From Madonna to Vampire Weekend, ‘super producer’ Ariel Rechtshaid makes his mark

What do Madonna, Vampire Weekend, Usher, the Plain White T’s and Justin Bieber have in common?

In addition to getting extensive play on Top 40 radio stations, they have all worked with Grammy-winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid, a Los Angeles native born to Israeli parents.

Rechtshaid, 36, has become one of the most eclectic and sought-after music producers in the industry. He’s probably best known for working on hits with Usher and Carly Rae Jepsen – she of “Call Me Maybe” fame — but his diverse resume is also filled with well-regarded indie acts like the funky R&B singer Blood Orange, folk rocker Cass McCombs and ’70s ballad-style crooner Tobias Jesso Jr. In fact, the LA Weekly dubbed him “the indie super-producer.”

At the moment, Rechtshaid is working with Haim — an ’80s-style pop-rock group composed of three sisters, also born to Israeli parents in Los Angeles — on the follow-up to their acclaimed 2013 debut album “Days Are Gone” that Rechtshaid also produced.

In spite of his success Rechtshaid — who is tall and lanky, with frizzy curls that spill onto his forehead — describes his rise through the industry in modest terms, as if his success has been the result of a series of chance developments. He explains his parents’ immigration to the United States much in the same manner.

“Growing up in Israel in the ’50s and ’60s, I think it’s just kind of a romantic idea to make it out to L.A.,” Rechtshaid said of his dad, who before moving to the U.S. would extend his radio’s antenna with tin foil in order to hear rock music. “Can’t read into it too much, it just kind of happened.”

Rechtshaid was born in a community near Beverlywood, in West Los Angeles, with a high concentration of Hasidic Jews, though his parents were not Hasidic. When he was 5, they moved to the diverse neighborhood of Van Nuys.

He describes his parents and his upbringing as “not very religious but inherently observant.”

Not surprisingly, it was also saturated with music. Rechtshaid got a guitar in sixth grade and started listening to punk rock and hip-hop; groups like the Beastie Boys and Talking Heads dominated his massive collection of CDs.

“It was an endless amount of music that I was buying,” he said.

In high school, Rechtshaid and some friends formed a ska punk band named The Hippos. With Rechtshaid as frontman and guitarist, the band released two successful records — one on a midsize label and one on a major label — and toured the country.

Around this time, Rechtshaid also began recording his friends’ projects in his parents’ garage. It was a more complete way of expressing himself through music than playing in a band, he explains. (Today’s producers often do more than engineer music; they guide the aesthetics of an artist’s sound and help the musicians write songs.)

“That band was really the reason why I got into producing and writing as, like, an obsession, because I didn’t really feel like I was expressing myself in that band at all,” Rechtshaid said. “And I wanted to learn how to.”

Amid this garage-recording period, he connected with the Plain White T’s. Rechtshaid helped the band record what would become its third album, released on a small indie label, which included the bare acoustic tune “Hey There Delilah.”

The album sold modestly and the band continued to fly under the mainstream radar. But two years later, after signing a major label contract, the Plain White T’s decided to put “Hey There Delilah”  on its fourth album, 2007’s “Every Second Counts,” in an attempt to get the song some radio play. It rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart and sold millions of copies worldwide.

“It was really kind of a funny phenomenon,” Rechtshaid said.

By the time Rechtshaid worked with Usher in 2012, his career was already on the rise. But his work on the acclaimed track “Climax” earned him a Grammy Award and cemented his status as a unique industry talent. He went on to work with established pop royalty like Beyonce, Kylie Minogue, No Doubt and Snoop Dogg (during his reggae Snoop Lion phase).

Rechtshaid doesn’t have a signature sound as much as a penchant for sounding original in the studio — much like the innovative bands he listened to in high school (see the wacky vocal manipulations on Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City” album or the hushed instrumentation of the Usher track). It’s hard to pinpoint many trademark sounds in his work, but many of Rechtshaid’s productions feature a healthy dose of bass and fuzzy, almost garbled-sounding synthesizers.

Along the way, Rechtshaid has grown close to several of his collaborators, including other members of the tribe. He says he’s “very tight” with Haim as well as Ezra Koenig, the lead singer of Vampire Weekend (the group’s latest album includes a song about an Orthodox Jewish girl falling in love with an Arab falafel shop employee).

“He’s a really smart guy and he’s very knowledgeable about a lot of things, including Judaism,” Rechtshaid said about Koenig. “[O]ne thing we both are are American Jews in 2015. And there’s a lot to that, you know?”

Why are Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and other non-Jewish celebs buying real estate in Israel?

After Kanye West performed in Israel on Wednesday night, he presumably had to sleep in a bed that he didn’t own. The declared presidential candidate may not have to suffer that indignity on his next trip to the Holy Land.

The Kardashian family, into which he is married, is among a number of non-Jewish American celebrities reportedly shopping for real estate in the Holy Land. Others include Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Mariah Carey.

What does Israel have to offer these stars? The answer, it seems, varies from spirituality to family and friendship to money-making opportunities.

The Kardashian sisters, of reality TV fame, reportedly entered talks in January to buy two apartments for $30 million in a beachfront buildingin Tel Aviv. A spokesman for Kim Kardashian denied that report, but entertainment news website E!Online later reported that Kourtney Kardashian’s husband Scott Disick was in fact ready to buy a $5-6 million penthouse in Tel Aviv as a real estate investment.

