David Bowie was into kabbalah and other Jewish facts about the late icon


It was clear long before the Internet swelled with heartfelt tributes to David Bowie that the late musician was an artistic legend. The 69-year-old Englishman, who passed away Sunday after an 18-month battle with cancer, reinvented himself countless times over a five-plus decade music career that also included stints as a Broadway and Hollywood actor.

From his Ziggy Stardust alter ego period to his latest album — a jazzy, avant-garde rock release called “Blackstar” released just two days before his death —Bowie racked up some interesting Jewish connections. Below, we give you five of them.

1. He was into kabbalah, and sang about it

“Here are we, one magical movement from kether to malkuth,” Bowie sang in his 1976 song “Station to Station.” “Kether” and “malkuth” are two of the 10 elements of the kabbalistic tree of life — the highest and lowest parts, respectively. Despite being high on cocaine for most of the “Station to Station” album’s recording process and describing it years later as the work of “an entirely different person,” Bowie was fascinated with kabbalah during this period (decades before Madonna made it cool). The back cover of the “Station to Station” album features Bowie drawing the kabbalistic tree of life in chalk.

2. His first manager was Jewish

Les Conn, born to a Jewish family in Stamford Hill, a traditionally Jewish part of London, failed to make much headway in the music business before 17-year-old Bowie (then still going by his birth name David Robert Jones) connected with him in 1964 through through a mutual acquaintance, washing machine magnate John Bloom. Conn managed to get Jones’ first band some gigs, but he couldn’t sell his talent to The Beatles’ publisher Dick James. When Conn’s contract with Jones expired, the rocker left for a new band and changed his name to Bowie — and the rest is history.

3. He was close to Jewish rockers Lou Reed and Marc Bolan (in different ways)

Bowie connected with Lou Reed, of the Velvet Underground, and pop artist Andy Warhol on a trip to the U.S. in 1971. He later produced Reed’s breakthrough solo album “Transformer” in 1972. When Reed passed away in 2013, Bowie called him “a master.”

Marc Bolan, the lead singer of glam rock band T-Rex, had a more complicated and competitive relationship with Bowie. The two teenagers became close friends early on in their careers when they were both managed by Conn.

Tension ensued when Bolan (who was born Mark Feld and ate Jewish soul food after concerts) found success years before Bowie did. But Bolan’s producer, Tony Visconti, eventually began devoting more of his time and energy to Bowie’s albums, which began climbing the charts as Bolan went the opposite direction into alcohol and drug addiction. Nevertheless, according to the Daily Mail, after Bolan died in a car crush at age 29 in 1977, Bowie quietly gave financial support to Bolan’s wife and son.

4. He went through a bit of a Nazi phase

In a drug-induced state leading up to the release of “Station to Station,” Bowie was criticized for saying in an interview that Adolf Hitler was “one of the first rock stars.” In the same month, he said that Britain could “benefit from a fascist leader.”

Bowie later assumed a persona called the “Thin White Duke,” which has been described as an “emotionless Aryan superman.” In 1976, when he drove up to London’s Victoria Station in a Mercedes convertible and gave what was reported to be a Nazi salute. Bowie denied those reports and later attributed his behavior to the copious amounts of drugs he was taking at the time.

5. He performed in Israel during one of the happiest stages of his life

“I think I would have to be squeezed real hard to be happier,” Bowie said in 1996, fresh off of a performance in Israel’s Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv. He explains in a series of videos that he and his band were in the midst of one of the best tours of his life. He had recently released the experimental album “Outside” and had several other creative projects in the works. “I’ve been trying to go here for years,” he says in one of the videos with a smile shortly after getting off his plane

Israeli arrested in Madonna song leak probe


An Israeli man was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of hacking into the computers of a number of international singing stars, including Madonna, and selling their songs online, a police source said.

A police spokesman confirmed that a 39-year-old Israeli had been detained, but citing a court-issued gag order declined to name him or his alleged victims.

In December, unfinished tracks were leaked from Madonna's “Rebel Heart” album before its release, an act the singer described as “artistic rape” in a post, later deleted, from her Instagram account.

A private Israeli investigator, Asher Wizman, said Madonna's team had contacted his company several weeks ago to look into the matter after rumours of an Israeli connection to the leak.

Madonna, a devotee of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, has visited Israel several times and kicked off a 2012 world tour in Tel Aviv.

“Our investigator found her computers, at home and at a studio, were broken into from a computer in Israel,” Wizman told Reuters. “We tracked down the computer, and the man behind it. After gathering enough evidence, we turned to the police and he was arrested today.”

Police said its cyber unit had carried out an investigation along with the FBI following a complaint from a Madonna representative in Israel.

Israeli media said the man taken into custody was a former contestant on a popular television singing contest in Israel.

“He is suspected of computer hacking, copyright violation and fraudulent receipt of goods,” a police spokesman said.

“During the investigation it appeared the suspect had broken into the computers of a number of international artists, stole unreleased demos and final tracks and sold them over the internet,” the spokesman said.

No charges have yet been filed against him.

A modern journey into the ancient world of Kabbalah


There are less time-consuming, less all-encompassing ways of dealing with a midlife crisis than the path chosen by Steven Bram. 

But having chosen to give his life over to a spiritual journey centered on the study of kabbalah, Bram — a New York-based writer and producer of sports documentaries and the COO of Bombo Sports & Entertainment — not only fully embraced his path, he also made a movie about it. 

“When you have touched something really profound, you want to share it,” Bram said. “When you’re juiced, you want everyone to be juiced.”

Co-written and co-directed by Bram, “Kabbalah Me” follows the documentarian’s five-year journey to connect more deeply with his Jewish heritage through regular study, prayer, a trip to Israel and — most significantly — through the study of kabbalah. The film will be distributed by First Run Features and will open for a limited engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center Theatres on Sept. 5, and Bram will appear at a handful of screenings to conduct post-show Q-and-A’s.

Although his goal may be to send the message through his film about the power and accessibility of kabbalah study, Bram’s dedication to his path figures to continue long after “Kabbalah Me” has run its course in theaters.

“It’s still a big part of every day of my life,” he said. “I still work with the same four rabbis once a week each, and two of them are in Israel, so we Skype. I want to learn how to pray and how to daven, and I don’t know Hebrew. The hardest thing is learning Hebrew and how to pray.”

These may not sound like the aspirations of a typical middle-class Manhattanite who has made a living producing documentaries about the Boston Red Sox, Shaquille O’Neal and other sports luminaries. But as his film makes clear, Bram felt a void in his life well before his interest in exploring his Jewish roots intensified. He describes himself as having been a “secular modern Jewish person with not much connection to my heritage.” 

“We had Rosh Hashanah dinner, fasted on Yom Kippur and [had] a seder at Passover. That was about it,” said Bram, who became a bar mitzvah but confessed, “I had no idea what I was reading.”

Between the approach of his 50th birthday and the death of his brother-in-law in the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Bram began simultaneously “kind of freaking out” and “asking myself deep questions” along the lines of, “Where am I going?” “What have I accomplished?” and “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

The questions led Bram to a discussion with a close friend at a New York Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden. Bram’s friend asked him if he had ever closely studied the Torah under the guidance of a rabbi. Bram answered no. His friend then asked if he would he like to; Bram immediately said yes, and he quickly began studying with a rabbi through the Aish Center in Manhattan. 

Then someone switched on a light 

“Each week, I read the weekly parasha, and eventually I heard the word ‘kabbalah,’ ” Bram said. “Something about that word struck deeply inside me. It blew me away. I told the rabbi I wanted to learn kabbalah, and he said, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way. It takes time.’ I said, ‘I want to learn kabbalah now.’ ”

The film is diplomatic and deliberately vague in its characterization of exactly what kabbalah is and for whom it is intended. Is it the deeper spiritual interpretations of the Torah and Talmud, reachable only by Jews who have studied for dozens of years? Is it a path to inner fulfillment, a social fad embraced by celebrities such as Madonna, Mick Jagger and Gwyneth Paltrow? Or is kabbalah — as the Kabbalah Centre New York characterizes it — “an ancient wisdom that provides practical tools for creating joy and lasting fulfillment … an incredible system of technology that will completely change the way you look at your world”?

Whatever its purpose, kabbalah has a universal appeal, according to Bram. “Probably 80 percent of the people who go through the doors of the Kabbalah Centre are not Jewish,” he said. “There’s a real thirst. I’m told Muslims in Iran go online and look for courses in kabbalah.” 

Bram’s interest in kabbalah dovetailed with his desire to explore his family’s Orthodox roots, although, as he points out, his path leading first to kabbalah and from there into his religious heritage — instead of the other way around — is somewhat unusual. The film follows Bram and his family to a Sukkot celebration with some of his Orthodox cousins in Brooklyn. As his journey deepens, Bram meets more relatives, samples more elements of the culture, and speaks to kabbalah instructors all over New York City and in Israel. 

He is, in many ways, a student on a quest for knowledge, an onscreen persona that co-director Judah Lazarus characterizes as both genuine and charismatic. In other words, that American we observe cutting loose with 250,000 religious Jews in an Israeli mosh pit at the beginning of “Kabbalah Me” is not putting on an act.  

“He is very honest and open in front of the camera, and he has an easy rapport with people,” Lazarus said. “Unlike me, Steven grew up in the Reform tradition, not Orthodox, and what he did was very valuable for me. He really had a love and an appreciation of observance of religious Judaism. He saw the beauty of those traditions in a natural and organic way, and I think he envied them.”

The deeper he delves into religious practices and kabbalah, the more Bram seems to leave his family behind. His wife, Miriam, and his two daughters are shown in the film asking questions and expressing some doubt over changes in Bram. Miriam Bram, who was also raised Jewish, admits she doesn’t connect to the spiritual and religious aspect of the faith with the same intensity as her husband, and says in the film, “I’d prefer he not be too extreme, since that would be in contrast with what I want.”

Miriam Bram had not seen the completed film prior to one of the screenings after the theatrical release of “Kabbalah Me.” But she said she is proud of her husband’s accomplishment.

“We have come to a better understanding, and we’re more united,” she said. “He has been clear he’s going to do his thing, but not in ways that would affect or uproot our family life as it is. I’ve been more open to learning from a spiritual standpoint.”

For his part, since going on his quest and making the film, Bram reports being more patient and being a better listener.

“I’m not saying I’m all the way there, but I’ve made strides,” he said. “I think I care about people more than I used to. I’m trying to see my life in the context of all of human creation. When you do that, how can you be upset over someone saying something bad about you?”

The secret signal


Listen. There is a secret signal. It's sort of like a password, a code. And only we know it — we who sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Or at least some of us who sound the shofar know it. Others may know how to sound the shofar, how to blow their breath through the horn and make shofar sounds, but they don't know the secret signal, the password. Just blowing air through a ram's horn does not produce the secret signal. Anyone can do that. You don't have to be Jewish to do that. Ram's horns and the like, the ancient rabbis reminded us, abound everywhere and with most any people. And guess what? They all know how to blow them, how to sound them. Everyone knows how to toot their horn, so to speak. And if that is the case, as it obviously is, then what is the meaning of the psalmic verse we recite before sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: “Happy is the people who knows how to sound [the shofar]”? (Psalms 89:16). Excuse me? Did the writer of this psalm actually believe that we were the only people on Earth who knew how to sound a ram's horn? And that is the question the second-century Rabbi O'shia asked: “Do you really suppose that the nations of the world do not know how to sound the horn? They have countless horns, myriad trumpets and innumerable experts at sounding them, and we declare 'Happy is the people who knows how to sound the shofar?'”

And so Rabbi O'shia explains to us the meaning of that puzzling statement, that it implies a knowing that was transmitted to us as a people from the ancients, a knowing not of how to sound the shofar but a knowing of the secrets behind the sounds and their intent (Midrash Vayik'ra Rabbah 29:4).   Sounding the shofar without this knowledge and its intentions creates sound, but no different than any other sound emerging from any old horn blown by anybody at any time for any reason. On the other hand, sounding the shofar while imbuing your breath with this knowledge and intention creates far more than sound. It communicates. It sends a secret signal understood only in the spirit realm, only in the Realm of the Divine Forces, and becomes part of a vocabulary known only in the God Dictionary. It is the language of spirit. It is a personal mystery communication between the soul and its origin, between Creation and Creator, in a language that is absent any symbols or thoughts, any imagery or gesture. It is the language of דִבּוּר dibbur, of Resonance. It is the communication of breath with Breath, ofרוּחַ  ru'ach with רוּחַ אֶלֹהִים ru'ach elo'heem, of mortal breath with Divine Breath.

In one of the most ancient of our Kabbalistic source texts, we are taught that Sound, Breath/Wind, and Resonance are the three qualities of the Life Force that weaves the Divine Intent through all of Existence (Sefer Yetzirah 1:9 [oldest version]). The drama of these three qualities is played-out in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “And they heard the Voice [sound] of God journeying toward the Wind [breath] of the day…. And God then Called [resonance] to The Adam” (Genesis 3:8-9). Thus you have קול ורוח ודבור — Sound, Breath, and Resonance. Sound is carried by Breath toward Resonance. By Sound, writes the 12th-century Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, is meant primal expression, not sound as we know it in the mortal sense. קול [ko'l-sound] is inaudible to the human ear until it is enwrapped in Breath or Spirit or Wind — all the same meaning of רוח [ru'ach]. It then becomes graspable, translatable, when it is further manifested in דבור [dibbur-resonance]. And that quality of the Life Force that is Resonance, this is the Holy Spirit — the flux of the Divine Spirit that is weaving through all that was and is and will be ever since she first hovered over the primal waters of Genesis (Genesis 1:2). Yes, “She.” In the Hebrew, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters” is referred to in the feminine, by the way.

