Living the good life

By Pamela H. Sacks


He tried very hard not to gossip or covet or wear mixed fibers. Journalist and author A.J. Jacobs did blow a horn on the first of each month, tithe his wages and stone an adulterer.

Jacobs spent a year following some 700 rules set out in the Bible – the Ten Commandments, to be sure, but also many of the more obscure tenets – in his quest to examine spirituality and religion. His beard grew so long and unruly that his wife refused to kiss him for the last two months of his experiment.

Wearing all white all the time, on the other hand, made Jacobs feel lighter and more spiritual.

“I was one of two or three people wearing white in New York,” Jacobs said with a laugh. “It made me aware of how much the outer affects the inner and how much behavior affects your thoughts. If you act like a better person, you will become a better person.”

Jacobs kept a daily record and then put together a sometimes surprising and often hilarious account of his experiences, which included visits to the Amish in Pennsylvania and the Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” (Simon & Schuster, $25) was published last October to rave reviews.

Jacobs, an editor-at-large for Esquire, will give a talk and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Beechwood Hotel, 363 Plantation St., Worcester. The event is sponsored by the Worcester JCC, Westboro Area JCC and Clark University Hillel and is free and open to the public. The presentation will be followed by a dessert reception.

Jacobs, 39, was raised a secular Jew in New York City and always considered himself an agnostic. He wondered if he was missing something, particularly after he started having a family. He started his search for an answer by reading many different versions of the Bible and then drew up his lengthy list of rules. He gathered a roster of religious experts to whom he could turn for advice.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Jacobs said by telephone from his home in Manhattan. “I didn’t know how radically it would affect my life – the way I ate, and talked, and thought, and hugged my wife. It was a total religious makeover.”

As Jacobs’ beard grew long and bushy, he got at least one ZZ Top or Ted Kaczinsky comment a day. The prohibition against gossiping was really tough to follow, he said. He often turned to his experts on what exactly constituted gossip.

“There is an Orthodox hot line for gossip,” Jacobs remarked. “If you have the urge, you can call this number and they’ll talk you down from the edge.”

One day, Jacobs was walking in the park in full biblical attire. A 75-year-old man asked him what he was doing.

“I explained that I was trying to abide by all the rules of the Bible, including stoning adulterers,” Jacobs writes. “He said, `I’m an adulterer. You gonna stone me?’ And I said, `Well, yes, that would be great.’ I showed him some pebbles from my pocket that I had stored for just this occasion. He grabbed the pebbles out of my hand and whipped them at me. So I decided, an eye for an eye. And tossed one at him. And in that way I stoned.”

Jacobs said that he had wondered how the Bible could be so wise and compassionate in some places and so barbaric in others. He tried to do it all, he said, and “ended up looking like a crazy person.”

“I believe there are amazing and life-changing and wise, wonderful things in the Bible – and also some things that are outdated,” Jacobs said. “I’m not a saint, Gandhi or Angelina Jolie – take your pick. I’m a slightly better person, so I’m really glad I did the experiment.”

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