Just three months later, Kim Kardashian and husband, West, visited Jerusalem for the baptism of their daughter, North, in the Cathedral of St. James, located in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Madonna, center, with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara Netanyahu, left, at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem on Sept. 4, 2009. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO via Getty Images

Also this year, pop legend Madonna entered negotiations to buy a $20 million penthouse under construction on Tel Aviv’s trendy Rothschild Boulevard, according to Hollywood celebrity gossip website TMZ. The project developer later said that the negotiations fell through.

Still, the Material Girl has been visiting Israel on semi-regular trips for over a decade to get spiritual guidance from her teachers in the Jewish mystical tradition of kabbalah.

Madonna clearly has an affinity for Jewish-Israeli culture. In her 2005 kabbalah-infused club song “Isaac,” she sampled a rabbi chanting the Hebrew poem “Im Ninalu” – written by 17th-century Yemenite rabbi Shalom Shabazi and made famous by Israeli singer Ofra Haza.

And in 2012, she launched her MDNA global concert tour in Israel.

Ashton Kutcher onstage during the Teen Choice Awards at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California. on Aug. 11, 2013. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Madonna isn’t the only kabbalah-curious Hollywood celebrity thinking of putting down roots in Israel. Actor Ashton Kutcher reportedly spent part of a business trip two years ago looking for office space on Rothschild Boulevard.

Kutcher has visited Israel for kabbalistic learning, marriage counseling and the funeral of spiritual mentorRabbi Philip Berg with Jewish “That ‘70s Show” co-star and now-wife Mila Kunis.

He’s also an investor in Israeli companies focused on developing new communications technology. Having consulted with Yossi Vardi about investing in Silicon Wadi, he appeared with the noted Israeli venture capitalist at a local high-tech event in 2013.

Mariah Carey and James Packer attending the New York City premiere of “The Intern” at the Ziegfeld Theater on Sept. 21. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Pop singer Mariah Carey and her billionaire Australian boyfriend, James Packer, aren’t known to be investors in Start Up Nation. But they’re pals with its first family, the Netanyahus. The Australian press reported in August that Packer was renovating a multimillion-dollar home he purchased last year next-door to the Netanyahu family’s private residence in the Israeli town of Caesarea.

The Israeli press has reported extensively on Sarah Netanyahu’s troubles with the help, but she apparently got along famously with the pop diva when they met backstage after Carey’s August show in Israel. Carey shrugged off efforts to boycott Israel at the time, saying, “I do what I want to do … I don’t care what other people’s political agendas are.”

For his part, Packer attended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress opposing the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran — at the prime minister’s invitation.

NBA player Amar’e Stoudemire, left, with former Israeli President Shimon Peres at the President’s residence in Jerusalem on July 18, 2013. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Basketball fans and anyone who saw the recent hit Amy Schumer movie, “Trainwreck,” are sure to be familiar with Miami Heat power forward Amar’e Stoudemire. But few probably know that he is also part-owner of Jerusalem Hapoel and has openly mulled playing for the Israeli team after retiring from the NBA — which would seem to require that he buy a home in the country.

Then-Israeli President Shimon reportedly even asked Stoudemire to play for the Israeli national team in 2013.

Stoudemire has said that his mother was a Black Hebrew, an African-American religious group that claims descent from the biblical Israelites. Some of the members of the religious group have lived in Israel since 1969and were the subject of 2014 documentary “The Village of Peace,” executive produced by Stoudemire.

Is all this celebrity investment good for Israel’s already overheated housing market? That’s unclear. But at least Kanye West can now claim Middle East experience in his 2020 presidential campaign.

Calendar: July 24-30



From rags to riches, Sophie Tucker and her big personality paved the way for performers such as Madonna, Bette Midler and Lady Gaga. The opening-night film of this year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival is now in theaters around Los Angeles. It was written and produced by Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who went through more than 400 of Tucker’s personal scrapbooks and met with many of her friends and family members to get the full story that you will see on the screen. Directed by Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker William Gazecki. Times vary. Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino.



Two funny Jewish guys … what a great way to end the weekend and get ready for the week ahead. Fred Sokolow, best known for his 150 instructional books and DVDs for guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin and many more, is a multistring performer and recording artist with a passion that shines through, whether he’s playing the blues, a ragtime piece or a screaming rock-guitar solo. Lil Rev, often called the Jewish Pete Seeger, will bring his high energy to this heartfelt concert as he seamlessly moves among song, story, poetry and humor. 7 p.m. $20. The Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena. (626) 798-6236.


The New York Times calls it “the best comedy of the season” — and tonight is the last night to see it in Los Angeles. Joshua Harmon’s off-Broadway play explores the question: Is there such thing as a “bad Jew”? Daphna swears she is the most devout Jew of her family. But after the death of her grandfather, her less-observant cousin Liam comes to town, and the two argue about who is the rightful heir to their grandfather’s chai necklace, which he kept safe during his time in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. Despite their differing sense of Judaism, they learn to navigate through their kvetching with chutzpah and humor. Directed by Matt Shakman and starring Ari Brand, Molly Ephraim, Lili Fuller and Raviv Ullman. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. $37-$72. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-5454.



This is the first major U.S. revival of Martin Sherman’s “Bent” since its Broadway premiere in 1979. From director Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”) comes this groundbreaking drama about the power of love under some of history’s most inhumane conditions. “Bent” chronicles the struggles of two gay men in Nazi Germany who are fighting not just for their right to love, but also for their right to live. The beautiful and moving story is brought to life on stage and shows the unbreakable force of the human spirit. 8 p.m. Through Aug. 23. $55-$75. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772.