Okay. Stay with me. You’re old enough, or young enough. And you don’t have to be married with children or have a background in Kabbalah. This is for everyone.

The two most repeated, most common “names” of God in the Torah are י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים.

י-ה-ו-ה is the weaving Name of God, and it is un-pronounceable because it is always in flux, constantly weaving Creator’s intent for Creation to become.

אלהים (Elo'heem) represents that particular aspect of God that is immanently involved in the life of all beings and that was active at the time of Creation. It is therefore the only name of God mentioned in the genesis of Genesis.  אלהים according to the mystics is a plural word that implies “בַּעַל הַיְכוֹלֶת וּבַּעַל הכֹּחוֹת כֻּלָם Ba'al ha'ye'cho'let u'ba'al ha'ko'cho't ku'lam — The One Who Masters All Possibilities and Who Masters All the Forces” (16th-century Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 5:1).

We are also taught that the difference between these two primary qualities of the revealed aspects of God, י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים — besides one being God Transcendent and one being God Imminent — is that the quality of אלהים is about judgment (after all, creating or sculpting requires a great deal of judgment) and the quality of י-ה-ו-ה  is about mercy. Just like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the voice of אלהים resonates in Abraham as a request that he sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:1), and the voice ofי-ה-ו-ה  resonates in Abraham as a demand that he desist from so much as nicking him (Genesis 22:11).

Now to the point.

There is another psalmic verse we recite before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that goes like this: “אלהים has ascended in the blowing [breath]; and י-ה-ו-ה  [is] within the sound [resonance] of the shofar” (Psalms 47:6).

The intent of the one who sounds the shofar, then, is to conjure the sound of silence, the primal spirit language of which the mystics spoke that precedes audible, vocal sound, the sound of breath that then translates the primal intent into resonance. The intent? A plea, a spirit-signal, that it is now time for the Divine quality of mercy — י-ה-ו-ה  — to override the Divine quality Judgment — אלהים – and that the sacred blend of both qualities merge in unified balance, thus re-creating the First Sound ever mentioned in the Torah, which is described as the Sound ofי-ה-ו-ה אלהים    (Genesis 2:8).

You see, Rosh Hashanah is a ritual of re-doing the Adam and Eve scenario a little differently. The first human couple heard the sound of both י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים  (Genesis 2:8) but — when asked “Where are you?” they chose to surrender to their sense of shame and respond only to the quality of אלהים. The question was a challenge to them: “Where are you?” as in which voice are you responding to? That of judgment, or that of mercy? They chose the voice of judgment, and thus did the voice of judgment respond in kind and kick them out.
On Rosh Hashanah, through the secret rite of the shofar, we endeavor to turn that around, to begin our new year with transforming that Karmic consciousness of judgment we too often project onto God to one of compassion.

Thus, the secret of the Secret Signal. And so may it be! Because, we need to bring in the New Year not so much with the dictates of the prayerbook as with our deepest, inaudible hopes. Else, every year is just same-old, same-old, and nothing indeed is new under the sun.

Calendar January 25-31


SAT | JAN 25

MUSEUMS FREE-FOR-ALL

Sometimes there is such thing as a free lunch. SoCal Museums is bringing you its ninth annual day of free art and culture, with 20 Southern California museums banding together to get you through their doors. From the Skirball to LACMA, to the Museum of Contemporary Art, to both Gettys, to the Annenberg Space for Photography — you can bring a posse or museum hop solo. No matter what, it will be a price-less day of priceless art, and that’s better than any free lunch. Sat. Various hours. Free. Various locations. SUN | JAN 26

“KABBALAH IN ART AND ARCHITECTURE”

Architect, design critic and author Alexander Gorlin explores the spiritual side of structure. By looking at the kabbalistic relationship with creation, light, space and geometry, Gorlin seamlessly reveals how ancient Jewish mysticism is expressed in contemporary blueprints. A Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, Gorlin brings a worldly understanding to architectural influences. Sun. 2:30 p.m. $10 (general), $7 (seniors and students), free (members). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>lamoth.org.

LEIGH STEINBERG

He’s the guy who brought you Troy Aikman, Bruce Smith and Ben Roethlisberger. In his new book, “The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game,” Steinberg chronicles his early years at UC Berkeley, his time on top as an industry king and some of the high-profile struggles that eventually led to a high-profile comeback. An inspiration for “Jerry Maguire” and an innovator in sports negotiation, Steinberg’s got a fair share of stories that pack a punch. Sun. 4 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. TUE | JAN 28

“THE MAGIKER”

Religion was never really a part of psychiatrist Harry Strider’s life. But when a troubled socialite seeks out Harry for counseling, the psychiatrist enters a never-before-explored world of kabbalah. Join Ed Asner, Richard Benjamin and more for a dramatic reading of Charles Dennis’ new novel. Winner of the Samuel Fuller Guerrilla Filmmaker Award, Dennis offers a funny, sharp, enlightened look at a man who is connecting for the first time. Tue. 7 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. ” target=”_blank”>cjs.ucla.edu.


WED | JAN 29

“BUNNY BUNNY”

The Falcon Theatre presents Alan Zweibel’s theatrical love letter to Gilda Radner. Having first met at “Saturday Night Live” behind a potted tree, the writer and comedian struck up a friendship that would last 14 years. Join director Dimitri Toscas as he takes us through the sometimes-heartbreaking memories of a very funny man who misses his very funny friend. Through March 2. Wed. 8 p.m. $27-$57. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. (818) 955-8101. FRI | JAN 31

MAYER HAWTHORNE

It’s been five years since his musical debut, and Hawthorne has an even more finely tuned sense of instrument, composition and vocal storytelling than ever before. Uniquely blending influences from soul legends Barry White and Curtis Mayfield as well as Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald and the Beastie Boys, it’s unsurprising that Hawthorne has nabbed his first Grammy nomination this year. Maybe you saw him when he toured with Bruno Mars, or Erykah Badu, or Amy Winehouse; now see him for himself. Fri. 8 p.m. $40.50. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 962-7600.

Rabbi Philip Berg, Kabbalah teacher for A-list celebs, dies at 84


Rabbi Philip Berg, who brought the teachings of Kabbalah to a celebrity following that included Madonna and Britney Spears, has died.

Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, died Monday at a hospital in that city. He had been ill since suffering a stroke in 2004. Berg was 86.

His followers also included Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Berg had some 4 million students in Kabbalah centers all over the world, according to reports.

Berg spurred controversy by bringing Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that is believed to be reserved for top Jewish scholars, to the masses.

His widow, Karen, and two sons, Yehuda and Michael, have led the center since his stroke, according to the Los Angeles Times. Berg founded the center in 1969.

The Internal Revenue Service opened a tax evasion investigation into the center last year, though it is unknown if the probe is still being pursued, according to the newspaper.

The center, which is believed to have assets in the hundreds of millions, emphasized cash donations from its members, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in New York, Berg was ordained as a rabbi in 1951.

“Today we believe the Rav has begun to share with us from above, and we will all happily remain connected to and inspired by the Rav’s soul and his vision,” the center said in a statement.

On Monday, students reportedly gathered outside the center upon hearing the news of Berg’s death.

He was to be buried in the Israeli city of Safed, a center of Jewish mysticism, on Tuesday, according to reports.

Madonna appeals for world peace at Israel concert


Launching her world tour in Israel, Madonna appealed for Middle East and world peace.

“You can’t be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world,” she told 30,000 fans packed into Ramat Gan station.

She said she chose Israel to launch her tour in order to spread her message of peace.

“No matter how many laws we change, no matter how many percentages of land we give back, no matter how many talks, no matter how many wars, if we don’t treat every human being with dignity and respect we will never have peace,” she said, wearing a form-fitting leather dress, a black beret and a fur-like collar. “So start today, start now each and every one of you, OK? You are the future, we are the future, and if there is peace here in the Middle East then there can be peace in the whole world.”

Madonna donated 600 tickets to her concert in Israel to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and she recognized them in her remarks.

“There are several very brave and important NGOs that are representing both Palestine and Israel together,” she said. She had met with some of the activists on Wednesday.

Madonna, 54, twice has performed sold-out shows in Israel, including the last performance of her “Sticky and Sweet” tour in 2009. She also has visited Israel with her children as part of her devotion to the study of kabbalah; they are with her now.

She changed costume several times through the show. Her playlist included classics “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer” as well as “Give Me All Your Luvin” from her latest album, MDNA.

Opinion: Liberation


It’s fashionable to look at Passover as a universal idea. This makes sense; after all, how much more universal can you get than the theme of human freedom? Also, it’s a lot easier these days to be outer-directed and feel outrage at injustice. Thanks to the Internet, millions can now watch YouTube clips of people being oppressed in the Sudan or demonstrating in the Middle East.

So, when Passover arrives, it’s not surprising that many of us would associate this powerful Jewish holiday with tikkun olam — with the global struggle for justice and freedom.

But there’s another dimension to freedom that has little to do with what’s happening in Africa and everything to do with what’s happening inside each one of us. This is a deeply personal and intimate view of freedom, and Passover is an ideal time to try to connect with it.

I got an unexpected lesson on this subject the other day when I asked my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a teacher of “spiritual wisdom” who was visiting from his home in the south of France, to share some thoughts on Passover.

“Our personal journey of freedom is reflected in the four names we use for the festival of Pesach,” Glick told me over coffee. “Each name represents a different step in this journey.”

In other words, each step is like a “mini seder” that we must experience before moving on to the next step. As Glick went on, I thought: “This is so Jewish. As soon as you think you’ve accomplished something, a little voice tells you: ‘Don’t get too excited — you’re not done yet.’ ”

The first name for Pesach — Chag HaHerut (the festival of freedom) — represents the first, basic step of our liberation, when we are released from physical bondage. It’s not a coincidence that one of the seder rituals at this stage is to break off a small piece of matzah (yachatz) and put away the larger one. This is a sign, according to Glick, that there’s still a lot more work to be done.

What is that work? It is to realize that the freedom to do anything is not the same thing as the freedom to do the right thing.

This is the second level of freedom, as symbolized by the second name of the holiday — Chag HaPesach (the festival of Passover) — which features, among other things, the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb.

Here, we are called upon to sacrifice our animal natures for the sake of our higher selves. Just as Moses sacrificed the material benefits of being a prince for the spiritual benefits of doing God’s work, we are challenged to rise above our animal desires — such as unbridled hedonism — and use our newfound freedom for a higher purpose.

By now, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, this is a pretty high level. What else can God want from us?” Well, like I said, with Judaism there’s always something.

As Glick explained it, once we have managed to discipline our animal bodies and to make the right choices, we slowly realize there is yet another bondage that has a hold on us — the bondage of the mind.

We are enslaved to prejudice, dogma and ideology.

So, the third step in our journey to personal liberation, which is symbolized by the third name of Pesach — Chag HaMatzot (the festival of unleavened bread) — is to free ourselves from dogmatic thinking.

That’s why this step is symbolized by the matzah, the flat bread that is made without yeast and is not allowed to rise. Yeast represents the ego, and the unleavened matzah represents the freedom of an open and expansive mind.

But hold on, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still the fourth name for Pesach — Chag HaAviv, the festival of spring — which ushers in the final level of personal liberation.

This final step is when we are liberated from our most fundamental fears, such as the fear of old age, sickness and death.

Glick calls it “joining the mind of God,” which represents the eternal and the timeless. We no longer fear the end because, at this level of spiritual consciousness, there is no end, only constant renewal. As we recite the final psalms of Hallel, we are reminded that there’s also no end to God’s love, and we experience a state of “never- ending spring” when every living thing is part of one single great consciousness.

Now, if you’re wondering how you can experience all this spirituality while the wine is flowing, the kids are yelling and the guests are arguing over whether Obama is good for the Jews, here’s some good news: After the seder, you still have 49 days to go. According to the kabbalah, we are to use the 49 days between Passover and the festival of Shavuot — the days of the counting of the Omer — to reach higher and higher levels of spiritual perfection.

And for those of us who preach tikkun olam, I have no doubt that this spiritual process includes the obligation to help with the liberation of others.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being Jewish, it’s that no matter how spiritually elevated we get or how many good deeds we’ve done or how much we’ve learned or how many people we’ve helped … we’re never done.

And that’s a pretty universal idea.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Madonna to perform ‘Concert for Peace’ in Israel


International pop star Madonna, who will launch her upcoming world tour in Israel, has added a second concert date in Tel Aviv for a “Concert for Peace.”

Madonna will perform at Ramat Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv on May 29 and May 31. The second date has been announced as a Concert for Peace, to which the star plans to invite organizations in Israel who are working for peace.

“Music is so universal and if there’s any chance that through my performance I can bring further attention and enlightenment to honor the peace efforts in the Middle East and help people come together, it would be an honor for me.”  Madonna said in a statement issued Wednesday. “It is my way of thanking those who are making so much effort toward bringing peace to the Middle East.”

The names of the organizations have not yet been announced.

Madonna, 54, twice has performed sold-out shows in Israel, including the last performance of her “Sticky and Sweet” tour in 2009. She also has visited Israel with her children as part of her devotion to the study of Kabbalah.

After-School Kabbalah Comes to LAUSD Campuses


Along with homework time, crafts and supervised games, grade school students in several Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools this spring are getting something different at their after-school programs: spiritual awareness.

Dozens of San Fernando Valley children are enrolled in Spirituality for Kids (SFK), a program founded and run by officials of the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles, whose curriculum teaches socially conscious behavior. Brought to the campuses of four San Fernando Valley public schools through a local after-school enrichment company, the program aims to help kids resist peer pressure, treat others with tolerance and build problem-solving skills.

