Book is mixed on effect of rites of passage

Last spring I traveled to upstate New York to watch my youngest brother become a bar mitzvah. Noah is the youngest of my five siblings, but the first to read from the Torah and formally accept the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood.

It’s not that Noah is a particularly religious or studious 13-year-old — he definitely prefers basketball to books — but since our parents began reflecting on their youthful follies, returning to Judaism became part of Noah’s life.

When Noah called his friends and family to the bimah for the aliyahs, we were filled with love and pride in his accomplishment. But was it more momentous than the day when he first uttered “Mama?” Did the ceremony mean more to Noah than making the basketball team? How do such ceremonies change our understanding of our place in the world? Do they fundamentally open the gates of our respective faiths?

Arthur J. Magida addresses these questions in his new book, “Opening the Doors of Wonder.” Through a series of interviews with well-known intellectuals, musicians, spiritual leaders and artists, Magida asks how rites of passage in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism connect us to our traditions of faith.

Unfortunately, few of the 18 interviews capture moments of divine connection. Indeed, the book would have been better titled, “Trying to Open the Doors of Wonder,” since many interviewees express indifference and disappointment with their coming-of-age rituals.

The exceptions are Magida’s conversations with converts to Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. In his conversation with Roshi John Daido Loori and Robert Thurman, Magida captures the faith of two men who became committed Buddhists as adults. The same is true for the three men interviewed on their paths to Islam: the Sufi translator Coleman Bark, musician Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and award-winning author Michael Wolfe.

Yet if Magida’s book poses an interesting question — When and where do we connect with the divine? — the resounding answer is: not at our coming of age ceremonies. Rather, the meaning of these events is found years later in looking back. Whether we mature to become adults of faith or devote ourselves to secularism, we look back to our b’nai mitzvah, Buddhist jukai ceremonies, Catholic confirmations or Hindu sacred thread ceremonies and find evidence of our faith or skepticism.

After reading “Opening the Doors of Wonder” I called Noah to ask him if his bar mitzvah changed him. “Yaaa, maybe, sure,” he replied in his husky teenage drawl.

“Are you glad you studied for your bar mitzvah?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “It was something to do in this period of time.”

“Something” might be the most Noah can articulate at 13. Although these rites of passage rarely serve as moments of transformation, they often can be a guidepost — what Martin Buber calls the beginning of a “holy discourse” — that spans a lifetime.

Before Noah and I got off the phone, I asked him if he ever wore the tallit my family gave him for his bar mitzvah. “I wore it to some other kids’ bar mitzvahs, and special events, and, uh — on holidays.”

He might not recognize it now, but I’m willing to bet that in 10 years, Noah will look back to his 13th birthday as the time he began a discourse. I also hope, despite what Magida’s book suggests, that it serves as a source of inspiration in understanding his place in the spiritual world.

“Opening the Doors of Wonder” by Arthur J. Magida (294 pages, University of California Press, $24.95).