Ride of passage: Family takes bar mitzvah on the road in social-action adventure

Halfway between Baker, Nev., and Milford, Utah, Matt Biers-Ariel grew despondent. The next town was more than 40 miles away, the temperature was approaching 100 degrees, he was down to a quart of water, and his tandem bicycle (“the Beast”) had just popped another flat tire on a desolate stretch of road.

With him were his wife and two sons, 9 and 13, also tired, hot and dehydrated, and no more upbeat. Eventually the family flagged down a pickup truck — bearing the license plate “ILUVBEEF” — whose driver gave them water and Gatorade while Dad fixed the bike. Somewhat revived, the Biers-Ariels declined a ride to the next town.

All in all, it was not your typical rite of passage for a Jewish boy on the cusp of manhood. Then again, Yonah, Biers-Ariel’s elder son, hadn’t wanted anything to do with “typical.”

In “The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast,” a new book by veteran Bay Area Jewish educator Matt Biers-Ariel, tradition goes head-to-head with a spirit of innovation, skepticism and improvisation. Over the course of a breezy 250 pages, the author details the joys, trials and tribulations of his family on a 3,804-mile, 10-week bicycle journey across America — a trip that Yonah, a self-proclaimed atheist, elected to take in the summer of 2007 in lieu of a bar mitzvah.

The author plans to speak throughout the Bay Area this month and next, and will celebrate the book with a launch party April 21 at the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in Davis, where the family lives.

But the book — and the trip — would never have happened, admits the author, if he and his precocious firstborn son had always seen eye-to-eye.

 “Yonah was pretty adamant about not believing in God from a young age,” says Biers-Ariel, the former education director at the Osher Marin JCC, and a former teen program coordinator at Berkeley’s Midrasha. Now a high school English teacher in Davis, the author and his wife, Djina, consider themselves spiritual, progressive Reform Jews.

“We had pushed certain elements of Jewish practice on him, like Friday night blessings, but he really didn’t buy into it. There was too much cognitive dissonance for him when it came to things like the Torah,” he explains.

Yonah did attend Hebrew school for about a year around age 11 after deciding he wanted to be president; he figured he had a better shot at office as a somewhat observant Jew than as an atheist. But he soon declared it wasn’t for him — and he certainly wanted nothing to do with a bar mitzvah. When his parents explained that having some rite of passage was important to them, the idea of the cross-country bike trip was born. (It was preferable, in Yonah’s eyes, to the other two options they presented: back to Hebrew school, or traveling around Israel.)

Yonah and Matt Biers-Ariel dip their back tires into the Pacific Ocean to mark the start of their journey. photo/sydney mintz

At first, it was going to be just Yonah and his father. As the two began training for the ride, an average of 60 miles of cycling a day, the trip took on a life of its own. Yonah’s younger brother, Solomon, announced he wanted to go — hence, the selection of a tandem bike for Matt. And if all three of her men were going, Djina, a bicycling enthusiast herself, certainly wasn’t going to stay home.

Together, the family also came up with a mitzvah project that could be done on the go. “A bar mitzvah is more than just reading Torah: There’s a social action element to it,” explains the author.

A longtime environmentalist, Biers-Ariel has published several books in the last decade — among them “Solomon and the Trees,” a kids’ book about the genesis of Tu B’Shevat, and a nonfiction book for adults, “Spirit in Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail.”

Brainstorming about possible social action that could fit with the trip, Biers-Ariel suggested that going from town to town on bicycle could be a perfect entry point for talking to people about climate change and reducing human reliance on fossil fuels. It would be a great way to meet people, and the family would be a symbol of the change they wanted to see in the world.

So the plan was hatched, the Google maps printed. The family would bike from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., collecting signatures on a petition about global warming along the way. They would sleep in state parks and roadside motels. They would live off energy bars, diner food and Gatorade. They would triumphantly deliver their petition to Congress upon reaching the nation’s capital. They would keep a blog about their adventure, updating it whenever they had access to a computer.

Of course, it looked easier on paper.

“It was so, so much harder than I was expecting,” says Biers-Ariel with a laugh, adding that he regularly does “masochistic” rides for fun, including one route that includes Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpais in the same day. “This was unlike anything I had ever done. If I had known how hard it was going to be, I don’t think we would have attempted it, but ignorance is bliss. When it’s not fatal.”

The author’s candid details — including tidbits about unbearable weather, run-ins with park rangers and frustrating moments that led to snapping at the increasingly bored 9-year-old on the back of his tandem bicycle — lend color to what is at once a classic road memoir, an environmental call to action and a portrait of a complex father-son relationship, in which Matt and Yonah challenge one another to consider an alternative view of the world around them.

In one memorable scene, the family meets with a reporter in Hutchinson, Kan. When Yonah says he’s an atheist, the reporter starts lecturing the 13-year-old about why he should believe in God. Among her reasons: Praying cured her of breast cancer. Yonah counters with his characteristic logic and skepticism.