Greet the end of summer with a bang — or a hike, or a bonfire, or a tour through Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The annual citywide celebration of love and Tu b’Av is back with a new twist: Instead of one big party, East Side Jews is collaborating with organizations all over the city for three days of fun events. The fest kicks off Thursday night on the Eastside with “Love After Dark: Griffith Park Sunset Hike.” Hike through the canyons of Griffith Park up to the observatory and see why this spot is considered one of L.A.’s most famous lookouts. Snacks will be provided, but feel free to bring your own. Don’t forget to pack a picnic blanket! Over on the Westside, join Moishe House Venice and NuRoots for “Ignite Your Fire: A Midsummer’s Night Beach Bonfire” with camp games, s’mores and drinks. Other offerings of Love Fest include a Shabbat potluck dinner at the revamped Echo Park Lake and a garden cocktail party under a full moon. Hike: 7:15 p.m. Free. 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles. Bonfire: 7 p.m. Free. Dockweiler Beach, near lifeguard tower 53. RSVP requested. (323) 663-2255.

Madonna stirs controversy with Instagram photo of Jewish and Muslim men embracing

Madonna's Instagram account has become a source of controversy yet again. 

The pop star made headlines on Sunday when she shared a photo of a Jewish man and a Muslim man embracing, seemingly about to kiss. In the caption, Madonna included the hashtag of “Rebel Heart,” her recent studio album: “This image is ��. ❤️#rebelhearts.”


This image is ��. ❤️#rebelhearts

A photo posted by Madonna (@madonna) on

Read more at Huffington Post.

Drake did not seem to enjoy kissing Madonna

Madonna’s performance with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs was a huge pop culture moment. And when she made out with Spears – and the camera quickly cut, hilariously, to a shocked Justin Timberlake – it was even bigger.

Then the tender age of 44, Madonna’s antics were sensational but not overly strange. Twelve years later, she’s involved in another high-profile makeout sesh, this time with former Canadian Bildungshow star Drake, nearly thirty years her junior.

And it definitely gets weird.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Drake and Madonna share kiss at Coachella

Last night, April 12, Madonna showed up as a surprise guest during Drake's Coachella Valley Music and Arts performance, which closed out the annual, three-day Indio, CA music festival, and she planted a kiss on the Jewish rapper while performing her 2005 song, “Hung Up,” Rolling Stone reported. The crowd cheered wildly to the theatrics.  

While TMZ reports that Drake did not appear to enjoy the kiss, you can watch the video below and decide for yourself. 

Coachella takes place again next weekend, April 17-19, with the same lineup as last weekend. It will be interesting to see if Madonna shows up again, and, if so, if she kisses Drake again.  

Madonna hacker indicted in Tel Aviv

A Tel Aviv man was indicted for hacking American pop star Madonna’s computer and selling unreleased songs.

Adi Lederman, 39, was charged on Tuesday in Tel Aviv Magistrate Court with illegal wiretapping, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement and obstruction of justice.

An undercover investigation by the Internet crime unit of Israel’s anti-fraud police led to the allegation that Lederman hacked into Madonna’s computer and posted songs from an unreleased album.

He also is accused of hacking into the computers of several other international artists.

He allegedly sold Madonna’s unreleased tracks online after stealing them in December.

After the unauthorized release of 27 tracks from her forthcoming album, “Rebel Heart,” Madonna released six fully-produced tracks early. She called the theft “a form of terrorism” and the equivalent of “artistic rape.”

Madonna falls at Brit Awards

You're a backup dancer. This awards show is a big deal for you. You've been the one chosen to snatch a cape dramatically off Madonna during a musical number.

It's going to be a moment you'll remember for all time.

And now that it's happened, you'll remember it for a much different reason.

Read more at CNN.

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.

Selena Gomez to Howard Stern, celebs share opinions on Gaza in tweets and rants

What do Madonna, Javier Bardem and Rihanna have in common?

Aside from talent and many millions of dollars, they’ve all waded into the maelstrom of public debate over the Gaza conflict — and then had to extricate themselves when the going got tough.

For almost as long as the conflict has been raging, a parallel rhetorical fracas has been taking place among and between celebrities expressing their opinions on the Gaza conflagration. They’ve done so in one-line utterances on Twitter and Instagram, as well as in extensive comments on TV interviews, in advocacy videos and even in Op-Ed pieces.

The result has been the mess one might expect given the collision of social media, foreign policy non-experts and tabloid-style thinking with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On July 18, pop star Selena Gomez urged her Instagram followers to “Pray for Gaza,” then followed up a few hours later to add that she was “not picking any sides.” That was more than enough for Joan Rivers, who capped off a pro-Israel tirade by sarcastically mocking Gomez as “that college grad,” then added, “Let’s see if she can spell Palestinian.”

It all might seem a bit silly except that celebrities have the eyes and ears of ordinary people as few others do, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the battle over public sentiment matters almost as much — some might say more — than the real battle on the ground in the Middle East.

“It definitely has an effect because there are many people who are out there that are not involved in Middle East politics, don’t know anything about it, and they form their opinions on the basis of what their favorite celebrity says,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Is that fair? No, it’s not fair, but that’s the reality of the world we live in.”

Thus when, for example, married celebrity Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (along with filmmaker Pedro Almodovar) signed onto a letter accusing the Israeli army of “genocide” in Gaza, Hier thought it was important to push back. He urged Jon Voight to publish a letter that the veteran actor had written in response, and the 75-year-old Academy Award winner agreed.

