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Magical Mystery Tour

Arthur Magida Has Been Around The Religious World And Brings It All Back Home

By Wendy Ward | Posted 12/20/2006

"My bat mitzvah was almost an out-of-body experience," recalls Abigail Pogrebin, who had her bat mitzvah at 40, an age when many Jewish women are planning their daughters', not their own. "It was terrific, extraordinary. It went beyond what I thought it would be. There's almost no `un-clichéd' way to describe how I felt. It was really a high." Equally elevated, 16-year-old Sarah Fisher says, "These sacraments are like a ladder," about her Catholic confirmation. "Each takes you another step closer to Heaven. Each fulfills you, and each takes you higher and higher until you know Jesus and you're walking with Jesus and you get to spend the rest of your life--all eternity--with Jesus. I couldn't think of anything better."

Arthur Magida, the man whose interviews with both appear in his latest book, Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage (University of California Press), doesn't recall such an spiritual response during his own bar mitzvah. "I remember being yelled at a lot," he says during a recent interview.

It wasn't surprising to find Magida, 61, already engaged in a conversation at the Mount Washington Starbucks at the appointed interview time--the man enjoys talking. The professor and writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore possess the deeply lined face of someone who lives in a much sunnier clime, with a shag of salt and pepper hair to match. He leaned into his conversation with the jovial Rev. John Roberts, one of the many friends and colleagues cited in Opening's notes, and immediately went back to chatting after introductions. He still had 10 minutes before the interview officially started.

Magida denies writing "religious books," but his work never strays far from the subject. He is a contributing correspondent to PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and the author of 2003's The Rabbi and the Hit Man. (Full disclosure: This writer was a brief independent research assistant to Magida while a UB student, diligently surfing microfiche at the Enoch Pratt Free Library for Rabbi.) He also wrote Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation and How to Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious Ceremonies, the latter of which foreshadows Doors. Add a history of writing from a religious point of view, including his Beliefnet.com columns and a stint as senior editor at the Baltimore Jewish Times, and you have a writer who has spent his life mining personal religious experiences. He says Doors, an intriguing look at religious coming-of-age rituals through first-person narratives, explores "how religion has shaped them, or not shaped them."

Questions about the book's origins prompt Magida to gesture with his hands as much as fiddle with his coffee and adjust the tape recorder, which he did more than once, even though he was the interviewee, not the interviewer. He came up with the "idear" years ago while attending a bat mitzvah. He remembers looking around the room and wondering, "Is this a profound experience for her, a kind of transformative experience... And is it rewarding to anyone [else] in this room at this moment?" Contemplating the young woman's encounter with what could be--perhaps even should be--an important moment reminded Magida of wearing a scratchy, "gray flannel suit" during his own bar mitzvah in 1958, a supposedly important rite of passage that was instead, he says, "very unsatisfying, very vapid, and in some ways very unsettling."

In such religious rites, the participant supposedly crosses a line from child to adult, accepts the duty of a faithful life, and confirms his or her devotion. Preteens are usually the center of these ceremonies--Hindu sacred thread ceremonies, Catholic confirmations, Jewish mitzvahs--and in Doors Magida argues that they are performed too early and, as such, mean too little. Magida includes the Buddhist jukai and Islamic shahada ceremonies of intent, performed at any age, as contrasts. His bar mitzvah "barely had any significance for me and it certainly did make me--not at that moment--a better Jew, or a worse Jew," he reiterates. "Perhaps, in some ways, it made me a distraught Jew."

A distraught Jew whose "dissatisfactions with Judaism" led him to other faiths. He studied Buddhism and Hinduism in the 1970s and '80s, befriended Baba Ram Dass (aka spiritual teacher Richard Alpert), meditated, and took psychedelics to "take me to states that later I understood I could go to very well without," he says. "All that was a means of apprehending layers of consciousness that weren't easily comprehensible and easily graspable."

