A woman steps into an unassuming five-story building in midtown Manhattan, strides past a propped-up poster with her image on it, takes an elevator up to the second floor and steps out into a gleaming white chamber with rows of pews decorated in a Greco-Roman motif. In the front of the room, a man leading a service for 200 worshippers glances up from a book. The entire room inhales at once. One woman’s jaw goes slack. Madonna—Esther to her friends here at the Kabbalah Centre—has entered the building.
Back before she was Esther, Madonna was my childhood idol. So naturally I was curious how Kabbalah had inspired her—how she had gone from covering Don McLean to covering the Barry Sisters, as she did this past July, performing at a private party for the head of the Kabbalah Centre, Rabbi Philip Berg. I only got into bed with Kabbalah types metaphorically, so I didn’t get a chance to find out whether, as a Tshirt Madonna wore claimed, KABBALISTS DO IT BETTER. But I am a star-fucker, so I chose to indulge my curiosity about Kabbalah during July, when Madonna would be at Madison Square Garden and, I hoped, the Centre.
The first time I went to the Kabbalah Centre was for a Friday night Shabbat service. As in any temple, there was an ark, over which stood a sign with the Hebrew name and the astrological symbol of the current month. The place was packed, albeit unevenly. The men were seated throughout the left and center sections, the women squeezed tightly into the right section, except for an empty front row. I slid in there and heard two women by the door whisper and point. Slowly, it dawned on me: I had planted my ass in the designated celebrity row.
When Madonna walks into the Kabbalah Centre, chairs materialize out of thin air to form a new row in front of the celebrity row. I guess it’s seating for those who are famous even among famous people! A bearded man runs over with an electric fan and aims it at Madonna, who is flanked by two thin, attractive women in bad blond wigs. Sitting with one yoga-sculpted leg over the other, Madonna dismisses the man with a wave of her hand and he returns, humbled, to where he was sitting.
The service continues: Rabbis take turns leading prayers, then when they’re finished step down off the stage to shake Madonna’s hand. The Material Girl herself follows along nonchalantly, mouthing indiscernible nothings to her husband, Guy Ritchie, who’s sitting across the room in the men’s section. Her daughter, Lourdes, comes over to sit with her mother, then restlessly runs out of the room. Men steal glances at these family interactions, women whisper among themselves. I look too, and I’m both mortified and delighted to learn that if you stare at Madonna for long enough, Madonna will look right back at you.
In the middle of the service, unprompted by the Rabbi, everyone begins to sing, and then shout, a raggedly enthusiastic rendition of L’cah Dodi. When the tempo speeds up, for no apparent reason, everyone shouts in unison, “P’NEI SHABBAT N’KABLAH.” The men on the bema hold children in their arms or on their shoulders, and Ritchie, wearing a white Kangol cap as an improvised yarmulke, carries his son, Rocco. The chant continues, and Ritchie and some other men form a sort of conga line, weaving in and out of the room, kids in tow. As they go through the door, the children duck to avoid hitting their heads on the metal frame.
The conga line turns back into the room and the men rush the pulpit along with a few enthusiastic stragglers from the pews. They bang their fists on the stage, chanting, “RABBI SHIMON RABBI.” The chant morphs into Rabbi Shimon’s full name—Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai—to the tune of “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).” I start to sing along: “Rabbi Shimon/Rabbi Shimon/Rav Shimon bar Yochai.” The men pump themselves up until they’re red in the face, as though they’re rooting for a favorite team. The women gossip among themselves, separated by the aisle from the ruckus.
Rabbi Shimon, the man about whom the men are singing, is said to have written Zohar, the 2nd century mystical document that is now considered Kabbalah’s most important text. (These days it also provides the basis for a T-shirt I saw someone wearing at the Centre that reads, I SCANNED ZOHAR WITH ASHTON,a reference to actor and Kabbalah devotee Ashton Kutcher. According to legend, the Aramaic manuscripts were lost for years and discovered by Moses de Leon in the 13th century in a cave in Israel. “Kabbalah,” literally “to receive,” became an esoteric practice studied only by male Hasidic scholars older than 40, and later, a legitimate element of mainstream Judaism.