“It was as if I were at the theater watching a one-act play between [the reporter] and Yonah,” writes his incredulous father. “On the other hand, this Torquemada was grilling my son. As a parent, I should have protected him. On the third hand, Yonah was more than holding his own, so why intervene?”

After the family leaves, father and son discuss the unexpected confrontation. “I think [the reporter’s] story backfired. Now I believe even less in God and more in chemo drugs,” says Yonah. “But prayer probably does help if you think it works,” offers his father. “It can’t hurt, and all that positive energy must do some good.”

It’s later that the author addresses the reader with his private thoughts about the exchange, mulling over his knee-jerk reaction.

“The whole God-responding-to-personal-prayer thing left a bitter taste,” writes Biers-Ariel, who attended the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in New York in his 20s after working on a kibbutz. “If God responds to prayer, then She/He/It has a lot of ’splaining to do about the myriad times God has not responded. The one million innocent children murdered during the Holocaust is just one of God’s more egregious oversights.”

The author says he’s probably learned as much from his son — and from having his views challenged by his son — as vice-versa. He adds that the whole family gained immeasurable perspective from confronting their own stereotypes over the course of the journey, whether it was the guy “at the pawn shop with the U.S. Marine tattoos” who was eager to talk about climate change, or “people with Rush Limbaugh on speed dial” who were nothing but caring and open with the “weird family from California.” Asking folks to sign their petition was a way to meet people they wouldn’t ordinarily interact with otherwise, he says.

The family made it to Washington, D.C., on day 69 of their journey. Changing into the cleanest clothes they had left, they visited the offices of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), then the chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

The boys were frank and articulate with the politicians, offering anecdotes about what they’d seen over the past 10 weeks and suggestions about how environmental issues could be tackled. Solar power should be generated in Nevada, they said. Yonah spoke about wind farms in Utah, and about how hard it was to find recycling bins in much of the country.

“Thank you,” said David Moulton, Markey’s staff director. “You’ve sent a powerful message to our country.”

They all shook hands. And then the Biers-Ariels took an easy, comfortable flight home.

In terms of the lessons gleaned from the trip, Biers-Ariel says his son spoke frequently afterward of knowing that “I can do anything I want to if I put my mind to it.” Now 18 and in his first year at Whitman College in Washington state, Yonah wrote about the experience in his university application essays.

“At the time I didn’t recognize this at all — I was doing it to get out of having a traditional bar mitzvah. But in retrospect it was a serious rite of passage for me,” Yonah says. “Even just in terms of my leadership abilities: I planned the routes and itineraries most days, decided what we’d be doing.”

The experience that stands out most for Yonah is the family’s arrival in Washington, D.C., when they dipped their front wheels into the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial, in place of the Atlantic Ocean. (Traditionally, cross-country bicyclists dip a wheel into the ocean to start and end the journey — back wheel to start, front wheel at the finish.)

“When you’re in a different city every day for almost two months, you don’t realize how far you’ve come,” recalls Yonah. “That was the moment where I went, ‘Holy s—, we made it.’ It was incredibly meaningful.”

As rites of passage go, the author feels it was at least as significant for the family as a traditional bar mitzvah.

Longtime family friend Rabbi Sydney Mintz, of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, wholeheartedly agrees. She was there the morning they left to snap a photo of the Biers-Ariels dipping their back tires into the Pacific Ocean.

Biers-Ariel had spoken with her about Yonah’s lack of interest in having a bar mitzvah in a synagogue, she says, and she supported the idea of crafting an alternative that felt appropriate.

“For me, as a rabbi, the part of the bar mitzvah that’s essential is community,” says Mintz. “And the way they did this, as a family — not to mention blogging and stopping to talk to people all the time — they were creating community everywhere they went.”

Mintz says that while she would love for all Jewish families to celebrate their children’s b’nai mitzvah in a synagogue, she gives the family “a lot of credit for finding a way to adapt and be creative with the ritual.”

“Given the choice between a kid having a massive party with a hundred people flying in, and spending a tremendous amount of money to have it be ‘all about me’ for that one moment on that one day — what the kid’s often left with is a lot of thank-you notes,” she says. “I think it’s great if someone comes up with something that’s more meaningful, and lasting, to their personal Jewish heart and soul.”

Biers-Ariel hopes that message will reach other parents of children who seem to have rejected organized religion. He knows the trip didn’t change Yonah’s mind about God; he’s also confident the experience stayed with him in a way his son might not be able to fully articulate for a few more years.

As for the author himself? Says Biers-Ariel earnestly, “It was by far the most profound thing I’ve ever done.”

“The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast: One Family’s Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike” by Matt Biers-Ariel (256 pages, Mountaineers Books, $16.95)

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.