The Kabbalah Centre has for years drawn the ire of critics claiming its popular version of kabbalah — made famous by such high-profile devotees as Madonna — is a sham.

Critics fear the program — which was founded by Kabbalah Centre International co-founder and co-director Karen Berg, and whose president, Michal Berg, is a Kabbalah Centre official and Karen Berg’s daughter-in-law — promotes concepts that echo the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings. Core terms in the SFK curriculum are also found in kabbalah, such as sharing “the light,” defined by SFK as a force of goodness in all people.

SFK staff, however, claim the program is not religious in nature. “It’s an empowerment program,” said Wanda Webster, director of curriculum for SFK. “We come at it asking ‘What tools would help children in life?’ We teach resiliency, meaning it gives them the tools to deal with the problems and issues they’re facing every day in school, or at home — anywhere they’re interacting with people.”

Webster defines the “spiritual” aspect of the program as “our connection to ourselves and to each other.”

“We don’t touch upon ‘the right thing to do’ — we just don’t go there,” she said. “We never use language like, ‘that’s right, that’s wrong,’ or ‘that’s good, that’s bad.’ What we talk about is, if you make this choice, will that get you what you want?”

A 2008 study by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, found that students enrolled in SFK classes in Florida showed improved communication, leadership and study skills and decreased attention problems and withdrawal.

Founded five years ago, SFK now operates in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, London and Panama City, as well as in Israel, Mexico and Malawi. The program has been criticized by top rabbis in London, but has garnered praise from educators who say it helps at-risk youth make positive choices for their futures.

Most of what the curriculum — the same at each school — teaches is “social competence skills,” such as self-esteem, self-control and sharing, said Jody Myers, professor of religious studies at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and author of “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America” (Praeger, 2007), which includes a chapter on SFK.

The SFK concept of the “true voice” versus the “opponent” echoes the Jewish concept of yetzer hatov (the tendency to do good) versus yetzer hara (the tendency to do bad), but is expressed in non-religious language, she said.

“They don’t teach worship, they don’t teach rituals or talk about God,” Myers said. “If you look at religion as belief in a higher power, they don’t use that language. The curriculum deals with conscience and emotion and intuition, but it’s not religion.”

Among the themes SFK explores are the causes and effects of reactive behavior and the relationship between physical objects and “spiritual powers” — happiness, love and excitement. A major part of the curriculum is the promotion of “caring and sharing behavior” over selfishness, Webster said.

Physical activities and games are included in the weekly 90-minute classes, such as a human knot game to illustrate the idea that “what we do affects others,” Webster said. According to the program literature, students are taught “rules to the game of life” — short adages including, “Take care of others and your needs will be fulfilled,” and “Share and make room for all life’s blessings.”

SFK classes are offered at Kester Avenue and Riverside Drive Elementary schools in Sherman Oaks, Nestle Avenue Elementary School in Tarzana and Tulsa Street Elementary School in Granada Hills through E3, an after-school enrichment program that operates in nine LAUSD elementary schools.

Social awareness among children often suffers because of a gap in “life skills” education in public schools, E3 director Linda McManus said.

“We’re sensing that our kids need more,” McManus said. “They’re getting enrichment, but there wasn’t much addressing life skills at this age.”

In September, E3’s entire staff trained with a team from SFK in the program’s terms and principles. McManus said she hoped the training would help her employees with classroom management and discipline.

E3 offers parents and their children alternative programming during class times SFK is offered, for those who don’t want their children in the 10-week program, McManus added.

Many parents say the program is a boon to their children — or at least an acceptable pastime during the after-school hours.

Maria Tapia of Van Nuys said her daughter seems to enjoy SFK at Kester Avenue Elementary School, where the program is geared toward third- to fifth-graders. “She says she enjoys it. Sometimes I come to pick her up and she says she wants to stay more,” Tapia said of Jennifer, a fourth-grader.

Jennifer Bahat of Encino said both her children had already taken SFK classes at the Kabbalah Centre last year, and her daughter, Shani, 6, is now enrolled again in a course for first- and second-graders at Nestle Avenue Elementary School.

“I love the program,” Bahat said. “Kids learn a lot of useful things. It’s natural for kids to be selfish and only think about what they want. As parents, we’re always teaching them to think of other people. Here they learn to be more thoughtful and considerate.”

Bahat said she has also taken kabbalah classes through the Centre before, and believes spirituality is a beneficial part of childhood education. Since starting SFK classes, Shani has become more aware of the consequences of her actions, Bahat said.

SFK isn’t the first educational program with ties to a controversial religious organization to draw criticism locally. The New Village Leadership Academy in Calabasas, founded by actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith last year, generated buzz for its use of “Study Technology” developed by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. School publicists have said the facility does not teach Scientology.

An LAUSD spokeswoman said the school district contracts with several enrichment companies, some of which bring in programming with known religious affiliations.

“The Los Angeles Unified School District accepts and supports having programs such as Spirituality for Kids on LAUSD campuses,” said Sharon Thomas, assistant general counsel to the district, in a statement. The district must abide by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by maintaining “strict neutrality in religious matters,” she said, and any program is acceptable as long as it does not run afoul of that.

But some still question whether the Kabbalah Centre is a legitimate religious institution.

“The Kabbalah Centre is to true kabbalah what Jews for Jesus is to true Judaism,” said Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and director of the anti-missionary and anti-cult center Jews for Judaism. “It’s making it look like it’s Jewish, but it’s not.”

In general, kabbalah is viewed as too “weird” or “out-there” for most mainstream Jews, said Myers, the CSUN professor. But while the Kabbalah Centre’s brand might not hew to the holy tradition on which it is based, it has nevertheless become a ubiquitous part of the religious landscape.

“Little bits and pieces are coming into normative Judaism,” Myers said. “Kabbalah is out of the bag.”

Kabbalah blamed for A-Rod marital breakup


JERUSALEM (JTA) – A former trainer for Alex Rodriguez said the star ballplayer’s interest in kabbalah caused the break-up of his marriage.

Cynthia Rodriguez filed for divorce Monday in Miami saying the New York Yankee “emotionally abandoned” her.

Trainer Dodd Romero told the ABC television show “Good Morning America” Monday that the pop singer Madonna “brainwashed” Rodriguez by interesting him in Kabbalah.

“Something has pulled him away from his strong family values and has caused him to search and look for something that really isn’t out there,” Romero said, according to the ABC News Web site.

Celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder says Cynthia Rodriguez will challenge her husband’s credibility by bringing up his growing interest in Kabbalah and claiming it is a cult.

Madonna, who is married to film director Guy Ritchie, has denied there are problems in her marriage and that Rodriguez made late-night visits to her New York apartment.

‘’

Sarah Silverman de-mystified kabbalah on stage last year

Briefs: Drug and immigration bust at kosher meat plant, Israel says no Hamas truce without Schalit


Feds: Drugs Made at Kosher Meat Plant

Federal authorities charged that a methamphetamine laboratory was operating at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and that employees carried weapons to work.

The charges were among the most explosive details to emerge following the massive raid Monday at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa. In a 60-page application for a search warrant, federal agents revealed details of their six-month probe of Agriprocessors. The investigation involved 12 federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the departments of labor and agriculture.

According to the application, a former plant supervisor told investigators that some 80 percent of the workforce was illegal. They included rabbis responsible for kosher supervision, who the source believed entered the United States from Canada without proper immigration documents. The source did not provide evidence for his suspicion about the rabbis. The source also claimed to have confronted a human resources manager with Social Security cards from three employees that had the same number. The manager laughed when the matter was raised, the source said.

At least 300 people were arrested Monday during the raid, for which federal authorities had rented an expansive fairground nearby to serve as a processing center for detainees. The search warrant application said that 697 plant employees were believed to have violated federal laws. Agriprocessors officials did not return calls from JTA seeking comment.

Israel Signals Possible Truce With Hamas in Gaza Hinges on Freeing Kidnapped Soldier

Israel signaled that any truce with Hamas in Gaza would be conditioned on the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Egyptian mediator Omar Suleiman held high-level talks in Israel on Monday about a Hamas proposal for a six-month cease-fire in Gaza accompanied by a lifting of the economic embargo on the territory. Israel, which had previously rebuffed the idea, appeared to be conditioning acquiescence on Hamas first freeing Shalit, a soldier it has held since June 2006.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office said after his discussions with Suleiman that Shalit was a “central factor” in “reaching a security arrangement in Gaza,” though Israel would remain firm on its other demands that Palestinian arms-smuggling and attacks also cease completely.

Poll Finds 59 Percent of Israelis Want Olmert Out

A narrow majority of Israelis believe Ehud Olmert should resign over suspicions of financial misdeeds, a poll found. According to the survey in Monday’s Yediot Achronot, 59 percent of Israelis want the prime minister to step down in light of a police investigation into his ties with a U.S. financier at the heart of bribery allegations. Thirty-three percent back Olmert’s decision to stay in office, and the rest are undecided.

Olmert has denied wrongdoing in the Morris Talansky affair. However, the poll found that 60 percent of Israelis do not believe the prime minister’s public assertions that he never took bribes, while 22 percent do.

The scandal appears to have hit Olmert’s already low approval ratings. According to Yediot, which in February found that 18 percent of Israelis thought Olmert was best suited to be prime minister, that figure is now down to 10 percent. By contrast, 37 percent of Israelis want right-wing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power, while 20 percent favor Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, another former premier who is now Olmert’s defense minister. But Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party could see surprising success against Netanyahu’s Likud if the prime minister were replaced by his senior deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and elections were held today.

According to the Yediot poll, a Livni-led Kadima would take 27 percent of the votes against 23 percent for Likud and 15 percent for Labor. The survey had 500 respondents and a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Rescuer of Warsaw Ghetto Children Dies

Irena Sendler, who smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto to safety during World War II, died Monday in Warsaw. Sendler, who was later arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, was 98. Between October 1940 and April 1943, Sendler and a team of about 20 volunteers smuggled the children out in boxes or suitcases. She then placed them with Polish families. As a social worker, Sendler visited the ghetto regularly.

In 1965, she was among the first people named by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. She also was made an honorary Israeli citizen. Sendler was nominated last year for a Nobel Peace Prize.

She lived in relative obscurity until about eight years ago, when a group of students from Uniontown, Kan., learned about her wartime heroism and wrote a play about it. The play has been performed in North America and Poland.

Kabbalah Museum to Open in Jerusalem

A museum devoted exclusively to Kabbalah will open in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Kabbalah Museum — the only museum devoted exclusively to Judaism’s mystical tradition, according to its founder — is scheduled to open June 25. It will display such artifacts as amulets, garments and historical manuscripts; provide education, including personal Kabbalah training, and offer tours of Israel, focusing on sites of kabbalistic interest.

Founding director Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, the author of “Soul Journeys” — a book about Kabbalah — said the museum is targeted at both Jews and non-Jews. While “Kabbalah ma’asit,” or practical Kabbalah involving incantations, is esoteric knowledge that Dalfin said institutions “should stay away from,” he said the new museum will present “teachings that are open to anyone.”

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Annapolis, Chanukah, Jerusalem, Not So Weird


Annapolis and Jerusalem

Last month, Rob Eshman wrote, “Many of us are willing to let half of Jerusalem go so that the idea of Jerusalem can be saved” (“Annapolis and Chanukah,” Nov. 30). I’d like to respond with two points:

First, if, God forbid, East Jerusalem were handed over to the Palestinians, it wouldn’t be “ideas” they’d be firing onto the homes and institutions of West Jerusalem.

Second, no portion of Israel, especially Jerusalem, is the sole possession of the prime minister, to be traded for even a legitimate promise of peace. The state may be sovereign, but the land upon which the Israeli government presides is unique and distinct from any other parcel of land on earth.

Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, everywhere: those of us who pray every day for its safety, teenagers visiting for the first time through Taglit-birthright israel, grandparents who buy Israel Bonds for their grandchildren, Israel Defense Forces soldiers who fought to protect and reunify the city and their families and friends who grieved when they paid the ultimate price.

Although we’ve been scattered around the world for the past 2,000 years, our hearts were always in Jerusalem. Seeing the city divided now would break our hearts.

Daniel Iltis
Los Angeles

I want to thank Rob Eshman for his insightful and honest piece about Annapolis. I am heartened that the parties met and that the Arab world seems ready to move in the direction of making peace with Israel. The hard work is yet to come.

And it is so true that the story of Chanukah, the spiritual side, which the rabbis highlighted through the haftarah of Zecharia, can inform us in how we go forward in this new round of talks. We must all be truthful, hopeful and courageous of spirit in our desire for peace.

Jerusalem can be shared, as it is already, and the holy sites will be open to all people.

The naysayers are out in force, but I am choosing to stand with those who believe in hope and a future of peace. The realities will be hard to swallow, but with a healthy dose of spirituality, a belief that tomorrow can be different from today, we can be the generation that makes peace a reality. Not by might but by spirit.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center,
Brit Tzedek V’Shalom National Secretary

‘New Kind of Mikveh’

There are many beautifully designed mikvehs throughout California (“New Kind of Mikveh Washes Off Ritual’s Negative Image,” Dec. 7). This new trend started some 30 years ago with the Long Beach Mikveh. Its establishment was prompted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Since then, mikvehs have taken on a new approach to design and sensitivity to femininity. For instance, the recently constructed mikveh in Agoura is a prime example of this trend.

In our community of Yorba Linda, the Orange County mikveh is slated to open in just a few weeks. The mikveh was constructed with great attention to detail. It is a haven of holiness and purity. Many in the community will benefit from it.