Voight’s reply, which appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, ripped Cruz and Bardem as “obviously ignorant of the whole story of Israel’s birth” and accused them of inciting anti-Semitism.

Whether it was Voight’s letter or the numerous other critiques of the couple, the pushback worked. Cruz released a statement noting that she was “not an expert on the situation” and that she only wished to promote peace. Bardem similarly announced, “My signature was solely meant as a plea for peace.”

In fact a number of the celebrities who have spoken out on the Gaza conflict have followed a pattern similar to that of Cruz and Bardem — a gesture in sympathy with the Palestinians (sometimes paired with harsh criticism of Israel) followed by criticism that leads to backtracking (possibly with the caveat that no bigotry was intended), finally capped off with a vague call for peace.

It was the path taken by Rihanna, who tweeted #Free Palestine, only to delete the tweet eight minutes later and subsequently post a picture of a Jewish and Arab boy walking arm in arm with the message, “Let’s pray for peace and a swift end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!”

Madonna followed a similar path, though more elaborate, posting a picture of flowers with the caption, “These flowers are like the innocent children of GAZA! Who has the right to destroy them? No One!!!” She then quickly turned defensive, tweeting, “I do not support Hamas!” adding “I support Peace!” Then, in a twist, she posted a picture of herself with a pair of bare-topped, muscled back-up dancers — one wearing a Jewish star on his muscled abs, the other a Muslim crescent — proving again that Madonna can turn just about any discussion back to sex.

Of course, some celebrities have been more resolute in their opinions.

Jewish Voice for Peace posted a video of celebrities holding the names of Gazans who had been killed. The video included Eve Ensler, Mandy Patinkin, Roger Waters, Chuck D and Brian Eno. Eno also posted an editorial on David Byrne’s website that was highly critical of Israel.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, Jackie Mason and Howard Stern cut loose with diatribes aimed at critics of Israel.

“If you’re anti-Israel then you’re anti-America,” Stern announced on his radio show.

A few celebrities have chosen to weigh in more carefully.

Woody Allen, no stranger to controversy, steered clear this time, saying, “This situation remains tragic and terrible, and the leaders in Israel and the leaders in the Arab world have not been able to come to an agreement.” He tipped his hand a little, though, when he added that “the Arabs were not very nice” at Israel’s founding, and “it led to problems.”

The effect of all the back-and-forth is difficult to judge. Omri Ceren, a senior adviser at The Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, noted that U.S. public opinion had stayed steady in favor of Israel, or in some demographics grown even more supportive, since the start of the conflict.

Do Stern and Voight wield more clout than Eno and Chuck D?

Ceren suggested instead, “It’s much more likely that Americans aren’t going to celebrities for their foreign policy analysis.”

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.

Founder of L.A. Kabbalah Centre dies

Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles and a spiritual adviser to A-list celebrities such as Madonna, has died, according to an announcement made on the Kabbalah Centre’s Web site on Sept. 16.

“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.

The center did not specify the cause of death, but Berg — who was known as “The Rav” among his followers — suffered a stroke in 2004. He was 86, according to the statement, but the Los Angeles Times reported that public records reveal he was 84.

His wife, Karen, and two sons, Yehuda and Michael, survive him. Berg’s family has been leading the center ever since Berg’s health began deteriorating nearly 10 years ago.

[LISTEN to Jewish Journal publisher and editor-in-chief Rob Eshman discuss
Rabbi Berg at 4:55 and 6:55 p.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM and]

Born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in New York in 1928, Berg was ordained at an Orthodox seminary in Queens. He sold insurance for a living until a visit to Israel during the 1960s introduced him to kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Zvi Brandwein, to whom he became close.

After Brandwein’s death in 1969, Berg declared himself the heir to the kabbalistic dynasty of Brandwein, according to a 1997 Journal article by now editor-in-chief Rob Eshman.

In 1995, Berg founded the movement’s Los Angeles headquarters — formerly a youth center — on Robertson Boulevard. The center is one of 40 brick-and-mortar locations that are a part of the movement, a Jewish mystical tradition that combines elements of astrology and numerology with speculation about the creation of the universe, God and the soul.

Over the years, the center in Los Angeles gained worldwide attention as celebrities, including Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore, became involved with it. These endorsements, coupled with Berg’s embrace of new-age teachings, helped draw in legions of followers.

“Thousands of people take its classes, buy its books and tapes, and participate in [its] services,” Eshman reported.

But its success is only one part of the story. Orthodox rabbis have denounced Berg’s methods, arguing that he has been teaching a watered down method of kabbalah, which should be reserved for talmudic scholars, and in 2011, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began investigating the L.A. center for tax evasion. It is unclear how Berg’s death will affect the ongoing investigation by the IRS, the Times reported.

Additionally, former followers of Berg have provided stories about the center leading to divisions within their families, and Berg’s critics have claimed to be threatened by the organization.

The center did not respond immediately for comment about Berg’s death, but in its statement wrote: “[He] created a path for millions to learn and live Kabbalah … through thousands of hours of teachings, examples of courage that we will never forget, and the comfort of a Kabbalah centre that we can all call home.”

According to the Jerusalem Post, Berg will be buried in the Israeli city of Safed. The historical center of the tradition, Safed is known as the City of Kabbalah.

Madonna top-earning celebrity trumping Spielberg, Forbes says

She's still the Material Girl.