Philip Berg (nÃ© Feivel Gruberger) is trying to change that. An insurance salesman and Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, Berg became involved with Kabbalah when he met the renowned Kabbalist Yehuda Brandwein. He studied with Brandwein in Jerusalem and eventually married Brandwein’s niece Rizka. Eight children later, he left her and married Karen Berg, an acquaintance from his days selling insurance. According to Centre literature, she possesses “an extraordinary sixth sense and intuition.” She was the one who suggested they start the Kabbalah Centre in Israel in the early â€˜70s, then return to the U.S. in 1981.
When Berg spends Shabbat at the New York Kabbalah Centre, he sits at the head table with Karen on his right and Madonna on his left. On Madonna’s recent Reinvention tour, he personally blessed every stage she danced across. I’m not the only Madonna fan who finds this a little weird: Ritchie reportedly got so sick of one of his wife’s Kabbalah advisors during the tour that he threatened to hit him. Ritchie, who in June told the British _Sunday Times_ he had “never met a Kabbalist who was a cunt,” allegedly grabbed the advisor by the scruff of the neck and threatened to “break your face.” Madonna pulled her husband away.
When Berg isn’t on tour, he conducts services at the New York and Los Angeles Centres and at his home in Queens. He recites the liturgy in the manner of a Las Vegas crooner, pausing after each note and sliding into the next when the mood strikes him. I saw him pause for a full minute one Shabbat in the middle of the blessing over the bread. As I counted off seconds, I heard my stomach grumble. “He doesn’t sing the next word unless he really means it,” I was told by the woman next to me, a former actress and reiki healer.
Berg’s gravitas made enough of an impression on Madonna that she recommended his Centres to Kate Capshaw, Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears, among others. Roseanne lectures at the Centre in L.A. Among the stars seen wearing the Centre’s trademark red cotton bracelets around their wrists are Kimora Lee Simmons, Sharon Osbourne, Winona Ryder,David and Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Mick Jagger, Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love. Paris Hilton, Madonna explained in an ABC interview, was brought to the Centre by her parents after they heard about her infamous homemade sex video. Kutcher and Demi Moore, who wore matching his-and-hers baby costumes to the Los Angeles Centre’s Purim party in March, are rumored to be planning a Kabbalah wedding in Tel Aviv, according to _MSNBC.com_.
Certainly, Madonna has given Berg’s organization a particular sort of credibility. Former presidential candidate Wesley Clarke seemed taken with Kabbalah as he grew interested in Madonna’s support; in December of 2003, he gave a speech that included Kabbalah in a list of major world religions such as Christianity, Islam an Judaism. More recently, Lindsay Lohan was reported to be studying in L.A. A source told the tabloid _Globe_ that “she thinks it’s cool because Madonna and Demi are involved.” Britney Spears, who has expressed her admiration for Madonna in interviews and
televised lip-locking,was reportedly planning a Kabbalah-Baptist wedding for the fall. No doubt Madonna was disappointed when it turned out only to be a crabcake/rib fest.
Just as Madonna is followed by celebrities who admire her, those celebrities in turn draw theit own admirers. On the Kabbalah Centre web site, a young devotee writes that her interest in the Centre began “the minute I heard that Britney wears the bendel [red bracelet] and that it was also shown in her latest music video, â€˜Everytime.'”
Back in the â€˜80s, Madonna wannabes only had to dress like her; I should know—I was one. So devoted was my Madonna worship that one night when I was 13 I wore a cross necklace to Hebrew school. (My teacher made me take it off.) At my bat mitzvah, I sang “Material Girl” in lace half-gloves and rubber bracelets.
These days, though, keeping up with Madonna isn’t so simple; it’s not simply a matter of trading your old black bracelets for new red ones. “I want people to think like me now,” Madonna told _20/20_ last June. (On the same program, she said that changing her name from Madonna, her mother’s name, to that of the Biblical heroine who saved the Jews would separate her from her familial legacy of cancer.) And just how does she think? “When in doubt,” she said, “act like God.”