For more on mikvehs around the community, visit www.mikvah.org.

Rabbi David Eliezrie
North County Chabad Center

‘Wandering Minyan’

I must confess that it was with special delight and pleasure I read David Suissa’s Pearl Harbor Day column titled, “Wandering Minyan” (Dec. 7).

There are three reasons I was thrilled by your explication. First, the dynamic writing style offered a cerebral joy associated with pleasure of experiencing fine craftsmanship. Secondly and more importantly I shared an experience with Young Israel of Santa Monica, and your words were true and familiar. What reverberated deeply was your prophetic call to act as a true guardian and trustee of community assets, to act benevolently and righteously, to act as a brother to a brother.

My encounter with this little congregation was similar to yours. My wife and I sauntered into the Levin Center and encountered an eclectic group, unified in their respect and warmth toward guests and each other.

I wish I could share your optimism that with a new voice in The Federation, there can be exhibited a breath of kindness to engage Young Israel.

I ask all like-minded folk, especially Young Israel congregants, to make a small amendment to their annual gifts to The Federation. Make their checks payable to Young Israel of Santa Monica Rent Trust (Negotiable when Young Israel resumes residency at the Levin Center).

If enough dollars are earmarked for Young Israel of Santa Monica, The Federation will yield to economy, if not brotherhood.

David [Suissa] keep up the good work in keeping our community leaders accountable and humane.

David Stauber
Santa Monica

Kabbalah

If Phillip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, is “trying to keep young Jews from cults,” then why is he discouraging them from taking pride in their Judaism (“Not So Weird,” Dec. 7)?

In his review of Jody Myers’ book and his own visit to the centre, Rob Eshman states that the Kabbalah Centre denies that it is Jewish (except when doing so would benefit its coffers). He also explains how centre regulars abhor the idea of converting to Judaism or even using the term Jewish.

If the centre and its adherents are so ashamed of being Jewish or being associated with something Jewish, then why did they steal the name of an ancient Jewish practice? Is it any wonder that the centre rubs many Jews the wrong way?

Real Jews take pride in their Judaism. They don’t try to appeal to the masses or blend in with non-Jews, and they certainly don’t try to coddle spoiled movie stars and pop singers like Madonna, who are made sick by the very idea of being Jewish.

Variety of books pave way for understanding kabbalah


Historically, rabbis have proclaimed that in order to study kabbalah, one has to be a learned Jewish man older than of 40. So imagine how surprised those rabbis would be today if they could peruse a modern bookstore: There are now a plethora of tomes on the subject, making kabbalah available to the layperson — male, female, Jew and non-Jew — the dummy and idiot alike (which is it better to be?).

The orange “Complete Idiot’s Guide,” the yellow “For Dummies” and the white “Everything” series all have come out with guides to Kabbalah, contributing to the pop phenomenon of making the topic as ubiquitous as the Ten Commandments.

Four new books (certainly more are on the way) all promote the idea that Kabbalah is now ready for mass consumption, and the old prohibition against the layman’s studying is past its prime. The books, each with their own graphic elements — illustrations, pull quotes, diagrams, glossaries, cartoons, etc. — attempt to explain kabbalah to the novice:

  • “More and more people are reaching out in search of something on the spiritual and emotional level that will make real and permanent difference in their lives,” writes Gabriella Samuel in “The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism” (Penguin, 2007). The handbook, a more than 400-page tome, defines kabbalistic terms to serve as a reference book for those studying and practicing kabbalah.

    The alphabetized encyclopedia provides English, Hebrew and transliterated terms, from “Aaronic priesthood” (one priestly family line) through “The Zohar,” (a holy radiance and the title of the principle text of Kabbalah, circulated in the 13th century by Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who claimed it was an ancient manuscript. Author Samuel is a teacher, artist, musician, clinical psychologist and the founder of the Asheville School of Kabbalah in South Carolina; she has studied kabbalah for more than four decades with her Chabad rabbi.

    While it is intended as a supplemental text, maybe, like the new “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” this encyclopedia can serve as crib notes for those hot kabbalah parties you’ve never attended. Or, conversely, it can help you with actual study of kabbalah.

  • “All of this concern about who should study Kabbalah and who should not arose because people feared that mystical studies could pose a danger to a person, emotionally, psychologically and even physically,” says Mark Elber’s “The Everything Kabbalah Book: Explore This Mystical Tradition — From Ancient Rituals to Modern-Day Practices,” which also includes a technical review by Rabbi Max Weiman. “Since the study of Talmud is a rigorous mental activity, the restrictions mentioned here were essentially ways of ensuring that those engaged in kabbalah studies came to them with a lot of stability in their lives (and being married and 40 years of age might ensure a certain emotional groundedness in the student).”
    This book has 20 chapters, covering topics including the history of early Jewish mysticism, as well as reincarnation (“[Rabbi Issac] Luria [a famous kabbalist from the 16th century known as the “Ari”] believed … a soul would keep reincarnating until it has fulfilled this mission for which it had been brought into the physical realm in the first place”) to (“the sublime holiness doesn’t rest on a person if he’s too attached to the physical”) to Kabbalah in the 21st century. And has graphic elements such as facts (important sound bytes of information), essentials (quick handy tips), alerts (urgent warnings) and questions (solutions to common problems).

    One of the best parts is at the beginning, the “Top Ten Kabbalistic Insights,” such as, “There is no place where God is not. God fills and transcends all universes (No. 1)” to “Where your consciousness is, there you are. Your consciousness (kavana) makes all the difference (No. 5).” These are kabbalah’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments, though we probably won’t find them posted on the wall of any courtroom any time soon — no matter how popular kabbalah becomes.

  • It’s not often you hear someone defending Madonna, especially not for her front-and-center Kabbalah Centre advocacy (and there are many who would link her career’s downfall to her religious transformation as Esther), but Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil includes a boxed-off paragraph near the end of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” one of the best of the introductory books. “She certainly isn’t one of the greatest kabbalists in history, but Madonna, the enormously gifted singer, actress and show business personality, has probably done more than anyone in the world in recent times to make the word ‘Kabbalah’ a familiar one,” he writes. “Madonna doesn’t represent herself as a master of Kabbalah — she’s never claimed that. What she has claimed, however, and what I respect her for, is that she’s interested in Kabbalah.”
    Kurzweil, a kabbalah teacher and author, is a descendant of three revered kabbalah teachers: Rabbi Chaim Yoseft Gottlieb (1790-1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630) and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572).The “Dummies” book is divided into five basic parts: kabbalah basics, the core of kabbalah (the world is in need of repair and the human soul is eternal), the practice of kabbalah, essential skills (study and prayer) and important figures, historical moments and myths in kabbalah. (It’s quite smart to put these factoids at the end, instead of weighing down the opening of the book with all the factual information.) This book has a sense of humor: Each section is prefaced with a humorous cartoon (“Who barbeques in a succah?” a woman yells at her husband near the charred remains).

  • The goal of kabbalah is “to help you make, and sustain, direct contact with the Creator,” writes Rabbi Michael Laitman in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kabbalah,” co-authored with Collin Canright, (Alpha, 2007). “Kabbalah states very simply that when you know how to connect to the Creator directly, without any go-betweens, you will find the inner compass, a guiding light that shines no matter where you are,” he writes. When you do master it, “you will need no further guidance.”
    The “Idiot’s Guide” is divided into four parts: the history, the principles, your personal life and Kabbalah in today’s world. It highlights factoids using “definitions,” “words of heart” and quotes: “You have not a blade of grass below that has not a sign above, which strikes it and tells it, ‘grow,’ Midrash Raba.” “On Track” provides practical tips: “Don’t bother with your next spiritual degree, the Creator has prepared it for you. Work on completing your work at your present degree and the Creator will take you to the next level.”
    There’s also fun “Kab-trivia”: One of the most famous groups of kabbalists, the Kotz group of Poland, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel, once tried switching the days to see how it feels. They “moved” the Sabbath (Saturday) to Tuesday and behaved accordingly. They decided that it made no difference, as long as they all did it together.
    “Red Alert” cautions: “The teacher’s role in kabbalah is very subtle. The teacher must direct the student away from him and toward the Creator. There is no way a person can avoid the attention and admiration students shower on a teacher, unless the teacher has already transcended the ego and entered the Upper World.”

Most of the intro books take pains to debunk many of the myths about kabbalah, such as the use of “holy water,” buying an expensive Zohar set for good luck, the need to wear a red string — practices popularized by the Kabbalah Centre, the Los Angeles institute that is largely responsible for taking kabbalah mainstream.

But here’s the thing about kabbalah for the layman. Even if Kabbalah is packaged for “Dummies,” “Idiots” or “Everyone,” even if these books use cute comics and graphics and sidebars and subheads and catchy chapter heads, they all are trying to explain a very difficult subject. What kabbalists call senior — the 10 essential essences, the soul, the world to come, our relationship to the Creator, the Creator’s relationship to the world — all are heady subjects, challenging to comprehend, no matter how pretty the package.

Briefs: Does L.A. matter to N.Y. Jews? Is ‘The Secret’ kosher? Why can’t we all get along?


Does Los Angeles matter to New York Jews?

From the heart of finance to the height of fashion, the cog of publishing to the kings of media, New York sees itself as the center of everything. That’s no less true when it comes to Jewish religious life.

“New York has a tough time seeing behind the Hudson,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, national director of the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth movement of the Orthodox Union (OU).

Burg should know. Although he grew up in Brooklyn, he’s spent most of his career outside the tri-state area, including here in Los Angeles, where he worked with NCSY until relocating to the East Coast three years ago. Last week Burg returned to Los Angeles, bringing with him five senior OU staff members for a two-day brainstorming session with the West Coast OU.

The Synagogue and Community Staff Conference, Oct. 10-11 at the OU West Coast headquarters on Pico Boulevard, indicated that New York leadership of the synagogue service group is beginning to recognize that there is life beyond the Big Apple. Coming to Los Angeles to plan West Coast activities and meet with member synagogues was like the mountain coming to Mohammed, so to speak.

“The West Coast office is a model for us nationally,” said David Olivestone, OU communications and marketing director. Servicing some 40 synagogues — 25 in the Los Angeles area and the rest in communities like Vancouver, Seattle, Phoenix and San Francisco — the West Coast office is the only satellite OU office in the United States (there’s one in Israel).

Olivestone said the OU is looking at large Jewish communities such as Chicago and Miami to “consider” opening up offices like the one here in Los Angeles. “It’s worked so well on the West Coast,” he said.

While the OU is best known for its kosher certification program, the organization, especially in Los Angeles, provides a host of other services for the Orthodox community, mainly serving as a liaison for its member synagogues.

Some of the synagogue-aid activities include providing security grants to synagogues, assisting the Pacific Jewish Center (“The Shul on the Beach”) in its legal battles with the California Coastal Commission over its eruv, helping rebuild a Sacramento synagogue that was firebombed and extending funds to an Orange County synagogue to build a mikvah (ritual bath). It also resolves synagogues’ internal problems, such as finding a rabbi (or providing interim or High Holy Days rabbis where necessary), building mechitzas (barriers separating men and women) or board issues.

Yearly programming includes synagogue seminars (“Conflict Resolution in Congregational Life”), Torah learning lectures (scholar-in-residence Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University), parenting and “making marriage work” classes, as well as outreach workshops (“Outreach: Not Just for the Professionals: What You Can Do and How You Can Do it”). It’s all capped by the West Coast OU annual convention, open to the entire community. This year’s Dec. 20-25 convention is called “Guaranteeing Continuity: Keeping our Children Jewish and Orthodox.”

While some say the OU is not the most influential Orthodox organization in Los Angeles — compared, say, to the Rabbinic Council of California, which provides local kosher certification as well — West Coast OU leadership stresses that the organization’s goal is to service synagogues and the community.

“We’re not a rabbinic body,” said West Coast Director Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, noting that the group’s job is to help synagogues increase membership and strengthen the community’s ties to Orthodoxy.

For example, on Simchat Torah, when it’s customary to drink, the OU instituted a zero-tolerance policy on drinking in synagogue, and no one ended up in the hospital, Kalinsky said.

“If a rabbi [alone] took the position, everyone would laugh,” he said, but because it was a community-wide ban, it was effective.

“We’re out there because we want to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

As for Los Angeles, the West Coast staff hoped to show the New York visitors that L.A. has come of age. They brainstormed on future programming, met with local synagogue leaders and took a tour of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“L.A. is producing the future leaders of Orthodox community,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, West Coast community and synagogue services director.

“Well, some of them,” one of his New York colleagues conceded.

Is ‘The Secret’ Kosher?

While many rabbis in The Jewish Journal’s July 7 article “Judaism vs. ‘The Secret‘” didn’t think so, one rabbi thinks otherwise. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, kabbalah and chasidut authority who lives in Israel, will present five days of lectures on “The Secret: Behind The Secret,” Oct. 21-25. “To what measure it is found in Judaism? And how does it apply to an individual life in a kosher venue based on the teachings of Chasidut and kabbalah?” asked Rabbi Shaya Eichenblatt, the West Coast director of Gal Einai, or “inner dimension,” the organization devoted to disseminating Ginsburgh’s teachings (www.inner.org).

Lectures will include “Love and Attraction,” “Spiritual Magnetism,” “Success without Arrogance” and “Providence and Mazal.”

Although both Ginsburgh and Eichenblatt are followers of Chabad (Ginsburgh lives in Kfar Chabad in Israel), Gal Einai is not affiliated with Chabad, and presents “classic” Judaism, Eichenblatt said. The organization hopes to begin offering classes for Jews of all denominations as well as for non-Jews, and begin a matchmaking service for people interested in kabbalah and chasidut and the Law of Attraction.