Magida's journey around the world's religions brought him back to his roots. "For me to finally achieve some degree of stability and satisfaction and acknowledgement also that Judaism can be sustaining and fulfilling, a detour like that was indispensable," he says. Interviewing the diverse people for Doors involved that same need to understand the different ways of seeing and feeling consciousness.

Magida includes précis of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, and their corresponding rites of passage, in Doors. He also pens brief biographical introductions to the interviewees prior to their oral narratives that recall their religious, and not so religious, lives. "I wanted people who were famous to semifamous, and had name recognition, and who shaped our society," he says. "I wanted to see how religion had shaped them, or not shaped them." He reached out to people such as Roz Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist who had never been bat mitzvah-ed and, therefore, didn't feel she belonged in his book. "I e-twisted her arm in my response and said, `You are perfect--I'm looking for somebody like you,'" he says.

In addition to Chast, he already knew many of luminaries he interviewed--Ram Dass, Elie Wiesel, TV news correspondent Bob Abernethy, among others--and he had connections to the other 50 percent, including religious scholar Huston Smith, Deepak Chopra, and Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens). But, oh, the people who got away: Maya Angelou was a willing, although elusive, participant. After many misfired attempts to meet, she finally called him on Election Day 2004, but Magida had to tell her, "I'm sorry Ms. Angelou, I'm going to busy all day long insuring there will be peace and democracy in our nation."

He wanted to interview Madonna about growing up Catholic and turning to the Kabala as an adult, but he didn't even get close. Many of Doors' interviewees have moved through different faiths in their lives. Coleman Barks was christened as a baby but grew up to adopt Islam and translate the Sufi poet Rumi. Barks paraphrases Rumi in Doors when he says, "if you think there's an important difference between a Muslim and a Christian and a Jew, then you are making a division between your heart, what you love with, and how you act in the world."

Magida, however, does recognize divisions and their implications. "I came to appreciate the deliberatenes... that a Buddhist would bring to a jukai ceremony that's missing in so many of these ceremonies," he says. "Buddhists decide they want to have this." Thus, the differences between the ceremonial sincerity of a mitzvah and the lavish society affairs they have become, where "unfortunately," Magida says, "the caterers seem to have more influence than the rabbis on how they turn out."

Doors suggests that only by combining the best characteristics of different rituals will their worth be equal to the importance bestowed upon them. And Magida speaks from personal experience: His three daughters were not bat mitzvah-ed, a choice that figures heavily in the almost internal dialogue that serves as the book's epilogue. "Sometimes we have so many walls between our faiths that we forget what others can offer," he sighs.

In a way, Doors is one long discussion about the choices he made concerning his daughters' spiritual education. "I want people, particularly my daughters, to bring consciousness to this," he says. "I'd like them to bring the same kind of scholarly study that does go into an ordinary bar or bat mitzvah. I'd love for them to incorporate the broad sensory qualities that go into a Hindu sacred thread ceremony, because each of these ceremonies in every single faith has a great quality that would be great to incorporate and bring to other faiths as well." In other words, he wants--like almost every sincerely religious thinker--for his daughters to find the meaning in these spiritual exercises themselves, not simply to have them endure a meaninglessness act thrust upon them by tradition.

"Ultimately, the possibility of transformation resides within us, and its potential resides by bringing consciousness to the fore," he says. "Without that it's as empty and vapid and annoying as some of the ceremonies that I wrote about in the book were to some people--and certainly as my own bar mitzvah was to me. But yeah, in the end, [the book] was fun to do."

And that element of fun might be why Magida does not consider Doors a "religious" book. "I don't consider myself really religious, like I don't consider myself sooooo Jewish," he says. "But I do think I'm not really writing books about religion. I don't approach these as books about religion. I am approaching these as mystery books. All this is a mystery to me. God, to me, is a mystery. Mystery books may sell better that religion books, so maybe that's where it should be stocked."

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