Pop diva Madonna 55, is the world's top-earning celebrity, according to a Forbes list released on Monday, raking in an estimated $125 million in the past year, mainly from her $305 million-grossing MDNA tour, but helped by sales of clothing, fragrance and various investments.

Director Steven Spielberg, who had a big hit last year with “Lincoln,” was a distant second with earnings of $100 million in the year ended June 2013, most of which came from his catalog of past hits such as “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park,” which continue to bring in big bucks.

“Madonna's success, at age 55, just goes to show the incredible power of a successful music career,” Forbes reporter Dorothy Pomerantz said, noting that 27-year-old pop singer Lady Gaga has often been said to be channeling Madonna's four-decade-long career.

“The young star is certainly emulating Madonna when it come to raking in money,” Forbes said, with her $80 million in earnings largely from the singer's “Born This Way Ball” world tour, placing Gaga 10th on the list.

Forbes compiles its annual list of celebrity earnings using input from agents, managers, producers and others to calculate its estimates for each celebrity's entertainment-related earnings. The figures do not reflect tax deductions, agent fees or “the other expenses of being a celebrity.”

Madonna's top spot compares with her previous peak of $110 million in 2009, but falls short of the $165 million taken in by Oprah Winfrey in the previous year, Forbes said.

Talk show queen and media mogul Winfrey took a big pay cut this year according to Forbes, falling to No. 13 on the list with earnings of $77 million.

At No. 3 with earnings of $95 million in the past year was a three-way tie among “50 Shades of Grey” author E.L. James, radio shock jock Howard Stern and music and television producer Simon Cowell.

Others in the top 10 earners included TV host Glenn Beck, director Michael Bay of the “Transformers” franchise, and thriller novelist James Patterson, who Forbes said was now the best-selling author of all time.

Both Spielberg and Bay also made last year's top 10, though with significantly larger earnings.

The full list of top-earning celebrities can be viewed at

Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Eric Walsh

Madonna’s son becomes a man

Madonna reunited with her ex-husband and director Guy Ritchie to celebrate their son Rocco’s bar mitzvah on Saturday. The coming-of-age celebration took place at The Kabbalah Centre in New York and included a small gathering the previous night. Madonna has been known for her involvement in Kabbalah studies since the 1990s.

The singer posted a photo on her Instagram of Rocco completing the writing of a Torah scroll with the caption, “ 'We finish the last letter of the Torah for Rocco’s Bar Mitzva! Lucky 13! Happy Birthday! Potential ……… responsibility!!!!' -Madonna.”

The festivities continued at Bklyn Beast, New York City’s training facility for Parkour, Capoeira and Dance.

Mazel tov, Rocco!

Celebrity Schadenfreude: Hating on the stars

On the flight back from a recent trip to Italy, I took a slight flight risk and decided to watch Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.”  Since I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson) I was not particularly excited about my choice. But since the flight was 12.5 hours and it was either that or “Jeff Who Lives At Home” I went for stylized melodrama over modern melancholy.

And reader, I liked it.

The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose marital turmoil fuels an obsession with romantic legend: the love affair between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as King Edward VIII and the American coquette Wallis Simpson. Their romance scandalized a nation; it began when she was married and compelled him to abdicate his throne. The film has its flaws of course, but it was also intense and entertaining. The score, by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski was a highlight, and though the script was somewhat uneven in its focus on the modern thread (Wally’s affair with a Sotheby’s security guard) and not the classic story, the dialogue was sharp and smart.


Madonna under fire as Israel concert draws heavy media flak [VIDEO]

France’s far-right National Front is considering a lawsuit against Madonna over a video she used during her concert in Israel on Thursday night. The clip showed party leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika on her forehead.

While she performed the song “Nobody Knows Me” in Ramat Gan Stadium, Madonna showed a video in which her face was collaged with a number of well-known personalities. The face of Marine Le Pen appeared for a few seconds with a swastika affixed to her forehead before dissolving into a composite character resembling Adolf Hitler.

The concert, which opened Madonna’s 65-city MDNA world tour, received mixed reviews from the international press, which provided extensive coverage – around 80 foreign journalists were here for the performance.


Skip to 1:32 in the footage below to see Marine Le Pen in Madonna’s show:

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.

Kicking off tour, Madonna shows she’s no lady (Gaga)

Pop superstar Madonna kicked off a new world tour on Thursday wishing peace on the Middle East even as she showcased grim dance routines depicting violence and bloody gunmen among her more colorful numbers.

Madonna, 53, mixed hit songs over three decades in music with tunes from her recent album, “MDNA,” before a packed audience, and she took a sly dig at younger diva, Lady Gaga.

“She’s not me!” Madonna sang at the end of “Express Yourself,” which she had reworked to include a sampling of Lady Gaga’s recent “Born This Way.”

That song from Lady Gaga, who emerged on the pop music scene about four years ago and has enjoyed a huge following in recent years, has been cited by many music fans and critics as being very similar to Madonna’s late 1980s dance club smash.

Since Lady Gaga, 26, released “Born This Way,” fans and music lovers have speculated that a generational challenge was in the works between the two women and comedians have poked fun at any imagined rivalry between the two.

Despite occasional lighthearted touches such as a baton-twirling routine in cheerleader formation and a psychedelic homage to Indian philosophy, the dominant mood at Thursday’s concert in Tel Aviv seemed more grim with a stage shrouded in black and red and costumes that often appeared ominous.


“Like a Virgin,” a dance tune that helped propel Madonna to stardom as risqué pop ingénue in the 1980s, was performed as a mournful cabaret with violin accompaniment. At one point, the singer was trussed up and hoisted into the air by four male dancers, then lowered onto a platform as though into a volcano – a virgin sacrifice.

