Arthur Magida speaks on 'coming of age' at Temple Israel

Coming of age ceremonies, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Confirmations, are the beginning of a journey in learning about one's faith and exploring what role it plays in their life.

During a talk sponsored by Temple Israel and the Interfaith Council of Westport and Weston, author Arthur Magida shared some of the insights he gleaned while writing his book, Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passages.

"I foolishly believed that these coming of age events provided instant transformation," Magida said. "What matters is not that they transform us, though. What really matters is that they are asking us, `who are you' and `where are you going.'"

With strong familial ties to the Westport-Weston community, Sunday afternoon's talk, which was part of Temple Israel's Adult Jewish Learning series, was a homecoming.

Over the years, he attended many Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at the Westport synagogue and, in fact, the idea for his latest tome were borne during one of these ceremonies.

"It was here that I began to ponder my own Bar Mitzvah, which took place in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1959," Magida said. "About all I can recall is that I hated it, but I went through all of the motions."

Although Magida expressed enthusiasm for the bowling and swimming party afterwards, Magida admitted that he did not experience any sort of spiritual transformation at that time.

"Did it mean anything? I doubt it," Magida said.

However, he was interested in exploring other people who underwent similar rites of passage. During his research, which consisted of interviews with diverse individuals such as Elie Wiesel, Deepak Chopra and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), he learned about how these religious events affected their personal lives.

"Every faith has a moment when we are brought into the tent, into the fold, into the practice," Magida noted.

After hearing a wide range of "funny and poignant and magical stories," Magida concluded that these ceremonies play a significant role in people's formation. "They teach us, they inspire us," he said.

They also provide a way for people to connect with their past and thus feel more grounded as they sense that they are part of something larger than what may be happening in the present.

When a young person stands before the congregation in a church or synagogue, they are historically linked to those who have participated in the exact same ceremony years ago, he explained.

"We demand pauses and breathers over the arch of our lives," Magida noted. "These ceremonies provide the lulls, the timeouts, during which we can think about where we are going, and why, and where we have come from, and why."

In his book, Magida discusses the different rites of passage ceremonies found in major religions today. He shared details about some of these during Sunday's talk.

For example, the major elements present in the Zen juakai ceremony are readiness, awareness and wisdom.

Unlike some other religions, the Buddhist candidate does not automatically participate in the rite of initiation. He or she may think they are ready to participate in the ceremony, however if the leader may advise them to "let their patience mature," Magida explained.

Hindus are initiated into their faith through the sacred thread ceremonies sometime between the ages of eight and twelve. Magida said that this is only the beginning of a ten-year period of intense religious studies, though.

Christians participate in two initiation ceremonies, Baptism and Confirmation. Roman Catholics are traditionally baptized when they are infants. Member of other Christian denominations may be baptized either as a baby, child or adult member of their church.

As he attended a sampling of these various rites of passage, and spoke to their participants, Magida tried to assess their overall significance. Some of the things he hoped to learn were: "What does it all mean when it's over?" and "Is the rite of passage a vehicle to get through life?"

What he saw was that although these events didn't often elicit an automatic transformation of some sort, they deserve to be taken seriously.

Magida is the author of The Rabbi and the Hitman (the true story of a New Jersey rabbi who hired a hit man to kill his wife); Prophet of Rage (the only biography about Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan); and How to be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious Ceremonies. He is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore, a columnist for the on-line magazine,, a contributing correspondent for PBS's "Religions and Ethics Newsweek" series. Additionally he is a consultant to the United States Holocaust Museum, the editorial director of Jewish Lights Publishing, senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, and a staff writer for Ralph Nader.