When asked how it might differ from other local disseminators of kabbalah in Los Angeles, Eichenblatt said, “This is the kabbalah as it is understood according to the Ba’al Shem Tov, applied to modern-day thinking. It’s the synergy of the teachings of Torah as it parallels the modern world.”

For more information on the lecture series, call (323) 933-1646, or e-mail innertorahla@gmail.com.

Interfaith Children Just as Happy, But More Prone to Drinking, Drugs

The September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion published a study that questions whether having parents of dissimilar faiths has an effect on children’s overall well-being. “Parents’ Religious Heterogamy and Children’s Well-Being,” by doctoral student Richard J. Petts and assistant professor Chris Knoester of Ohio State University, examined data from the National Survey of Families and Households to test the hypothesis that it did.

In defense of Madonna


I interviewed Madonna in the early ’90s. At the time I was the managing editor of “In Jerusalem,” a weekend section of The Jerusalem Post. Madonna was in the ‘hood as part of an influx of A-list pop stars who made a symbolic trek to the Holy Land to show support for the fledgling peace process. Other famous notables included Sting, Neil Young, Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses, not to mention a red carpet full of actors, movers and shakers, and wannabes.

Recently, Madonna and her husband, British film director Guy Richie, were in Jerusalem celebrating the Rosh Hashanah holiday and attending a kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) conference. They were joined by celebs Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Rosie O’Donnell and designer Donna Karan. Madonna met with Israeli president Shimon Peres, and the two exchanged gifts. He gave her a copy of the Tanach. She gave him a volume of “The Book of Splendor,” the guiding text of kabbalah. Madonna is not a Jew. Nor is her hubby. Yet she wears the red kabbalah string around her wrist, calls herself Esther as well as an “Ambassador for Judaism.”

But as those of us know, it’s not so easy being Jewish.

The ultra-Orthodox community has cried “Shanda without a sheidel! They proclaim Madonna and her merry band of tinseltown kabbalists an abomination. They say she has turned kabbalah into a three-ring circus, and in response they have engaged in an impassioned we-don’t-want-her-among-us campaign.

Truth be told: Many of those holier-than-thous who are bad-mouthing Madonna were once themselves on the wrong side of the tracks, before they rediscovered Judaisim and 613 new ways to live their lives.

Let’s set the record straight: Madonna is good for the Jews.

In a world chock-full of anti-Semites, the pop icon is displaying her heartfelt connection to Israel and Judaism in klieg lights. She celebrates Jewish pride, and she declares through her words and artistic endeavors that Judaism provides a profound source of meaning and spiritual depth. Unlike many doubters who were born Jewish — the assimilators, the self-haters and the apathetics — Madonna, the Material Shiksa, is proud of her inner Jewishness, and is not afraid to wear it, sing it, shout it, love it.

With one flash of the camera, Madame M does more for the Jews than our Jewish lobbies combined: In short, Madonna has made shul cool.

She inserts kabbalah teachings in her music and even in the context of her best-selling children’s books. And Lord knows, we Jews need to do whatever we can to appeal to our Internet-brainwashed kids. With intermarriage skyrocketing, and Hebrew School “totally boring,” Madonna’s stories, particularly “The English Roses,” is a beautifully recreated modern kabbalah tale. Her protagonist, Binah, is a motherless teenager who embodies the gift of mitzvah. Her difficult life sets a shining example for a group of rich, spoiled “Gossip Girls,” who are insanely jealous of Binah’s physical beauty. Binah teaches the girls how to appreciate what they have, and that being a good friend is much more fulfilling than buying the latest iPod Shuffle.

Madonna is not a liar (she never said she was a virgin, she said she was like a virgin). She is and has always been unapologetic, a woman without regrets. She couldn’t care less what you think, as she abides by her own set of principles. Not to mention that she is a physical wonder to the 40-plus crowd. Nearing 50, Madonna has never looked better. Her body is toned and strong, her face is more beautiful than in her youth. Her eyes now glow with the wisdom of an incessant seeker, who was once lost and is now found.

Make no mistake, we are not talking Saint Madonna here. Everybody knows she has been there, done that to the nth degree, but in her controversial journey, Madonna is an inspiration to those who have lost their way, proving that they, too, can find the light at the end of the tunnel.

And her light happens to shine upon Jewish teachings. How bad is that?

Accept her, embrace her. While the likes of Britney and Lindsay are rehab hopping, and other it girls are spending their days trying to avoid the slammer, Madonna the Goy is busy running around the world being a Good Jew.

So here’s to you, Esther. Bruchim Habaim, as they say in the Old Country. Any time you need a holiday, you are not only welcome in my house, but also at my Sabbath table.

Lisa Frydman Barr is a Chicago-based writer.

Letter from Tangier: Preserving the music of the Jews of Morocco


At 6:30 a.m., I was walking toward Sha’ar Rafael, the synagogue on Boulevard Pasteur, the central drag in downtown Tangier.

It is the last synagogue in this
community of fewer than 100 Jews, the last one left in this Northern Moroccan port city that at its zenith housed 22 synagogues, had 100 cantors and 50 kosher butchers.

The city was still sleeping; few people were out. The cafés were open, men were sitting at sidewalk tables looking toward the street; veiled women were wearing jalabiyas and hurrying on their errands and a few older Jews were going to Selihot services. As I crossed the street, I met Rabbi Avraham Azancot, president of the Tangier community hurrying up the synagogue steps.

I am in Morocco for five months on a Senior Fulbright award from the State Department and the Moroccan government, researching Judeo-Spanish songs from Northern Morocco for their connection to liturgical poetry and kabbalistic practices. I arrived just two weeks ago and have installed myself in Tangier. Selihot, led by Rabbi Azancot, was very moving, with a piercing shofar that brought tears to my eyes. Later, over breakfast of homemade bread, argan oil and biscuits with coffee, Rabbi Azancot described for me the particulars of the Tangerine community’s prayers for the High Holy Days, especially Rosh Hashanah. The Achot Ketana, a piyyut (liturgical poem) welcoming the new year and sending off the old, follows a different order in Tangier than in the traditional prayer book: They sing Achot Ketana first, then the psalm for Rosh Hashanah and finally the Kaddish, to maintain the integrity of saying Kaddish over the holier text, which is the Psalm.

Some of the siddurim, published in Livorno, have both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers together; full of piyyutim sung with Andalusian melodies. Listening with Western ears, the music sounds Arabic, but this music was brought to the communities of Tangier and Tetouan by the Jews exiled from Spain — with lilting melodies, counter rhythms and many flourishes.

The first wave of Spanish Jews came to Morocco after the riots of 1391, and the larger group came during and after 1492. The expulsion brought scores of people, and later others followed who had thought a nominal conversion to Catholicism could be an easy solution to the persecution but then learned otherwise. Many of them moved to these communities in the North of Morocco, returning to Judaism. The community that predates the Spanish Jews has been here since the time of the First Temple.

” target=”_blank”>Vanessa Paloma sings and plays harp with the Los Angeles-based Sephardic/Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Folk Music group, Flor de Serena (Siren’s Flower).

Safed banking on Rosh Hashanah visitation by Madonna


Lawyer makes case for answering rabbinical school call


Kenneth Klee is living the American dream.

He is a nationally recognized bankruptcy lawyer, founding partner of Klee, Tuchin, Bogdanoff & Stern and was named one of the top 100 lawyers in California by the Los Angeles Daily Journal. A tenured law professor at UCLA, he lectures nationwide and has held a named professorship at Harvard Law School.

He is also writing a book on bankruptcy, due out in 2008, and he serves as an expert witness or consultant in such high-profile bankruptcy cases as Adelphia Communications and Enron.

And yet despite these avocations, the 40-something Klee said he felt there was something missing in his life. He’s now studying for his smicha, or ordination, as a rabbi, which he intends to compliment his sideline as a spiritual counselor.

Klee earned his law degree from Harvard University in 1974, and started teaching at UCLA as an adjunct professor in 1979. From 1995 to 1996, Klee taught at Harvard Law School as the Robert Braucher Visiting Professor From Practice, and then joined UCLA full time the following year.

In 1997, he also began studying energy healing techniques, like reiki and pranic. He soon formalized his efforts by establishing the Klee Ministry, a side business that offers a variety of meditative and energy healing treatments.

Energy healing doesn’t always sit well with medical professionals, but the practice is increasingly finding a place in the mainstream and some local hospitals, like UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital, seek to compliment a traditional approach to medicine with one that some might brand New Age.

Energy healing has been around for thousands of years. Centered on the concept of a life force, known as chi in Chinese medicine or doshas in Ayurveda, healers claim they can change the direction of this energy to aid the body in healing.

In addition to his legal practice and teaching, Klee also counsels people who are in physical, mental or social pain, which he confessed seems “incongruous for a type-A lawyer/professor.”

Klee said that his wife, Doreen, “came along kicking and screaming as she saw the teacher/attorney she had married turn into a healer-minister” after helping her with health problems on three separate occasions. He added that his two computer programmer sons, ages 32 and 34, are very accepting, but they “think their father is strange.”

As he became more and more involved in his healing practice, Klee found he wanted to tap into the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah and learn more about spiritual counseling. Klee grew up in a secular Jewish family. While confirmed at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, he had never studied Hebrew nor became a bar mitzvah.

His quest brought him first to Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, and eventually led him to enroll in the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR/CA), where he is now studying to become a rabbi.

Unlike traditional rabbinic seminaries, AJR/CA has attracted students like Klee who want to add a spiritual dimension to their careers. Although he has no ambition to become a pulpit rabbi, Klee is studying Hebrew in order to be able to read traditional texts in their original language. He is willing to do this because he believes that his rabbinic training and Jewish learning will make him a better counselor.

Among the 66 students currently enrolled in the school are lawyers, professors and even a screenwriter.

“Spirituality is an integral part of the AJR,” said Rabbi Stan Levy, the academy’s president, who added that the school is “the ultimate merger to bring spirituality into the day-to-day.”
Levy considers Klee “the perfect embodiment of two different dimensions,” he said.

Klee has since become a member of the Orthodox Westwood Village Shul and the Conservative congregation Adat Shalom, where his wife introduced him to Lev Eisha, Hebrew for Heart of a Woman, a women’s spiritual community that he says is filled with “so much spirituality, singing and dancing.”

Of the program at AJR/CA, Klee said that his rabbinic studies have given him “valuable insights” into his professional career as a lawyer and teacher. He has been deeply affected by his study of the prophets and the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom he credits with having had a “very significant” impact on him.

In light of his otherwise busy schedule as an attorney, teacher and healer, Klee said he’s going to give his ordination plenty of time and attention.

“I don’t mind working hard and I think I have a lot of time,” he said. “I don’t expect to get my smicha for several years; I’m not in a hurry.”

Kabbalah boom prompts meeting of mystical minds


In Maui, at a New Age gift shop, a woman in a sarong pays for a candle in the shape of the Buddha, a bundle of sage used in Native American ceremonies and a copy of “Becoming Like God: Kabbalah and Our Ultimate Destiny,” by Michael Berg.

At a Baltimore bookstore, a young man wearing a cross around his neck pours over a copy of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” as he sips his Starbucks.

In Lilongwe, Malawi, a white woman ties a red wool string around the thin brown wrist of a young boy.

And the Web site at the Bnei Baruch World Center for Kabbalah Studies gets 2.5 million views a month, translated into 22 languages.

What was once shrouded in mystery and the exclusive domain of educated Jewish males over the age of 40 is now as accessible as the King James Bible. At the same time that more and more non-Jews unite to study and engage in some of Judaism’s most sacred and intimate texts, the schisms among Jews who draw upon the same teachings grow ever wider.

In light of this, the ever-expanding world of Kabbalah scholars are increasingly asking: What are the ramifications of Kabbalah becoming a universal spiritual path? Is there a way to keep it authentic and anchored to its Jewish roots?

These were some of the concerns that compelled Rabbi Yakov Travis of Tiferet Institute in Cleveland to orchestrate an unprecedented forum of rabbis, professors, authors, scholars and spiritual seekers with radically different approaches to Jewish mysticism. Travis is the founder and director of Tiferet Institute’s two-year home-based study program via Web conferencing, “Kabbalistic Spirituality: Principles, Pathways and Practices,” which is designed to foster a serious and stimulating learning community of kindred spirits across the country.

The forum, “Kabbalah for the Masses? The Promise and Problems in Mainstreaming Jewish Mysticism,” was held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego at the tail end of the Association for Jewish Studies annual meeting on Dec. 18 and 19, the fourth and fifth days of Chanukah.

The forum’s goal was to begin a constructive conversation on the contemporary phenomenon of mainstream Jewish mysticism. In a structured format, presentations by panelists were followed by respondents from the academic community, as well as an open question-and-answer session.

Included in the lineup of presenters was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of the novel, “Kabbalah: A Love Story”; Rabbi Berg of Los Angeles, heir to the Kabbalah Centre dynasty; and Tamar Frankiel, dean of students and professor of comparative religion at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles and author of “Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction for Christians.”

Also included were Mark Elber, author of “The Everything Kabbalah Book”; Arthur Kurzweil, author of “Kabbalah for Dummies”; Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Kabbalah at University of Judaism; Rabbi Moshe Genuth of the Baal Shem Tov Center in Toronto; and Rabbi Wayne Dosick of San Diego’s Elijah Minyan.

In the realm of Kabbalah, time and space take on a whole new meaning, so it was appropriate that two of contemporary mystical Judaism’s most beloved and vibrant teachers — Rebbe Zalman Schachter Shalomi, one of the major founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School — were beamed in via live, interactive audio-video Web conferencing.