For “Gang Bang,” Madonna wrestled with armed intruders whom she then dispatched with a pistol – their “blood” spattering across an enormous video backdrop. In a routine for “Revolver”, she wielded a Kalashnikov rifle, used by many modern-day insurgents, while one of her dancers favored an Israeli Uzi.

The exertions never sapped her confident singing, though she did become somewhat breathless during remarks to the audience at Ramat Gan stadium on Tel Aviv’s outskirts.

“I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason. As you know, the Middle East and all the conflicts that have been occurring here for thousands of years – they have to stop,” she said to cheers.

A devotee of Jewish mysticism, Madonna had dubbed the first leg of her 28-country “MDNA” tour the “Peace Concert” and distributed free tickets to some of the Palestinians who attended from the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Among them was a woman named Yasmine, who declined to give her last name in light of Palestinian calls to boycott the Madonna concert and other cultural events in Israel. She offered a mixed assessment of the show.

“I wasn’t a fan of the intro. It was too aggressive and massacre-like,” Yasmine said. “Her (Madonna’s) speech about peace and the mention of Palestine was heartfelt, though.”

Avihay Asseraf, an Israeli who dedicated a Facebook page to Madonna’s visit, was more sanguine about the darker displays.

“That’s how she chose to express herself this time,” he said. “Ultimately this is a show, a spectacle, and it’s all for fun.”

Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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.

Don’t strike Iran before Madonna concert, Facebook page begs Bibi

A new Facebook page is calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from striking Iran’s nuclear sites until after Madonna performs in Israel.

A day after Madonna announced last week that she is launching her new world tour in Israel in support of her latest album, the Facebook page “Bibi don’t start a war with Iran until after Madonna’s show on May 29” was established by Israeli artist Kobi Zvili. It has received 790 likes.

“We are hereby to declare that this page and it’s organisars (sic) are anti war of any kind,” a statement on the information page reads. “We are pro peace. We love Madonna, and it’s just our humorous way of dealing with not so humorous life in the middle east. We send our neighbors in Iran a message of unity, and hope Madonna will grace their country with a visit on her upcoming tour.”

There is mounting speculation that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities within the year. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, but the Western world fears that it is close to having nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu blamed Iran for Monday’s car bombing in India that injured an Israeli diplomat’s wife and the attempted bombing of an Israeli Embassy official in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Madonna to begin world tour in Israel

Madonna will go on tour from May for the first time in three years, starting in Israel before moving on to Europe, with legs in South America and Australia, where she has not performed for 20 years, tour promotion company Live Nation said on Tuesday.

The 2012 World Tour will be the first for the Grammy Award-winning 53-year-old Material Girl since her “Sticky & Sweet Tour” in 2008 and 2009 and will stop in more than 20 European and Middle Eastern cities including London, Edinburgh, Paris, Milan, Abu Dhabi and Berlin.

The tour starts on May 29 in Tel Aviv and then visits Abu Dhabi and Istanbul in early June before moving on to Europe. The European leg concludes on August 21st in Nice, France and the North American leg will end in Miami, with the date yet to be confirmed, the company said in a statement.

Dates for the South American and Australian legs and locations were not yet set and additional cities and venues are to be announced, they added.

The announcement came just days after Madonna’s halftime performance at the Super Bowl on Feb 5, with a record 114 million people tuning in to watch the glitzy, Cleopatra-themed show, which was lauded by critics but resulted in an apology from television network NBC and the NFL for a rude gesture made by British hip hop star M.I.A. during the show.

The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles under IRS investigation

For more information on the investigation visit

The Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal division.

The probe reportedly also involves two charities that are connected with Madonna, the nonprofit center’s most high-profile celebrity supporter. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Internal Revenue Service is looking into whether funds were diverted for the personal use of the Berg family, which has run the Kabbalah Centre for more than 40 years.

Karen Berg, 68, became CEO after her husband, Philip Berg, 81, who had been its head rabbi since 1969, suffered a stroke in 2004. She runs the organization with the help of sons Michael Berg, 37, and Yehuda Berg, 38.

The center’s assets are valued at more than $260 million. Exact totals are unclear, the Times reports, because the center has tax-exempt status as a religious organization and is not required to make its tax filings public.

Raising Malawi, which broke off ties with the Kabbalah Centre in March, is cooperating with the investigation, the Times reports. The children’s charity, which does work in the African nation of Malawi and is headed by Madonna, is the subject of a grand jury investigation in New York alongside the Kabbalah Centre and the Bergs.

In a statement, the Kabbalah Centre said it has received government subpoenas “concerning tax-related issues,” along with a second charity, its Spirituality for Kids initiative. Madonna chaired this charity’s board and donated $600,000 to the organization, according to the Times.

Madonna herself is not named in the IRS probe, the Times reports.

The Kabbalah Centre is credited with spurring popular interest in Jewish mysticism, although it has been criticized by mainstream Jewish leaders. The center grew enormously after Madonna began studying there in 1996 and raised its public profile. It now has branches in 31 countries and includes many celebrities among its followers.

For top stars like Madonna, Israel gig becoming more common

Madonna managed to sprinkle some of her fairy diva dust on Israel during her recent tour, calling the Jewish state the world’s “energy center,” wrapping herself in the flag on stage and even lighting Shabbat candles with Sara Netanayahu.