After one Shabbat dinner, I share a cab home to Brooklyn with Carmen (not her actual name), a self-proclaimed underemployed writer with frizzy graying hair. Warm and maternal, she launches into a reverie about meditating on the 72 names of God, a Kabbalah Centre ritual. Although the concept of 72 names is a part of traditional Kabbalah, the Centre attributes to it special powers.
“The Hebrew letters have so many layers of meaning,” Carmen says. “I mean, numerically they mean things. And they have an energy to them. The first time I meditated on the letters I just felt it so deeply.” She hesitates. “I can’t explain it. My soul knows it. My brain just isn’t there yet.”
Her eyes are shining and she’s a little drunk. But so am I. “You know, I don’t believe what they say on television,” she says, referring to gossip about Madonna. “She is not on the celebrity bandwagon. I believe she’s really doing it from her heart, sincerely. I will never forget last Sukkot. There she was. It was so wonderful seeing her with her family, standing there in her powder-blue tracksuit under the sukkah. And, you know, I was never that into the music.”
Not everyone I met through the Kabbalah Centre feels the same way. I got to know more Kabbalah devotees by volunteering to set up Shabbat dinner, usually as one of 10 women who would meet at the Centre and prepare tables for 200. As we worked, I’d ask the students what drew them to the Centre. Several mentioned Madonna. Each would tell her specific story—an epiphany she had reading one of Berg’s books, a serendipitous glimpse of one of the Centre’s ads in the paper—then mention Madonna as an afterthought. Few of them gave her sole credit with bringing them around to Kabbalah, but just about everyone mentioned her and most said they had heard about it in the first place because of her. Only one credited her without hesitation. “I saw how much she had transformed because of Kabbalah,” she said, “and I thought, well, if it worked for her…”
One evening, when I had just reported for duty, another volunteer asked me, “Do you have your tickets yet?”
“Your Madonna tickets!” she exclaimed. “If you buy them from the Centre they are the best seats! And all the proceeds go to the Spirituality for Kids program!” The royalties from Madonna’s children’s books go to the same fund, which was used to help purchase the former Atkins headquarters for the Kabbalah Grammar School for Children. According to WABC, Madonna spent a total of $22 million on the school, which will open its doors in 2005—but only to pupils whose parents are both Kabbalists. Spirituality for Kids is Madonna’s pet project, and she is more than willing to bankroll the K school. (According to Britain’s tabloid _The Sun_, this past September Madonna asked for an itemization of exactly how her money was being spent, the implication being that not all of it was going to the kids.)
During another dinner, I sat awkwardly amidst a group of 20-somethings who were discussing in awed tones a Centreorganized trip to Israel. Part of their enthusiasm seemed to come from the presence on the trip of Madonna herself. She may, they said, have it filmed for the documentary she’s making with director Jonas Akerlund, which is being billed as the sequel to _Truth or Dare_. A young gay man explained to me that the trip was very special because it would take place over Rosh Hashanah. He then proceeded to tell me how he found Kabbalah. “I had heard about it in the media and I was looking for a book on it in Barnes & Noble,” he said. “I found it in the Jewish section and I left right away—I’m not Jewish.” (He’s Episcopalian, he told me.) “But then I was back in Barnes & Noble and I was looking in the spirituality section and I turned around and there it was—a book on Kabbalah. So I figured, what the hell?” He can hardly wait to go to Israel. Hugh Jackman was at one point rumored to be joining the pilgrimage as were fashionista Donna Karan and former Donald Trump’s ex, Marla Maples. (It was during the trip that Madonna told fellow Kabbalists she “was a bit hesitant to come here [to Israel] because of the terror attacks…I realize now it’s no more dangerous here than it is in New York.”)
After the meal, everyone gathered around the Rav’s table and sang songs in Hebrew. A young, pretty woman who was standing on a chair to see over the crowd was wearing the same Kangol cap that Guy Ritchie wore. I wonder if she’s searching for Madonna.
Celebrity Kabbalah followers like Elizabeth Taylor get private tutoring in their mansions. “There’s no set charge, just donations,” said one student. But the typical donation is $200 to $300 an hour, and students can only serve kosher food.