At a panel discussion on “Kabballah for Non-Jews?” speakers represented a variety of viewpoints. Whereas Giller sees the Kabbalah Centre as an answer to the declaration, “I am not religious, I am spiritual,” Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of Jewish intellectual history at Arizona State University, accused Berg and the center of hawking spiritual wares, hedonism, self-centeredness and material secularism.

Berg’s response was that the center was many things to many people — that it is up to the individual to choose how deeply he will immerse himself in what the center offers.

“We don’t have to study Kabbalah or understand the Zohar [the pivotal texts of Kabbalah] to become better people,” he said.

“I wanted this forum to be as inclusive as possible, to bring all Jews to the table,” Travis said in his opening remarks. Then he half joked, “Even those that are wrong. Even those that have ideas that are the opposite of mine.”

When the laughter died down, he looked around the room.

“Where is the vision?” he asked. “If we want to be a light to the nations, we need to talk.”

There was not only talk but deep listening. There was also storytelling, laughter and an abundance of metaphors. Sparks flew, too. Rabbi Elliott Ginsburg described the experience of such a meeting of minds and hearts as “cognitive whiplash.”

On the subject of Madonna, which was inevitably raised, Kurzweil came to her defense.

“I’d like to defend Madonna,” he said. “The media have made it all a joke. She’s an easy target. Doesn’t she have the right to her own spiritual journey?”

However, most present seemed to hold Frankiel’s view that “it’s intellectually dishonest if someone presents Kabbalah as simply a universal philosophy and not as something essentially Jewish.”

Many of the 102 people at the forum arrived holding strong opinions and concerns about the Kabbalah Centre, with its slick marketing strategies, pop-culture appeal and “mercantile dimension,” yet this was the first opportunity they had to listen to and question Berg.

“If ever there was an occasion to recite the ‘Shehecheyanu,'” said Rachel Miller of Los Angeles, as she glanced at the list of presenters, “this is it.”

Although all the presenters were united by their passion for the study and practice of Kabbalah, the most observable differences lay in their approaches as to how Judaism’s most sacred and intimate teachings should be disseminated.

“The Bnei Noah movement is going to explode in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Genuth, referring to the growing number of Christians who, disillusioned with their religion, have found their way to Kabbalah through the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and the new Ba’al Shem Tov Center in Toronto. Here, the “holiest of holies” is shared with non-Jews within the framework of the seven principles of the Covenant of Noah.

In the esoteric teachings of the Zohar, the work of Jewish mysticism, what you see is only a fraction of what really exists. And what exists at the Kabbalah Centre goes far beyond Madonna and the sale of red string, Berg said. His lineage dates back to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1954), who believed that only Kabbalah can save the world from disaster.

Learning With the Learned; Virtual Hartman Institute; Jewish Law Course Offers CLE Credit


Learning With the Learned

Five of Los Angeles’ learned rabbis and teachers will share their wisdom in “Master Class,” an advanced Judaic continuing education class open to all at the University of Judaism (UJ), beginning Nov. 9. Each thematic section will meet for three sessions on Thursday evenings over the course of the fall and spring.

Moral questions define the first three elements: Rabbi Mordechai Finley of Ohr Ha Torah Congregation will speak on “Soul and Virtue: Inner Work from the Sources of Mussa and the Kabbalah” and will discuss both moral and spiritual growth; Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism, will explore the book of Leviticus, including “priests, sacrifices and the triumph of morality”; and Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the UJ, who also teaches law at UCLA School of Law, will tackle Jewish medical ethics and moral values.

A more historical approach will define the final two sections, with Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaching the medieval masters Saadia, Rambam and Ha-Levi, and Reb Mimi Feigelson discussing Chasidic views from Purim to Pesach.

The class curriculum, said Gady Levy, vice president for continuing education at the UJ, was designed around great teachers and their expertise.

“Great passion is infectious and relating to students makes it possible for enthusiasm to spread,” he said.

“The goal,” Levy said, “like Judaism itself — is simple, yet complex. The expert teachers guide students through the deep philosophies of ancient texts. The knowledge that is the result of this journey is then applied to contemporary experience, making it useful in daily life. This jibes with the overall goal of helping our community live richer, fuller lives through Judaism.”

This is the second year of the Master Class series; about 140 students participated last year, and approximately the same number are expected this year. Space is still open for registration, which costs $250 for the 15 sessions. Classes are held on Thursday evenings, 7:30-9:30 p.m. Call (310) 476-9777 ext. 473 for registration information.

— Susan Freudenheim, Managing Editor

Virtual Hartman Institute

Members of Temple Israel of Hollywood have an opportunity to study with some of the top teachers in Israel through a video class with the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic program of education, scholarship and leadership training in Jerusalem.

Beginning Nov. 12, Rabbis John Rosove and Michelle Missaghieh will together lead eight sessions over the year with a one-hour chavruta (study partners) session on a text chosen by the Hartman Institute, followed by a video lecture and Q-and-A with a scholar.

The theme of “The Foundations of a Thoughtful Judaism: Eight Dilemmas of Faith” will explore the questions of who is God and what is faith.

Missaghieh is particularly excited about this program, because she is participating in the Center for Rabbinic Enrichment, a Hartman Institute program that selects 30 rabbis from across the country to partake in weekly satellite classes, and winter and summer institutes in Israel.

“It’s an amazing, amazing gift,” said Missaghieh, who is in the third year of the three-year program. “The learning is on such a high level, and the camaraderie and connection between the rabbis is really fantastic.”

The video classes being offered to the congregation are an outgrowth of the rabbinic program.”The congregation is supporting us in allowing us to go to Israel twice a year and do this class every Monday for three hours,” Missaghieh said. “So the institute developed this opportunity for the lay leadership in our synagogues to understand the high level of learning and to buy into the whole Hartman philosophy and mission of pluralism, of high level learning, of really examining the text from all different points of view.”

Along with Missaghieh, Rabbi Sheri Zwelling Hirsch of Sinai Temple in Westwood and Rabbi Don Goor of Temple Judea in West Hills are participating in the rabbinic program, and Temple Judea last year ran the video class.

The Hartman class complements an already full calendar of adult education at Temple Israel, including a documentary film series for women that includes discussion and text study on the topic; Torah through visual and performing arts; Hebrew classes; basic Judaism; adult bar and bat mitzvah programs; and adult education for parents in the temple’s nursery, religious and day schools.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Jewish Law Course Offers CLE Credit

More than 20 Southland Chabads, from Thousand Oaks to Huntington Beach, will lawyer up during the second week in November with the introduction of a new class, “You Be the Judge: Behind the Steering Wheel of Jewish Law,” a six-week course that explores how secular and religious law relate by examining actual cases brought before a beit din, or court of Jewish law.

The class is modeled after one taught by Jeremy Rabkin, a U.S. government professor at Cornell University, and is being offered for the first time by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), a worldwide Chabad adult education program. Local attorneys can earn continuing legal education credit for the course, which has been accredited by the National Board of License.

The six classes will examine such topics as the enforceability of immoral contracts, Holocaust-related claims and distinguishing between creative opportunity and crass opportunism through the lens of talmudic law. “You Be the Judge” will be taught concurrently each week at more than 200 locations throughout the United States and at sites around the world, although days and times will vary.

However, once a student is registered, he or she can take the class at any location.

“If you’re taking this class in Agoura Hills, and if you happen to be traveling to Las Vegas the next week, you can pick it up there,” said Rabbi Efraim Mintz, JLI director.

New ‘Encyclopedia Judaica’ goes from Aachen to Zyrardow


The editors of the new edition of the “Encyclopaedia Judaica” confronted a whole new world.

In the more than 30 years since the first edition was published, Jewish life has been revitalized in the former communist world, Las Vegas and Atlanta


Volumes of Work

Key facts about the second edition of the “Encyclopaedia Judaica”:

  • Total entries: 21,632.
  • Total new entries: 2,664.
  • Total entry words: 15,818,675.
  • Approximate number of main body pages (excluding index volume): 17,000.
  • New bibliographical references: 30,021.
  • Longest entry: Israel, land and state, approximately 600,000 words.
  • Longest bibliography: kabbalah.
  • Most writers for a single entry: Bible – the ancient biblical translations subsection had 11 writers, one for each language (Ethiopic, Armenian, Syriac, etc.).

have become fast-growing Jewish communities and women have taken a much more active role in Jewish life — and their contributions have been increasingly recognized.

“The original edition did not take into account that 50 percent of Jews are women,” said Judith Baskin, director of the Jewish studies program at the University of Oregon and the encyclopedia’s assistant editor for women and gender.

The new edition, the encyclopedia’s second, attempts to rectify that oversight with more than 300 new entries on Jewish women, including biographical entries on well-known figures such as former U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) and entries on lesser-known women like Beatrice Alexander, founder of the Madame Alexander doll collection, and Asenath Barzani, an Iraqi woman trained by her father in the 1600s as a Torah scholar.

These are among roughly 2,700 new entries in the new edition to be published Dec. 8 by Macmillan Reference USA and Israel’s Keter Publishing. The 22 volumes contain more than 21,000 entries on Jewish life.

A licensed, online version also will be available, but the hope is that institutions, and some individuals, will be willing to fork over $1,995 — the online version will cost a few hundred dollars more — to have everything they wanted to know about the Jews printed and at their fingertips. The comprehensiveness offered by the collection is not available in any one online source, said Jay Flynn of Thomson Gale, which owns Macmillan Reference USA.

“Certainly, you can go out and find a biography of Billy Crystal and you can read it,” Flynn said. “What we’re really trying to deliver” is accessibility and authority.

Plus, Jews buy books out of proportion to their numbers, said Michael Berenbaum, the encyclopedia’s executive editor.
“It’s the smell of leather and all that stuff,” said Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar known for his work in creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

It took a lot of effort to create that “stuff.” Several years in the making, the encyclopedia relied on a worldwide team of scholars, including about 1,200 new contributors. Luckily, the field of Jewish studies has experienced exponential growth in recent years.

“You’re going to a man or woman who has devoted his or her entire life to a topic and you say, ‘Give me 500 words,'” Berenbaum said.
Those scholars pored over all the entries — from Aachen to Zyrardow — and updated 11,000 of them.

Overall, the new edition has more entries covering Jewish life in the Southern Hemisphere — Australia and South America, for example — and the sections on U.S. Jewish life and the Holocaust have been strengthened.

The dilemmas Berenbaum and his team faced on how to cover certain topics are almost talmudic. For example, how do you describe Jewish life in New York City? Their answer: Give a portrait of several neighborhoods, such as the historic German Jewish neighborhood of Washington Heights and the contemporary, heavily Orthodox neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park.

“We gave it a lot of flavor, something that the first encyclopedia was much less interested in,” Berenbaum said, though he’s quick to praise the editors of the first encyclopedia for their prodigious efforts in the pre-Internet era.

Also adding contemporary flavor to the new edition are entries discussing baseball player Shawn Green and the recent popularization of kabbalah. Not surprisingly, Israel is the largest single entry, with an entire volume devoted to the Jewish state. Coming in second is the Holocaust.

Entries on Holocaust-related matters created more questions: Should the noted Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt have her own entry or should her biography be part of an entry about the highly publicized trial in 2000 that Lipstadt won after historian David Irving sued her in a British court, claiming she defamed him in a book by calling him a Holocaust denier?

The decision? Berenbaum is cagey.

“Read the encyclopedia,” he said.

More information about the new “Encyclopaedia Judaica” is available at www.encyclopaediajudaica.com

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 23rd

How to make the holiday meaningful for the kids? Pick up a children’s book recommended by the Ratner Media and Technology Center at the Jewish Educational Center of Cleveland. Sylvia Epstein’s “How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round” and Barbara Diamond Goldin’s “The World’s Birthday” are just two of many that make the list.

To view it in full, visit the Jewish Federation’s Web site, at ” width = 425 vspace = 6 alt=”YofiYah’s Kabbalah Kirtan”>

Jews looking for a spiritual soundtrack for their yoga practice may find it in YofiYah’s “Kabbalah Kirtan” CD. The musician and singer fuses Sikh musical traditions, known as Kirtan, with those of kabbalah. Listeners will hear the familiar words of Jewish prayers like “L’cha Dodi” and “Oseh Shalom,” set to perhaps less familiar Kirtan melodies or “two mystical traditions … united in ecstatic devotion.”

” TARGET=”_blank”>www.mtr.org.

Thursday the 28th

“Delirium” is the apposite title for Cirque du Soleil’s showcase of musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats and characters on a 130 foot, two-sided stage and 540 feet of projections (equivalent in width of almost four IMAX screens). Prepare yourself for sensory overload this evening, as JDate and the Museum of Tolerance sponsor their night of “Delirium,” which also includes the option of a preshow kosher buffet dinner and special reserve wine tasting, all benefiting the Museum of Tolerance.

6 p.m. (dinner and tasting), 8 p.m. (performance). $250 plus (show and VIP passes to the museum), $500 plus (dinner and tasting, show and VIP passes to the museum). Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2531.

” width = 425 alt=”Cirque du Soleil”>

P. F. Sloan: does he still believe we’re on the ‘Eve of Destruction’?


“Eve of Destruction,” the famous folk-rock protest hit from 1965, isn’t usually regarded as a specifically Jewish song. Or even a religious one, for that matter.

It’s a litany of anguished complaints about the problems of the temporal world of the time — civil rights marchers repelled in Selma, Ala., the imminent danger of nuclear war, the threat from a militant “Red China.” It struck such a chord with a teenage audience worried about the future that it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a youthful crie de coeur against the political status quo. It became an extraordinary pop-cultural event in its own right.