Audiences, local promoters and officials are hoping her magic will linger and boost an already emerging trend in which Israel is becoming a draw for big-name artists in relatively large numbers.

“Anytime you have a successful concert or artist of that caliber here, people will take notice,” said Jeremy Hulsh, a concert promoter who also founded Oleh Records, a company that promotes Israeli artists abroad.

“This year was particularly strong and next year looks to be strong, too. There are lots of newcomer promoters willing to take risks because they are seeing great potential,” he said, noting that Israelis are willing to pay top dollar for tickets and thus help the bottom line. “Israelis are both excited and grateful to see any big names coming to Israel.”

September alone is seeing the likes of Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Julio Iglesias, Dinosaur Jr. and Faith No More performing here. Earlier this summer, the Pet Shop Boys played, as did the new pop sensation Lady Gaga.

Madonna played two concerts last week to a total of some 100,000 fans, while Cohen’s performance for 47,000 sold out in 17 hours—faster than his shows anywhere else in the world.

As promoters and agents talk among themselves, word seems to be spreading that Israel can be a lucrative and successful new stop for performers. Logistics and facilities are top rate, fans pay as much as $400 for good seats for a big name and, despite an uncertain security situation, artists realize when they arrive that the country belies its image as a war zone.

In an age where Israelis feel particularly besieged by international criticism amid calls for cultural and other boycotts, the celebrity acts and the glamorous star power they emit feel especially welcome.

“Madonna is the best ambassador for the Jewish people,” gushed Liav Mizrahi, a 31-year-old art teacher from Tel Aviv who saw her first of two concerts here and was still breathless the next day.

Andy David, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said he hoped the message that Israel is a “normal” country was a happy by-product of high-profile acts like Madonna coming to the country.

“We are a normal country where people enjoy music and performers understand there is a market here for their music, he said, adding later that “it’s good business and a good place to come.”

“We are not some crazy corner of the world where everything is upside down,” David said.

Madonna in particular has forged a unique connection with Israel following her involvement with the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. Although her last performance here was 16 years ago, she has been to Israel several times in recent years on private visits that included the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the graves of mystics in Safed.

Although the average Israeli seems a bit befuddled by the Queen of Pop’s interest in Jewish mysticism, especially the Kabbalah Center’s version—serious Jewish scholars have dismissed it as a flashy and inauthentic New Age perversion—they have embraced her all the same.

Officials also have embraced the celebrity fawning with enthusiasm. Madonna dined with Tzipi Livni, a prime ministerial hopeful and leader of the opposition, at a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant. Last Friday evening the singer met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Madonna, who reportedly knows some Hebrew, recited the blessing over the Sabbath candles with the first lady.

One major paper featured Madonna’s arrival on its front page, overshadowing news that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been indicted on corruption charges the day before.

In a column in the weekend magazine of the daily Ha’aretz titled “You Really Like Me,” Gideon Levy described the history of Israeli politicians seizing photo ops with stars. A photo spread showed Golda Meir shaking hands with Kirk Douglas, Menachem Begin kissing Elizabeth Taylor’s hand and Shimon Peres visiting Jaffa with Sharon Stone.

“We have always longed for the world’s love, or at least the love of those of its stars who bothered to come here,” a sarcastic Levy wrote.

The occasional big-name music act certainly isn’t new to Israel. Paul McCartney performed last year, and Roger Waters, the late Michael Jackson and Elton John also made their way here over the years.

What is new, industry insiders say, is the volume of such performances, due in part to Israel’s sound track record as a place where fans will pay relatively high prices for tickets.

Performing in Israel involves not only security considerations and the extra insurance necessary to cover them, but the expense of flying in equipment, crew and backup musicians from Europe, as most performers include Israel as part of their larger European tours.

“It’s easier now because promoters are not afraid of Israel and the insurance companies are covering the risks of such shows,” said Perla Mitrani, a project manager for, a site that features Israeli concert dates. “Israel is now becoming a market like anywhere else, a normal stop on people’s tours. The question is how much people are ready to pay for this or that performer.”

According to Avisar Savir, a promoter who is arranging an upcoming concert here of the Chasidic reggae musician Matisyahu, the world economic crisis also has provided an opportunity for Israel.

“People need to open new markets,” he said, “and Israel is seen as a legitimate place to come in a way it wasn’t before.”

Madonna visits Western Wall

Madonna made a late-night visit to the Western Wall. Accompanied by bodyguards, Madonna on Sunday night visited Judaism’s holiest site and toured the attached underground tunnels. Madonna arrived in Israel, accompanied by her children, for two concerts in Tel Aviv.

The singer was scheduled to meet at the end of the week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Madonna last visited Israel in 2006 for Yom Kippur, which she celebrated with 2,000 other kabbalah followers. She has not converted to Judaism.

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

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

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


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.

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.

Briefs: Olmert numbers rise after mystery Syria raid, Bolton backs Iran attack

Poll: Olmert Boosted by Syria Raid

According to Tuesday’s Yediot Achronot survey, 35 percent of Israelis rate Prime Minister Ehud Olmert performance as “good” following the reported Sept. 6 strike against a strategic military target in northern Syria. Sixty-three percent called Olmert’s performance “not good,” while 2 percent had no response. The pollster, Dahaf, noted that a similar survey two weeks ago found 25 percent supporting Olmert and 70 percent opposing the embattled prime minister.