For those of us still awaiting our 15 minutes of fame, there’s Zohar class, weekdays at 7 p.m. with about 20 fellow students. The classrooms are set up cabaret style, with about 20 small tables covered with pastel tablecloths, platters of fruit, a pitcher of lemonade and a selection of rocks and shells. A camera in the back of the room broadcasts the class on the Internet. The teacher lectures haltingly, the way Berg chants prayers.
“During the week ahead we will want to bad-mouth others,” my teacher told a class one Thursday night. “Miriam got leprosy the second she bad-mouthed Moses.” Pause. “What is leprosy?”
No one says anything.
“Leprosy is when on your skin there’s a big stain, like barley. Every time you speak lashon hara”—talking about someone behind his back—”you might get one.”
There are other lessons, too. “Satan makes us feel like we could put things off,” the teacher says. “This week, work on your sense of urgency to do things. For example, â€˜I want to buy a Zohar, but maybe in two weeks’—then it will never happen!”
The Kabbalah Centre loves its product placement. During Shabbat services, one of the rabbis instructed the congregation to drink $3.80, 1.5 liter bottles of Kabbalah water even as he too drinks from a bottle by his side. According to the Rav, the process of making the Kabbalah water is “more complicated than that of making Coca-Cola.”
In the lobby you can buy a single red string that has been blessed at Rachel’s tomb in Jerusalem for $8.50, or a yard’s worth for $26. I opt for the inexpensive option, which is packaged in a card that says “I love you” on the outside and “But not everyone else does” on the inside. Thesmokinggun.com reported that the U.S. Patent Office rejected the Centre’s request for a patent on bendels, so they’re not exclusive to the lobby. Next season they’ll be sold with a Kabbalah candle at Bergdorfs, Barneys NY and Neiman Marcus.
As I leave class with another student, whom I’ll call Jane, we walk past posters advertising a few of the Centre’s other classes—”How to Find Your Soulmate,” “12 Steps to Everlasting Love”—with stock photos of couples kissing and kids on swings. Jane tells me that she works in public relations and that “it’s not very Kabbalistic.” We walk past piles of tapes for sale on “Divine Sex” and “Kabbalistic Astrology.” Over the speakers, I hear “Ray of Light.”
Later, Jane and I are folding napkins into origami shapes to add a French-restaurant feel to the next evening’s Shabbat dinner. She tells me her parents were originally Methodist but converted to Catholicism “because they moved to a new house that happened to be closer to the Catholic church.” They were baptized, renewed their vows, the whole works. Jane has been fishing for religion since her teens; besides attending Methodist and Catholic churches with her parents, she’s gone to Pentacostal and Jehovah’s Witness services as well. Out of everything she’s tried, she says she likes the Kabbalah Centre best: The principles taught in the classes are easy to apply, especially the notion that when you help others you really help yourself.
The next time I go to the Centre, I see a group of lithe, tan people walking away from the building, cameras hanging from their necks. They’re dressed too hip to be tourists and too colorful to be Kabbalists, who favor white. I realize first that they’re paparazzi and then that I’ve just missed Madonna.
“Shabbat shalom!” my friend cries. Raised a good Christian, that’s the extent of his Hebrew, and he uses it every chance he gets. He has tickets to the Reinvention Tour in New Jersey, but in the nosebleed seats. In an effort to see Madonna up close, he accompanies me to services one night.
Upstairs, after I’ve split off into the women’s section, it takes me a while to spot him. I’m not used to seeing him in a white yarmulke.
The service begins. I watch the door for Madonna, and I can see him doing the same thing over on the other side.
I know her tour is still in town, so I hold out hope. But, after more nothing, I can see my friend glance over at me, confused.
Madonna doesn’t show.
He’s disappointed. I can’t find a way to tell him that I’m secretly relieved. From the cheap seats, he won’t be as disillusioned as I am at how my former idol is no longer the unabashedly confident superwoman I so admired. Plenty of people are still following her, but look what she’s following. Maybe once the fad has run its course she will reinvent herself as the wayward Catholic iconoclast I knew and loved.
My friend and I spend the rest of the night at a Chinese restaurant drinking tea, reading fortune cookies, and commiserating about how we missed Madonna over steamed pork buns.