But the long-missing-in-action writer of “Eve of Destruction,” 61-year-old Los Angeles resident P.F. (Phil) Sloan, cites his studies of Jewish mysticism as a key source of inspiration. After decades of fighting physical and mental illnesses that ended his professional career, Sloan is back with a new CD, “Sailover,” recently released on Hightone Records. Only his sixth album since 1965, it includes versions of “Eve” and other songs he wrote in the 1960s, plus new folk-rock compositions. And he performs at Largo in the Fairfax district, where he grew up, on Sept. 27.

After his bar mitzvah at Hollywood Temple Beth El, Sloan’s rabbi recommended him for early kabbalah training, especially study of the mystical writings and Torah interpretations in the Zohar.

“It is rare because you’re supposed to be 40 [to study],” Sloan said, speaking by phone from Chicago where he was performing at a club. “My rabbi suspected I was an old soul.”

He studied for about 18 months, he said, providing him with “a greater, deeper understanding of Judaism and its relationship to people.”

But at the same time, Sloan was also interested in rock ‘n’ roll. In 1964, while still a teenager, he and friend Steve Barri wrote and recorded “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin'” as the Fantastic Baggys. His “P.F. Sloan” persona appeared in 1964, when in response to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote several protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “The Sins of the Family” and “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” It took a full year before the growlingly, deep-voiced singer Barry McGuire, fresh from the New Christy Minstrels, released “Eve” on L.A.’s Dunhill Records — also Sloan’s label — and it became a hit.

Sloan feels the song was “directly attributable” to his kabbalah studies.
“The song was a divine gift,” he said. “I was given information about the history of the world through that song — not that that’s unusual in mystical Judaism. It was quite a wonderful gift at age 19 to be given that. I knew it was special and knew it would change things.”

Sloan sees the song as his dialogue with God.

“I say to God that ‘this whole crazy world is just too frustrating,’ and then God says to me, ‘But you tell me over and over and over again about these problems I already know,'” he said.

“It’s an endless dance around this razor’s edge about what God is saying every time I sing this song,” Sloan explained. “He’s telling me, ‘Don’t believe we’re on the eve, I’m not going to allow it.’ And then other times when I sing it, I get the message he’s going to allow destruction to happen. Every time I sing it, I get an insight into what’s going on.”

Sloan’s parents moved from New York, where he was born as Philip Gary Schlein, to Los Angeles for his mother’s arthritis. But when his father had trouble getting permission to open a downtown sundries store under his name Schlein, he changed it to “Sloan” to avoid anti-Semitism.

Working with Barri or alone, Sloan wrote hits for other pop stars in the 1960s, including “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Where Were You When I Needed You” for The Grass Roots and “Let Me Be” for The Turtles. But his attempts at becoming a successful singer-songwriter like his idol, Bob Dylan, didn’t work out. He says his record company was reluctant to support him at the time and that he signed away his songwriting royalties.

And from roughly 1971 to 1986, he said, he was incapacitated by undiagnosed hypoglycemia that led to depression and catatonia. He lived with his now-deceased parents until they found an apartment for him and helped him get nursing care.

But in 1986, he also started visiting Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru who claims healing powers, at his ashram. He has gone back every two years and slowly started to recover. He said by 2001 he felt good enough to start performing again. In 2003, for instance, he participated in a tribute concert to Jewish religious singer and songwriter Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Beth Jacob.

“I’m now walking 1 1/2 miles a day,” Sloan said. “I have a huge amount of energy. It’s like God has touched me and just given me a tremendous amount of love and energy. I feel like I’ve been reactivated.”

P.F. Sloan will be at Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Doors open at 8 p.m. $5-$20.

For more information, call (323) 852-1073 or visit

Psalm-Thing to Sing About in New Album


Have you ever thought about what makes a good song? The Virginia-born Miri Hunter Haruach, who lives in Los Angeles, is a folk singer, playwright, student of Judaism and proud purveyor of a doctorate in women’s studies, and she believes that to make a good song, you need a little some of this and a little Psalm of that.

Haruach has always used her art to discuss the strengths and plights of women, but this time, with the release of her second album, “The Ways of Love,” she takes the strong and ethical messages of the Book of Psalms and sets them to music for a new audience to discover.

Haruach sings with a modesty and softness that enhances the simple and good-natured spiritual messages of her songs. That, in itself, is an unusual trait, because audiences have come to expect artists who make spiritual/new age, religious music to have overproduced studio performances.

Haruach doesn’t make herself the main attraction of the album. The verses are intertwined with laid-back melodies and sparse, single-riff drumbeats that add an interesting feeling of emptiness and sorrow to the otherwise uplifting words of wisdom.

In the title track, “Teach Me the Ways of Love,” Haruach chants, “Open your eyes, let your ears hear the cry, unchain your mind from the bondage of shame, deliver your spirit, and set your soul free.”

The nuances of her delivery are accompanied by a rhythmic rap in Hebrew by an Israeli poet, known only as Ofer, who translated the meaning of the song into an interesting lyrical loop.

“The album is actually based on the Book of Psalms. I have been reading the Psalms since I was a child. The ideas and themes stick with you. They cover all of the aspects of life, including joy, sorrow, ecstasy, repentance, confusion, acceptance, marriage and separation,” she says.

The song, “It Would Be Enough,” is the only one based on the Song of Songs, and Haruach was given it to read as a punishment in the 11th grade, she says. In the process, she “fell in love with it.”

Haruach did take the liberty of interpreting the Psalms, not singing them verbatim, but updating them in hopes of reaching more people. Many of the songs are not gender specific, so she could be as inclusive as possible with the audience. None of that sentiment of inclusion is really surprising when you learn that Haruach is not only a converted Jew but also a mix of African American, European and Native American cultures.

“I was born a Southern Baptist, and I was really into going to church, because I liked to participate in the music aspect of the religious experience,” she says. “Then I had 12 years of Catholic school and moved around a lot, writing plays, getting degrees and teaching Israeli folk dancing at Berkeley Hillel.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that Haruach became interested in Judaism, a move provoked by reading a book on kabbalah.

“I was drawn to Judaism because I felt that it was a religion of life rather than death,” she says. “Through the music, dance and teachings of the Mizrachi Jews, I found a roadmap for living in this world.”

And although Haruach refers to herself as a convert, she has not yet taken the big plunge of being bat mitzvahed.

“But that’s coming eventually,” she notes. “I did a Conservative conversion, although now I consider myself a Reconstructionist. I am considering cantorial studies, too.”

In addition to her interest in music — psalms or otherwise — Haruach has also devoted much of her life to writing plays. The strong and determined women in her performances range from her own slave ancestors to the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic figure of the Queen of Sheba. “As much as we’re engaged in the media, we don’t see a lot of strong women. It’s important for us as women to portray ourselves as strong so that the strife of our ancestors won’t have been in vain.”

It would be an interesting twist, if someday Haruach’s descendants were writing plays about her.

Miri Hunter Haruach will perform on July 19 at 8 p.m. at the Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Silverlake. Tickets are $10. For information call (323) 663-8979.

 

Unraveling the Red String


It’s just before midnight, and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is bustling. Teenagers are hanging out on corners near the pharmacy and suited men and high-heeled women are walking from synagogue to synagogue to attend the lecture of their choice.

It’s the first night of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates when the Jews received the Torah, and it’s customary to stay up all night studying Jewish topics in what’s called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which literally means a repair (as in tikkun olam). It’s a repair for the fact that the Israelites fell asleep the night before the Torah was given; they were not excited enough, so now Jews, throughout the centuries, have studied, sometimes in a private chevruta but often by listening to scholars speak.

Around this neighborhood — and the city — the standard lectures were being given on topics ranging from the Book of Ruth to Israel, but something off the beaten path was taking place on Robertson Boulevard in a lecture at Anshei Emet Synagogue. The subject was “Kabbalah and the Red String.”

Kabbalah is not often a topic studied by the Orthodox (who believe, according to tradition, that the mystical studies should only be done by scholars older than 40), and this was not necessarily a lecture one would expect to be delivered by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, who is the head of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary and anti-cult center.

Jews for Judaism was founded 21 years ago “to keep Jews Jewish and defend the community from threats and missionaries.” Its primary purpose has been to train Jews to ward off traditional missionaries, such as Jews for Jesus (which its name seems to parody), messianic Jews, Mormons and Evangelical Christians.

But kabbalists?

At the late-night lecture addressed to some 40 men and women — seated separately on wood benches on the men’s side of the synagogue — Kravitz never mentioned any kabbalah institution by name. Well, not exactly. But add up the references to red string, Madonna, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, expensive holy water and you can put it all together. The rabbi was alluding to the controversial practices of The Kabbalah Centre, whose L.A. base is on Robertson Boulevard.

“If Madonna can wear a T-shirt saying she’s a cult member, who am I to argue with her?” Kravitz said.

Kabbalah is a library of Jewish mystical writing initiated in the 12th and 13th centuries of the common era in the books of the Zohar. The Zohar tells you the mystical reasons of the commandments, and that when you follow these commandments, you hasten the bringing of the Messiah.

During the hourlong midnight lecture Kravitz discussed why the kabbalah being promulgated by celebrities at the Kabbalah Centre is not the real kabbalah of ancient Jewish mystics. He talked of what true mystical study really is and how religious Jews can benefit from it in their own spiritual practices.

He spoke of what it means to have spiritual kavanah, or intention, when you do something. Spiritual intention is good, he said, but intention without action is meaningless. Take charity for example. One can be meditating kabbalistically on charity, “but if there’s a person sitting opposite you starving to death, you’re commanded to actually feed them.”

Mystical thoughts can enhance spiritual practice, “but the action is always the main thing,” he said. “And without mentioning names, when people take the action out of it, they’re missing the purpose of why we do mitzvot and connecting to God.”

At the center, a common practice is to read letters and words repeatedly, including the Zohar, the original kabbalistic mystical text.

Kravitz earlier told The Journal in a phone interview that he didn’t want to focus on The Kabbalah Centre by name because “I’m not interested in giving them more publicity. It’s giving them credibility — they don’t belong in the paper — every time some star decides to do something with them, they deserve space in a Jewish paper?” he asked, referring to The Jewish Journal. “To me, they’re no different than Mormonism or Jews for Jesus or Scientology. They’re using the terminology to make themselves look Jewish, but they’re not part of it.”

This was not the first time Kravitz has delivered his lecture “Kabbalah and the Red String,” whose advance flyer included questions: “Why are people seeking answers to modern-day issues in an ancient Jewish wisdom? Why has kabbalah left so many disillusioned, angry and confused?”

In the last couple of years, he’s delivered the same talk at synagogues and institutions like the University of Judaism. But Kravitz’s open questioning of the center represents a shift in the notion of what constitutes today’s missionaries and today’s threats to Judaism.

“I don’t think cults have become less of a threat today; there are just different kinds of cults,” he said. “There are psychotherapy cults, freedom of mind cults…. People being pressured to volunteer and get their friends to join — if you’re told that you can’t benefit from the program, that may be a form of manipulation,” he said.

“I don’t need to call [The Kabbalah Centre] a cult. They don’t understand what a cult is. A cult is a group that uses deception and manipulation to keep members in its group.”

Rabbi Michael Berg, co-director of The Kabbalah Centre, was not available for comment as of press time. He has denied in the media that The Kabbalah Centre is a cult and rejects the idea that anyone is being brainwashed. In 2000, he told New Times, “One of the basic teachings of the center is, ‘Don’t accept a word that anyone tells you; you have to come to your own understanding and live with it.’ Unlike many other religious organizations, there’s no coercion. It’s the opposite of that. We’re very open that we need financial support to continue publishing books and running the organization, but there’s no push. It’s more like, ‘If you have a chance, please help us out.'”

Kravitz, of course, is far from being the first Jewish rabbi or academic scholar to denounce the center.

For example, in February, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies hosted Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought, and chair of Hebrew University’s department of Jewish studies, to discuss “The History of Jewish Mysticism and West Coast Kabbalah.” Elior was much more direct than Kravitz. She said that The Kabbalah Centre is “part of the new age phenomenon, when ideas are for sale. The center would not be spending one day on this if they couldn’t sell it. Kabbalah was once a matter of defiance and freedom of creativity; nowadays it is www.kabbalah.com — not ‘dot-edu’ and not ‘dot-org’ — but commerce. The center is part of the new age, part of globalization. They are trying to couple spiritual grace with material success.”

“The Kabbalah Centres today have nothing to do with the Divine Plan for hidden meaning of the text or with any of that,” Elior said. “They are basically about selling books for people who don’t read them … or for people who believe that by having a red string or drinking holy water they are connecting to the mysteries of the world.”

But not all rabbis and scholars in the Jewish mainstream agree with Kravitz’s dire assessment.

Jody Myers, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, is writing a book about the popularization of kabbalah in America. She doesn’t believe that there is any such thing as authentic kabbalah, and she points out that The Kabbalah Centre doesn’t claim to be part of the Jewish community. Myers says she neither condemns nor condones The Kabbalah Centre.

In terms of its fundraising, Myers says that The Kabbalah Centre needs to raise funds, as do all Jewish organizations; it’s just doing it differently.

“I think that the American Jewish community puts a lot of pressure on people to raise money. It costs an awful lot of money to be Jewish today,” she said. At The Kabbalah Centre, “there are no membership fees, there is no annual membership, they get money from selling stuff and charging for lectures and classes. And they get money asking people to donate to a good cause, which is them.”

The participants, she said “give their money freely; they feel very grateful for [the center] and they are getting something from them that they are not getting from somewhere else.”

In the past, The Kabbalah Centre has shrugged off its critics.

