Five Minutes with A.J. Jacobs
The author of life-experiment books dishes on the downfalls of not speaking Hebrew and why you should lie to your kids
How many kids do you have and what are their names and ages?
I have three boys. Jasper is 6, and Zane and Lucas--the twins--are 4.
Is sleep training cruel?
We tried the Ferberizing. But we were pretty lax about it, since I can’t stomach my kids crying. To use Jewish lingo, we were Reform Ferberists. Maybe even Reconstructionist.
What books do you like to read to your kids?
Anything that’s not a tie-in to a Nickelodeon cartoon. But sadly, the TV tie-in seems to be their literature of choice. Sometimes I can sneak in a book with non-televised characters, like Flat Stanley and anything by Mo Willems.
Do you plan to (or do you already) send your kids to Hebrew School? And if so, do they enjoy it?
My kids actually spent last year at Jewish day school. They do enjoy it. I don’t speak Hebrew, and they love having the edge on me. I can’t prove it, but I have a suspicion that they mock my parenting strategies to my face and then laugh later at my ignorance.
Is there any Jewish thing that your family did when you were a kid that you don't want to do with your kids?
My family was aggressively un-Jewish. No seders, no bar mitzvahs. We did put a Star of David on top of the Christmas tree, as a nod to our forefathers. But that was it. With my kids, I’m celebrating Hanukkah for the first time, and I love it.
Partly for its length. Eight days of Jewish-themed fun. In terms of gift-giving, I prefer that to the single-day tsunami of gifts at Christmas. Though the original Christmas--with its impressive 12 days--that was 50 percent more holiday than Hanukkah.
Did you pick up any good (or horrendous) parenting tips from the Bible while researching A Year of Living Biblically?
A little bit of both. The Bible has some great wisdom--such as don’t play favorites, or the non-favorites will throw the favorite brother in a ditch. But some parts--especially the Proverbs--have some seriously atavistic advice. Like ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’ I was living biblically, so I felt I had to actually hit my kid with a rod. The best I could muster was to hit him with a Nerf rod I bought on the Internet. Which he thought was hilarious. Then he’d hit me back with a Whiffle bat. So I was basically sanctioning violence, which wasn’t my intent.
One of your experiments in My Life as an Experiment was to be completely honest and speak whatever was on your mind for an entire month. How did this go over when speaking with your kids?
It was a major disaster. And also revelatory. I realized how much of my parenting was based on lies. As in: “Sorry, we can’t go to the toy store today, it’s closed.” Or “Oh no, looks like we’re out of fruit rolls again!” When I started telling them the truth 100 percent of the time, chaos and tantrums ensued. The key, I believe, is balance: Lies are a wonderful parenting tool, but should be used with moderation. You don’t want to lose their trust when they figure out that TVs don’t actually break down every three days.
Do you have any idea what's in kreplach?
No idea. My grandfather used to tell a story--probably apocryphal--about Marilyn Monroe’s first Passover with Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller’s mom said, ‘Would you like some matzah ball soup?’ And Marilyn was horrified. “But what do they do with the rest of the matzah?” So maybe that’s what’s in kreplach. The non-ball part of the matzah.
Are you a kveller?
Absolutely. I started by boasting about my oldest son’s Apgar score (8 out of 10! His pulse and activity were through the roof! He had a little trouble with the grimace, but who doesn’t?) and it hasn’t stopped since.
--Interview by Molly Tolsky