "The Year of Living
You know, the book is pretty funny, but did you start this project at all as a
goof, as a humor book, or were you serious about really wanting to find out
more about religion?
Mr. JACOBS: I like to dive in headfirst into my projects, and religion
really is the most fascinating thing to me right now, so I realize there is
some humor to it, and hopefully it's entertaining, but I also wanted to
explore religion and figure out what value it has, if any, to my life.
GROSS: One of the things you did was grow a beard and not cut it. What does
the Bible have to say about that?
Mr. JACOBS: Well, yes, the Bible says in Leviticus that you should not cut
the corners of your beard, so by the end I had this hedgehog on my chin. I
didn't know that I would grow such a big beard, but my wife wouldn't kiss me
for the last two months.
GROSS: You say you looked somewheres between Moses, Abe Lincoln and Ted
Kaczynski. It must have felt almost like--you know, you were living this new
life following the Bible, you know, literally, and you were looking like a
different person at the same time, too. So just as when an actor puts on the
costume to play a part, did you feel like you had physically transformed
yourself and you were living a new life and it was helping you get into
Mr. JACOBS: I did. I did feel like I was a new person. And one of the
fascinating things that I learned from my year was that behavior affects
belief in a more profound way than I had thought. The outer affects the
inner. So when I started to act like a good person, a biblical person and not
covet and not gossip and not lie, I think I actually became a little bit of a
better person. You know, I'm not Ghandi or Angelina Jolie, but I think I took
some strides. Because you can't act in a certain way without becoming that
GROSS: One of the basic things that you did was follow the Ten Commandments,
which includes not lying. Was that hard to do? I mean, we all tell a lot of
like little lies.
Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, it was astounding just how much I lied. And, you know,
you don't really notice it until you start to pay attention to it. And not
lying was an amazing experience. It was incredibly difficult. I didn't
realize how much I lied as a parent. You know, `No, sorry, the TV's broken.
No, the toy store's closed. We can't buy a toy.' So when you start to tell
nothing but the truth, it makes parenting much more difficult. Perhaps it has
a long-term benefits, like your child will trust you more, but there's
certainly short-term disadvantages.
GROSS: You kept kosher. What were some of the most mystifying dietary laws
in the Hebrew Bible that you tried to follow?
Mr. JACOBS: Well, it's interesting. There's the--you know, you're not
supposed to eat pork and not supposed to eat shellfish. But I thought it was
interesting. There is--you are allowed to eat crickets, grasshoppers and
locusts. So I took advantage of that loophole.
GROSS: Those aren't officially part of the kosher laws, right? I mean...
Mr. JACOBS: Oh, yeah, they are.
GROSS: They are? OK.
Mr. JACOBS: In Leviticus it specifies these three insects. And that was one
of the interesting things to me, was encountering all these laws that were
seemingly bizarre and obscure and arcane and trying to figure out what they
meant at the time, why they exist, and do they have any relevance to our lives
now. And the locust one seems crazy, but I read some research on it and it
was--at the time, if you think about it, if a plague of locusts has eaten your
entire crop, then what do you have left to eat? Nothing. So the Bible, in an
act of mercy and wisdom, has allowed you to eat locusts. I ate them myself
and did not find them so tasty. Crunchy, but I don't think I would continue
GROSS: During most of your year of living biblically, you had only one child,
and your son was a toddler. And you read things in the Bible, like two
excerpts of Proverbs, `That shalt beat him with a rod and shalt deliver his
soul from hell.' Or "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him
with a rod, he will not die.' So how did reading Proverbs and other parts of
the Old Testament affect you as a parent of a toddler?
Mr. JACOBS: Well, it was interesting. I mean, I'm opposed to corporal
punishment, so I had trouble doing that. For that one, I tried to follow the
letter of the law and hit my son with a sort of a Nerf rod, a very soft Nerf
rod, which kind of backfired because he thought that was very funny. But it
was interesting learning about parenting from the Bible, because if you think
of, in the Bible, the God of the Bible is the ultimate parent and humans are
his children. And he treats them with a mixture of mercy and justice, and
there's a balance there. And I think that, as a parent, I was far too on the
mercy side. I was a total pushover. So it was interesting to try to be a
little more disciplined with my children.
GROSS: Is that something that you've kept? Do you still feel that, as a
result of studying the Bible, that you are more of a disciplinarian with your
children, or at least not a pushover anymore?
Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, not a pushover. I don't know if I could call myself a
disciplinarian. But yeah, that was one of the things. I mean, there
were--I'd say it changed me. The project changed me in a more profound way
than any of my previous projects. I've done a lot of these projects where I
immerse myself in something, but this one was definitely the most
transforming. For instance, I feel I'm a lot more thankful. I think about
the 100 little things that go right every day instead of focusing on the three
or four that go wrong. And even on down to my wardrobe. The Bible says in
Ecclesiastes, `You shall always where white garments," and I decided to take
this literally. So I looked sort of like Tom Wolfe much of the time walking
around New York, and it was great because I felt happier. I felt more pure.
I mean, there's something--again, the outer affects the inner, so I couldn't
feel in a bad mood when I looked like I was about to play the semi-finals at
GROSS: With a long beard?
Mr. JACOBS: With a long--yeah. I definitely got a lot of second looks
because I had my beard, my white clothes, my sandals. By the end I was
wearing a robe.
Mr. JACOBS: Yes, outside.
GROSS: Now, there were some aspects of the Bible, when you were trying to
follow the rules in the Bible literally, that were quite perplexing, like
stoning adulterers. I mean, how did you deal with the stoning aspect of it?