At one Shabbat service in 1997, which The Jewish Journal attended, center founder Philip Berg sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center “don’t want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment.”

During the last two decades, Kravitz said that Jews for Judaism has worked with thousands of people — people targeted by missionaries and cults and their concerned family members — and in recent years, these have included people from the center. “The people that I’ve come into contact with clearly accuse The Kabbalah Centre of being very manipulative and being very deceptive with their promises,” he said.

What advice does Kravitz offer to those at risk of an unhealthy involvement?

“Always use critical thinking,” the rabbi said. “Always question. Don’t accept what people say because it sounds good at first.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz will be teaching a countermissionary survival seminar Tuesday evenings through June 27 at 7:30 p.m. To register, call (310) 556-3344.

 

Make Days Count


When I was in my early 30s I joined a havurah, a group of professionals seeking a deeper Jewish involvement. And during this time of year, just after Passover, we didn’t know what to do with the counting of the Omer. How could we make it relevant and purposeful?

We studied the commandment of counting 49 days from the second night of Passover until the night before Shavuot, which is featured in week’s Torah portion. The mitzvah reflects the agrarian society that existed during the time of the Bible. Passover was the beginning of the barley harvest, and the ancient Israelites were told to bring an “omer,” literally a “sheaf of grain,” as a sacrifice, a giving back to God, in gratitude for a successful harvest.

After seven weeks, the holiday of Shavuot was celebrated and the bikkurim, the first fruits of the next harvest, the wheat harvest, were brought as another sacrifice of gratitude to the ancient Temple.

An interesting lesson in ancient biblical culture, but what could a group from the Upper West Side do to make this commandment meaningful in the middle of New York City?

Someone suggested that we get together and do our counting each time at different locations. One night would be on top of the Empire State Building, another night would be in Central Park, and a third night would be alongside the Hudson River and so on. This made our counting an exciting, new adventure. It was creative, fun and gave us a chance to socialize. The Sefirat Ha’Omer has never been the same for me since.

Yet, there is an important lesson that stayed with me. The rabbis teach that we count our days to make every day count. Instead of just doing a rote counting, we created opportunities for us to feel alive and full of new spirit.

The challenge is for each of us to create this feeling even when we are counting the Omer at night in our homes. We can move past the agricultural connection and remember our religious history, which states that the counting of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot was the opportunity to prepare to “receive” the Torah, like the ancient Israelites, as if for the first time.

According to kabbalah, we can link each of the 49 days to the seven sefirot, specific aspects of God, which reflect various character traits. Following this profound system each day is an exciting opportunity to explore one aspect of our personality and consider the potential for change and spiritual growth. Each day is unique and what we learn about ourselves can be an unexpected surprise.

We do not bring sheaves of barley when we count the omer in modern times, but we remember that every sheaf brought to the Temple was unique. Like snowflakes and flowers, no two sheaves were ever alike. Each day that the measurement, the omer of barley, was brought, was special, fresh and new.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman notes that there is an important parallel between the uniqueness of barley and the words of Torah. As we prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuot, we exclaim how each encounter we have with Torah is unique and creative just like nature itself. Hoffman quotes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who thought of the universe as a river, holding that everything is in such a flux that nothing is ever repeated, which is to say we “never step in the same river twice.”

We do not have to go to the top of the Empire State Building to have an adventure. Counting the omer with the kabbalistic system reminds us we never step in the same river twice. Each night is an adventure as we explore hidden aspects of our personalities and revel in the awareness of our unique selves. The counting of the omer reminds us that we count.

Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, can be reached at tobaug@aol.com.

 

Spectator – What It Looks Like From Here


Biting off more than most of us can chew, husband and wife authors Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams have taken on the enormously ambitious task of tackling that age-old question: How did the world get here, and does our existence really matter? Primack is a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, and Abrams a lawyer and writer with a life-long term interest in science; their new book, “The View From the Center of the Universe, Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos” (Riverhead Books, 2006), uses cosmology — the astrophysical study of the history and structure of the universe – to meld “Meaning” and science to reach a greater understanding of the origins of life. In the process they also show how humans have long sought connections between their actions on earth and the cosmos.

The book is dense and deals with many complex theories, histories and sciences in layman’s language. After examining the makeup and history of the universe using current scientific data, Primack and Abrams argue that humans hold an essential place in the universe and are not merely inconsequential beings in the great unknown. They argue that our current knowledge of the verifiable scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics and relativity gives us a unique understanding of the universe and the opportunity to shape the future destiny of the planet we live on.

The book discusses origin stories and myths from many religions, but it is the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah that best resonates with the authors’ view of our role in the universe.

“The interesting thing about the Kabalistic creation story — particularly the version of it that was developed by [16th century Kabbalist] Isaac Luria — is that it has certain similarities to the modern scientific story,” Primack said in a joint Journal interview with Abrams. “In the Kabalistic story the creation of the universe is connected to the human role in it, and that is what we are trying to do — connect people with the cosmos.”

Nevertheless, their own Jewish backgrounds did not limit their exploration, they say.

“Meaning is not owned by one religion,” Abrams said. “We are Jews, we think like Jews, but we don’t restrict ourselves to the imagery and the concepts that come from Judaism. We try to find the most apt mythological description [from any religion] for these concepts.”

Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams will lecture on “The View from the Center of the Universe” on May 11 at UC Irvine, Room 100 Engineering Lecture Hall at 8 p.m. For more information visit

‘Pretty’ Prime Minister?


Ehud Olmert reportedly came up with the title for the Hollywood hit “Pretty Woman.” Israel´s prime minister-elect was a Knesset lawmaker when he helped his friend, film producer Arnon Milchan, choose golden oldie “Pretty Woman” as the title song for the 1990 romantic comedy, Yediot Aharonot reported Thursday. The daily did not cite sources but its reporter, Yair Lapid, is a former Milchan protégé. According to Yediot, one of the filmmakers at first balked at the proposed title, calling it “too cutesy.”

Lindsay Lohan a Kabbalist?

Teen queen Lindsay Lohan said she is “looking into” kabbalah. The actress and singer, who has been plagued by both familial problems and relentless paparazzi, told reporters she needed a coping mechanism.

“All of us need something. You have to grab on to whatever gets you through,” she said.

Lohan, 19, also hopes studying Jewish mysticism will help viewers take her more seriously, according to teenhollywood.com: “I want people to know me for the work I’m doing, not for this party girl image,” she said.

The actress joins a growing list of stars, including Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore, interested in Jewish mysticism.

(There’s no word yet if there’s a kabbalistic explanation for the human-like, even spiritual, behavior of “Herbie,” Lohan’s automotive co-star in last year’s film “Herbie Fully Loaded.”)

Psychic Pursues Graceland

An Israeli-born psychic is trying to buy a Memphis house once owned by Elvis Presley. Uri Geller said over the weekend that he was among bidders for the four-bedroom home being auctioned on eBay. Geller, who lives in London, said he wants to operate the property as a Graceland-style museum devoted to Presley, but with an emphasis on the late singer’s interests in the paranormal. Bidding has reportedly passed $300,000. Geller is perhaps best known for his purported trick of bending spoons with his mind. In the Presley auction, it’s probably OK for Geller to psych out the competition, as long as he doesn’t bend the rules.

Faith Ball Now Available to Jews

The Washington Nationals baseball team corrected course after inadvertently excluding observant Jews from a promotion intended to attract the religious. The club’s Faith Day discounts on baseball games, available to religious institutions, had been for a selected set of Saturday games, but even the night games began before sundown. Team officials addressed the problem immediately after a journalist’s inquiry, the Washington Jewish Week reported. The team added six Sunday games to the discounted offerings. — JTA and Staff Reports

A Christian Jerusalem Post

The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s English-language daily, is aiming to increase its circulation tenfold by tapping into the pro-Israel sentiments of American Christians, particularly evangelicals, Pentecostals and other fundamentalist groups.

The Post, founded in 1932 by American journalist Gershon Agron as the Palestine Post, has begun publication of a monthly Christian edition.

Post president Moshe Bar-Zvi noted that the Christian edition would serve “as a bridge between the Jewish nation and Jewish people on one hand and the world’s Christians on the other.”

The new venture, which debuted four months ago, will be “tailored to Christian readers, who care passionately about the well-being of Israel and the Jewish people,” Bar-Zvi added.

Veteran Canadian Israeli newsman and science writer Gershom Gale has been appointed editor. He said that the venture was off to a “miraculous” start, with 20,000 paid subscribers so far and strong advertising.

That figure is almost equal to the domestic circulation of the English-language daily. Weekly international editions, in English and French, account for about another 80,000 copies sold mainly in Europe and North America, according to The Post.

The Post’s influence in Israel and abroad has always belied its small circulation, with foreign diplomats and journalists making up much of its readership.

The Christian edition could mean a substantial boost to the financially troubled paper, which was hard hit by the recent indictment of its previous owner, Canadian press baron Conrad Black, on criminal fraud charges.

Gale said that the edition, published in cooperation with the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews and the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, would not engage in “missionary activity … in either direction.”

However, he said, “As the Torah told us would happen, there is a great thirst in the land … not for water, but for the word of God, and the gentile world is beginning to ‘look to Zion’ to put its spiritual beliefs in context and to realize that he who blesses Israel is blessed, and he who curses Israel is cursed. So what happens ‘here’ is very much connected to what happens ‘there.'” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

 

A Woman’s Touch


The stereotypical Jewish woman is strong, supportive, receptive and respected. Growing up, she is showered with love,

pampered by objects and experiences of beauty and quality. She keeps a welcoming home. She attends to detail, wants what she wants and is unapologetically “high maintenance.” She is wise, and capable of keen manipulation. She is emotional — following her heart more than her mind. She is nurturing, loyal, generous and willing to sacrifice. She finds total fulfillment only when she has balanced her work with marriage (preferably to a doctor or lawyer) and children. Most significantly, she loves receiving beautiful clothing, fine perfume and dazzling jewelry.

She might (stereotypically) become annoyed reading such generalizations, and seek out those attributes that do not apply to her. Her annoyance may also rise around the seeming male dominance of her religion: the subordinate roles of women, the deficiency of female voice and presence in Torah. She might question where the goddess part of the One Divinity is in Judaism; why parshot such as this week’s Vayakhel-Pekudey speak only of male priests and male builders creating a space within which to worship a male god.

That’s what I have wanted to know, anyway — Jewish American Princess/rabbi that I am. As wonderful as Judaism is, the apparent disregard for the feminine side of things really bugged me. More than that, I didn’t understand how Judaism had survived with this kind of imbalance. Be it a battery or a plant: Both the male and female aspect to its makeup must engage in equal and opposite reactions in order to maintain homeostasis. If the positive charge is stronger than the negative, if there’s too much water and not enough sun, too many carbs and not enough protein, more yang than yin, more tonic than gin…. OK, I’ll stop.

Disproportion in something’s receptive and aggressive qualities quickly destroys it. In accord with these irrefutable physical laws, it seemed impossible that Judaism could have subsisted with such dominant chauvinism.

I sought out the ancient hidden femininity within Judaism, knowing that the goddess had to be there somewhere — deep, concealed and receptive: as her feminine nature would dictate. The Divine aspect representing the stereotypical Jewish woman must have existed as consort to the father/ruler/protector/provider in equal but opposite strength. But where? As it turns out: everywhere!

As with the laws of homeostasis, kabbalah also acknowledged that both masculine and feminine elements exist equally within the emanations of the one God. They diagramed this: with the Ain Sof — the infinite, active, masculine, source of all — flowing down into existence until he is finally received by his woman: the Shechinah. This goddess aspect of the One is Its in-dwelling, the part that accepts, conceives and makes manifest what flows toward her. She is Mother Earth. The bearer of all that is: trees, buildings, humans; the finite that is married to the infinite in sacred communion. She is around us, within us, and certainly in Torah. Vayakhel-Pekudey, I have come to realize, is a description of goddess worship as much as adoration of god.

For in building the tabernacle and dressing the priests, homage is paid to the ultimate Jewish woman. In helping her to properly accommodate the presence of her man, her wood is measured in uncompromising detail to assure strength and support. Her people respect strict rules for manipulating the materials in their building. They follow their hearts rather than intellects in offering her objects of beauty. With loyal adoration they bring her perfumed oils and incense; flowery carvings, precious metals to be shaped into womb — like rings.

From the rings hang curtains and veils — such as those worn by the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek Penelope. Their cloth is from threads of fine linen, thread being the symbol of fate, woven by Aphrodite and the Cretan goddess Ariadne. So, too, the priests’ “robes of woven work” reflect ancient rites of women’s magic — weaving and knotting have been since time immemorial methods by which to control fates (example: marriage is “tying the knot”). They gather gemstones once connected to acts of female divination for the breastplate, such as sapphire — the stone of destiny, invoking the triple goddess of fate. And upon the hem of the priest’s robe, bells are intertwined with pomegranates — apples of many seeds (in Hebrew rimon, from rim: to bear a child) with their universal symbolism as the fertile womb.

With every material and every action, the congregation of Israel celebrates the goddess in her endless manifestations. And while her husband may not be a doctor, his capacity to co-exist with her as the ultimate equal and opposite partner explains how Judaism has maintained its glorious presence throughout history. The stereotypical Jewish woman is connected with, and ever empowered by, the sweet-smelling, jewel-wearing, high-maintenance Mother Earth goddess Shechinah. And she reflects a universal femininity that is powerfully, albeit subtly existent throughout the Bible. Through her partnership with the masculine, she calls to us to love what is along with what could be, and to celebrate the faces of woman in balance with the gender that is our equal, opposite partner in the Divine gift of recreation.

Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.