Olmert has been at pains to shore up his popularity since last year’s Lebanon war, whose setbacks many Israelis blamed on government incompetence and media leaks. Jerusalem has declined all comment on the Syria incident, which U.S. officials have speculated targeted a nuclear facility supplied by North Korea. If this indeed was the case, 78 percent of Israelis polled by Dahaf said they supported the operation, 10 percent were opposed and 12 percent had no response. Fifty-one percent of respondents said the incident had not affected the chances of Israel going to war with Syria, despite Damascus’s pledges to retaliate.

Thirty-two percent saw an increased chance of war, 13 percent a decreased chance of war and 4 percent had no reponse. The survey had 441 Jewish Israeli respondents and a 4 percent margin of error.

Bolton: U.S. Backs Israeli Pre-Emption

The United States would stand behind any pre-emptive attack by Israel on neighboring countries believed to have nuclear weapons programs, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said in an interview published Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. Bolton’s remarks following Israel’s alleged air raid Sept. 6 in Syria is consistent with longstanding U.S. suspicions that Damascus had received nuclear material from North Korea. Israel has not formally commented on the incident, which has stirred speculation that a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could be next. Bolton said such actions would find support in Washington.

“The greatest concern is to prevent Iran and other countries in the region from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Bolton said. “We’re talking about a clear message to Iran — Israel has the right to self-defense –and that includes offensive operations against WMD facilities that pose a threat to Israel. The United States would justify such attacks.”

Jordan, U.S. Sign Nuclear Agreement

A memorandum of understanding, signed Sunday in Vienna, commits Jordan and the United States to work together to develop “appropriate power reactors, fuel service arrangements, civilian training, nuclear safety, energy technology and other related areas,” according to a statement posted on the Web site of the U.S. embassy in Amman. The agreement is part of the U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, an effort to promote clean energy while preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons. Jordan, like a number of other Arab nations, has suggested that it would consider a nuclear weapons program should Iran achieve one.

Hamas: Conference Will Fail

Terrorist group Hamas said an upcoming peace conference between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will fail.

“The fall conference will be a failure and needs no one to thwart or abort it,” the terrorist faction said in a statement Monday on the U.S.-sponsored gathering. “It appears that this has driven the two sides to seek weak excuses.”

Hamas appeared to be referring to efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who are due to convene in Washington in November, to lower expectations of a breakthrough. Abbas, who broke with Hamas after its June coup in the Gaza Strip, has tried to prod Olmert into making concrete diplomatic concessions on a future Palestinian state. But Olmert instead seems to be aiming for a less binding statement of principles with Abbas. Unnamed Abbas aides told Israeli media this week that the Palestinian Authority may withdraw from the conference.

Holocaust Denier’s Sentence Upheld

The German Federal High Court confirmed Monday that it has upheld the 68-year-old Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel’s five-year prison sentence. On Sept. 12, the court rejected a 600-page proposed revision in the sentence, according to German news reports. After a yearlong trial Zundel, one of the world’s most active Holocaust deniers, was sentenced Feb. 15 by the Mannheim district court on charges of denying the Holocaust on his Canada and U.S.-based Internet site.

In justifying the sentence, the presiding judge, Ulrich Meinerzhagen, had described Zundel as an “extreme anti-Semite” and “committed National Socialist” who sought to glamorize Hitler and make him seem harmless. Zundel, a German native, was arrested in Canada in February 2003 and deported to Germany two years later. Reportedly he is one of the first right-wing extremists to use the Internet to spread hate material worldwide.

Peres, Madonna Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

Madonna, in Israel for Rosh Hashanah with fellow Kabbalah devotees, traveled secretly to Jerusalem Saturday evening for an audience with Israeli president Shimon Peres.

“I can’t believe I’m celebrating the new year in the Land of Israel together with you,” the pop idol was quoted as telling the elder statesman. “This is a dream come true.”

According to media reports, Madonna and Peres spent an hour and a half discussing current affairs and the need to promote peace.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Safed banking on Rosh Hashanah visitation by Madonna

VH-1 Declares Jews ‘So Jewtastic’

It’s official. According to VH-1, it is now hip to be Hebrew. The music television channel premieres “VH-1 All Access: So Jewtastic” on Dec. 19, making a case for the current trendiness of our tribe.

From Madonna’s rip-off of kabbalah to “The O.C.’s” dreamy Jew teen heartthrob Seth Cohen, the evidence could not be clearer — not that VH-1 is the first to point it out. Articles about Jewish cool have graced various publications over the last year or so. But as trend-spotting goes, a nod from the entertainment and pop culture-driven cable channel isn’t small potatoes. What it may indicate is just how big we’ve gotten.

“America fetishizes ethnicity. We saw it a few years ago with Latinos,” Heeb magazine editor and publisher Joshua Neuman told VH-1 cameras. “We’re at the point now where there’s a bull market for Jewish culture in America.”

In exploring this phenomenon, the show, much like the trend, pays irreverent homage to Jewish culture, featuring Jackie Mason teaching “Yiddish 101” “for all the goyim and shiksas out there,” and comedian Elon Gold asking pointed questions of Canter’s Deli customers, like “Why is there a hole in the middle of a bagel?”

Jewish stars of film and television, comedians, musicians and journalists also chime in with cheeky commentary about the Jewish role in music, comedy and sports, as well as the truth and fiction behind stereotypes about Jewish mothers, neuroses and sex.

And thankfully, the links between Jews and hip-hop are finally confronted, offering answers to long-held questions like: “Are Jews crunk?” and “Why do so many rappers dress like your bubbe from Boca?”

“VH-1 All Access: So Jewtastic” premieres on VH-1 (