Mr. JACOBS: Well, that one was--I did try to stone an adulterer, because I
felt capital punishment is such a large part of the Old Testament. So I was
walking around in the park in my full biblical attire, and an elderly man came
up to me--he was in his 70s--and he said, `Why are you dressed so weird?' And
I said, `Well, I'm trying to follow all the Bible from the Ten Commandments
right on down to stoning adulterers.' And he said, `Well, I'm an adulterer.
Are you going to stone me?' And I said, `Well, yes, that would be great.'
So I took a handful of pebbles out of my pocket which I had been carrying
around just for this occasion--because the Bible doesn't specify the size of
the stones, so I felt that was my loophole--and the elderly man actually
grabbed the pebbles out of my hand and threw them at my face. So I figured an
eye for an eye. I was justified in tossing a pebble back at him. And in that
way, I stoned--and it was actually, you know, it was sort of humorous, but at
the same time, it was very intense. It was a very intense confrontation.
GROSS: My guest is A.J. Jacobs. His new memoir is called "The Year of
Living Biblically." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is writer A.J. Jacobs and his memoir is called "The Year of
Living Biblically." It's about a year that he spent trying to follow the Bible
as literally as possible in terms of following all the commandments and the
rules. And he did this eight months with the Old Testament, four months with
There's another perplexing aspect of the Old Testament that, you know, a
menstruating woman is impure and there are certain sanctions surrounding her.
What are some of those sanctions, and how did you deal with them?
Mr. JACOBS: Yes, well, the purity laws were very difficult to deal with, and
my wife did not like them very much at all. You're not allowed to touch women
during impure times of the month, but more than that, you're not allowed to
sit on a seat where an impure woman has sat, so that ruled out most of the
seats in New York, you know, the subways and the restaurants. So I started to
carry my own chair around with me because I knew it would be pure. And my
wife, as sort of revenge, when she was in her impurity, sat on every seat in
our house so that I spent much of my time at home standing.
GROSS: How did you handle "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"?
Mr. JACOBS: Well, that was difficult as well. One of the fascinating things
about my project was learning just how different the words of the literal
Bible are from the interpretations that has built up over thousands of years.
So "an eye for an eye," if you talk to an Orthodox Jew, they say, `That
doesn't really mean an eye for an eye. That means you should pay the money
equivalent to an eye if you pluck it out. You should pay the victim blood
money.' So luckily I didn't have my eye plucked out, but if I had, I probably
would have demanded money instead of plucking the other person's eye out.
GROSS: You raise an interesting point here, which is, in reading the Bible
you learned that there were many different translations out there. You had to
choose which Bible you were going to read and follow, but were there parts of
the Bible that had different interpretations that gave these passages a
completely different meaning than you thought and made you see the Bible in a
different way than you ever had before?
Mr. JACOBS: Well, absolutely. I mean, that was one of my favorite parts,
was to see how the meanings had evolved over the years. And one of the most
striking examples of this is that there's a literal verse in the Bible that
says, `You cannot eat a baby goat that has been boiled in its mother's milk.'
So if you take that literally as I did, you know, I was able to follow that.
Somehow I was able to resist eating a baby goat boiled in its mother's milk
for an entire year. But the interpretations that have built up around it, in
Judaism especially, that has turned into `you shall not mix milk and meat,'
and that's why you cannot have a cheeseburger if you're following kosher laws.
So it was really interesting just to see the evolution of the Bible.
GROSS: During the year that you were trying to live as biblically as possible
and follow all the commandments and rules in the Bible, you know, you had your
long beard as the Bible says you should and you were dressing in white and
sometimes wearing a robe outside, sandals. Did anybody think that you were
Mr. JACOBS: Well, I thought I would get more of that, and I'm not exactly
sure why I didn't. I think part of it was that I really did go in with an
open mind trying to understand religion. And even when I went to visit the
creationists, they were very open and sharing about their point of view, which
I disagreed with, and wrote about how I disagreed with it, but I tried not to
mock them. Because, you know, I just tried to understand what they were
saying even if I rejected it. And there were--I will say there were times
when people had hostility. I was walking down the street one day with my robe
and this guy just gave me the finger, and I don't know why. I mean, maybe he
was reading Richard Dawkins. I don't know. But he seemed offended just by my
GROSS: What impact did it have on you as a writer to read the Bible very
carefully, Old and New Testament?
Mr. JACOBS: Well, I would say that the part of the Bible that's probably my
favorite part is called Ecclesiastes, and the writing is so poetic and
beautiful, and the metaphors--they used things like chasing the wind. It's so
difficult it's like chasing the wind. Or grasping at the wind, which I love.
And I also...
GROSS: I thought Donovan was the first person to say that. Oh.
Mr. JACOBS: Yeah. Oh yeah. Maybe they stole it from Donovan. But
Ecclesiastes is amazing as well because it's so modern and it's almost
agnostic. It talks about how we can't know--even people who have lived these
great lives, these moral lives, they can still be punished and have a horrible
life, and we don't--we can't understand it. So the best that we can do is to
eat and drink and enjoy the good things that God has given us and to enjoy
honest labor and live as honestly as we can. Which I think, you know,
really--it's almost an epicurean side to the Bible. To enjoy life and try to
GROSS: Well, A.J. Jacobs, thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. JACOBS: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: A.J. Jacobs is the author of the new memoir "The Year of Living
You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
We have some great news to end the show. Less than 24 hours after leaving
work on Friday, our very pregnant producer, Ann Marie Baldonado, had her baby.
We want to welcome Amelia Jane Swedlock into the world and congratulate Ann
Marie and her husband, Rick Swedlock. We're so happy for you both. But, Ann
Marie, we'll miss you while you're gone.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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