Arthur Magida’s memories of his bar mitzvah have little to do with the thrill of reading from the Torah in front of his congregation or “becoming a man” in the eyes of his religion. Mostly they concern wearing an itchy suit and being yelled at a lot.
In 1999, nearly a half-century after his own “dud” of a bar mitzvah— and his friends’ bar mitzvahs, at which none seemed particularly happy, except about the big pile of presents— Magida, author of several non-fiction books and a former editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, sat in the congregation at the bat mitzvah of a cousin’s daughter and wondered: Does anyone have a meaningful, transformative, initiation experience?
In his new book, “Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections of Religious Rites of Passage,” which will be published by the University of California Press in October, Magida seeks to answer that question by asking a diverse group of notables— from New Age guru Deepak Chopra to New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast— to describe their personal experience of their religions’ rites of passage, whether a Jewish bar or bat mitzvah, a Christian confirmation, a Buddhist jukai or a Hindu upanayana. (Of the world’s five major religions, says Magida, only Islam has no ceremony to mark an adherent’s initiation into adulthood and into the faith.)
Elie Wiesel tells of the one present he got for his bar mitzvah in 1943— his grandfather’s gold pocket watch— and how he buried that watch in his family’s backyard garden in Romania the night before he was taken to the camps. When he returned to Romania in 1964, he excavated the watch then buried it again because, he said, he wanted people to know that Jews had lived there.
Julia Sweeney, an actor and comedian famous for her portrayal of the androgynous “Pat” on “Saturday Night Live,” describes a much less profound— though perhaps no less memorable— rite of passage during her first confession at age 7. Confused as to how the process worked, she admitted the same sins to two different priests and got two very different responses: one told her to say the rosary on her knees and the other told her to give her mom a compliment. So, Sweeney did the Christian thing: she advised all the other kids to go to the “easy” priest.
For a book about religion, “Opening the Doors of Wonder” is refreshingly down to earth; Magida, who holds graduate degrees in history and clinical psychology and has contributed to PBS’ “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” writes engagingly as a serious person who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Perhaps because he is honest about his own disappointment with, and doubts about, established religion— and his own search for a more personal, intense, affecting, spirituality— he inspires a startling degree of frankness among his subjects.
“I have always felt that religion is quarrelsome and frequently idiotic and kind of a cover-up for insecurity…,” Chopra tells him. “All rituals are just a form of conditioning.” Ram Dass, the Eastern thinker and psychedelic proponent (and former Jew), says, “My real initiation— the one that showed me what my spirit was, what my soul was— came with mushrooms.” One wonders what Madonna would have told Magida had she agreed to be interviewed, as he’d hoped.
In the end, after listening to all the different accounts— poet Coleman Bark’s mystical dream, writer Abigail Pogrebin’s long-delayed bat mitzvah— Magida, writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore, makes a conclusion about rites of passage. “There is transformation, but rarely does it happen in the mosque, church or shul on that day,” he says. “The initiation isn’t a bestowing of knowledge, it’s a bestowing of the possibility of knowledge.”
That discovery both disappoints and cheers him. “Given my own proclivity for transpersonal, mystical experiences, I would have loved saying that 96 percent of all those I interviewed had an ecstatic, revelatory experience,” says the father of three daughters, none of whom had a bat mitzvah. But, on the flip side, he now realizes he didn’t miss out. “I didn’t have a mystical experience, but almost no one does. I had an ordinary experience.”
Though he seems more at home asking questions than in prescribing answers, Magida is adamant on one point: he wishes the bar and bat mitzvah could be undertaken when one felt spiritually ready— with consciousness and deliberation— rather than automatically at age 13. “They said I was a man that day, but I knew I wasn’t,” he says. “The experience could be so much more than it is.” 9
Arthur Magida will sign “Opening the Doors of Wonder” at the Baltimore Book Festival, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1. Other area readings and signings are at the University of Baltimore Student Center, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m.; the Jewish Community Center, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m.; and at Breathe Books, Oct. 21 at 1 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.arthurjmagida.com.