The musical Baron Cohen brother comes into his own

Erran Baron Cohen says that ever since he and his younger brother, Sacha — of Borat fame — were boys in London, he was the musician and Sacha was the comedian.

“We used to develop and perform material after Shabbat dinner in our parents’ house,” recalls the musician, a trumpeter, producer and composer who will appear with his klezmer-Middle Eastern trance band, Zohar, at the Skirball Cultural Center on July 19.

Erran sang and played the piano while Sacha mugged and acted out outrageous skits, even if their parents and older brother weren’t listening.

“That didn’t matter to us, actually,” Baron Cohen says, with a laugh.

“We used to occasionally come up with some very clever ideas, one of which was this comedy song called schvitzen, the Yiddish word for ‘sweating,'” he adds. “It was about a Chasid wearing his very warm clothes in a schvitz [steam bath], which we thought was hilarious.”

The song evolved into a skit as the brothers performed together in comedy clubs early in their respective careers — and after Sacha enlisted Erran to write music for what would become his hit TV show, “Ali G.” In the TV version, the fictional Chasid becomes so overheated that he ends up converting to Christianity, among other faux-religious antics.

“The BBC filmed it, but then banned it because they said we insulted three religions in three minutes,” Baron Cohen, 39, says from his London home. “We were quite proud of that.” Baron Cohen, who has a music degree from London University, went on to write music for a number of other TV programs and to compose the score for Sacha’s mockumentary, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” about a racist, anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist who treks across the United States.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers granted Baron Cohen an award for his score, which drew on (and parodied) Soviet-style marches, Gypsy tunes and orchestral horror music (for the scene in which the anti-Semitic Borat discovers his bed-and-breakfast hosts are Jews). The Borat star presented the prize to his brother at the awards ceremony last spring.

Baron Cohen’s band, Zohar, is a far more serious endeavor — “perhaps a bit too serious,” he quips. It began around 1997, when a friend asked him to write music for a play exploring how to bring issues of Jewish identity into the modern world.

Previously, Baron Cohen had played in bands that focused on world music and rhythm and blues, but he found himself eager to tap into his Jewish roots. While he was not (and still is not) observant, he says, he had enjoyed the cantorial music he heard in his traditional, childhood synagogue. He also loved the Israeli and Arabic melodies he heard during frequent trips to Haifa to visit his grandmother, a German Jew who had fled Nazi-occupied Frankfurt for Israel.

For the play’s incidental music, Baron Cohen combined “old vinyl recordings of synagogue cantors, Arabic drum sounds and electronic beats.”

He created Zohar to expand on the concept of “mixing very old samples and putting them into a modern context” — and eventually added Arab Muezzins and Byzantine chants to the mix.

“People were affected by the power of the [spiritual] voices, even though they did not know what they were,” Baron Cohen says.

The Evening Standard lauded Baron Cohen as a “pioneer of a new music hybrid” who was “making waves” on the London club scene; Rolling Stone praised his “emotive ethnic electronica.”

In 2001, Zohar released its debut album, “,” which, he says, “refers to the sequence and repetition of the prayers during the last moments of the Yom Kippur service.” Zohar’s new album, “Do You Have Faith,” uses live singers of various faiths to “explore the power of the voice and make a statement about the need for cultural harmony.”

“Borat” initially caused cultural discord — not harmony — after the mockumentary’s release, when outraged Kazakhstan officials called a summit meeting with President Bush, among other protests. At the time, Erran noted that the score did not include a single note of Kazakhstan music because the film was not about the real Kazakhstan.

Given the controversy, he was startled to receive a cordial e-mail from Marat Bisengaliev, a prominent Kazakh violinist and conductor, in early 2007. Bisengaliev wanted to commission Baron Cohen to compose a 20-minute piece for symphony orchestra, to be performed by the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic at St. James Church in London. “At first I thought it was a joke, and I was a bit suspicious,” Erran says. But when the offer proved authentic, Baron Cohen studied Kazakh folk music — which is based on a five-note scale, like Chinese music — to write his piece, which premiered to good notices in May.

Of course, newspapers referred to Baron Cohen as “the brother of Borat” — “which is to be expected, isn’t it?” the composer says. “Fortunately, Sacha and I tried to go in different directions from childhood, so we did not have to directly compete with each other.”

For information about the Zohar concert, call (310) 440-4500.

Zohar music video

Peace From a Passage

The Kabbalah Centre has decided that there are ways to bring
peace to the world that don’t involve staging vomit-ins (as peaceniks did in
San Francisco) or holding up traffic on Wilshire Boulevard. The night before
the war started, the call went out from Rabbi Phillip Berg at the center that
everyone should “scan” (meaning that they should let their eyes pass over the
Hebrew letters without actually reading it) a certain passage in the Zohar, the
ancient kabbalistic text, which  is now published online. Berg advocated that
people scan a passage from Exodus, from the Parsha Beshalach, that deals with
the war the Jews fought against Amalek.

In addition to worldwide scanning, the center has also been
utilizing every available contact it has to get copies of the Zohar into Iraq.
Billy Phillips, director of public relations at the Kabbalah Centre, said that
they have managed to get 5,000 copies of the text in there, using Army
personnel and shipping companies as couriers.

Although those outside the Kabbalah Center greet Zohar
scanning with skepticism, Phillips said the scanning is part of a venerable
Jewish tradition.

“People think that the scanning is some invention of the
center, but really Jews do it all the time,” he said. “In many places, God’s
name is spelt Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay, but it is pronounced Adonai — but as you read
it, you scan the letters.”

In this case, the passage chosen for scanning explained that
when Moses held his hands up when the Israelites were at war with Amalek, they
would win, and when he put his hands down, they would lose.

“When Moses’ hands were up, he was fighting the battle in
the spiritual realm,” Phillips said. “When his hands were down, they were
fighting the battle in the physical realm, which meant they were fighting
darkness with darkness. We, too, want to fight this war on a spiritual level,
because that way we can bring light into the world, which is the best way of
destroying the darkness.”

Kabbalah for the Masses

In recent years, there have been a number of modest volumes that are aimed at presenting a representative selection of readings from the mystical classic, the Zohar. In such works as Gershom Scholem’s "Zohar: The Book of Splendor: Basic Readings from the Kabbalah" (Schocken, 1995) and Daniel Chanan Matt’s "Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (Classics of Western Spirituality)" (Paulist Press 1985) the respective translators judiciously selected a few selections from the 2,000-page Aramaic original in order to portray something of the transcendent ideas and romantic narrative that characterizes the Zohar’s literary nature.

In both of these cases, the authors were guided by concerns that they had already expressed elsewhere in their research. Scholem was largely concerned with presenting texts that had resonance for subsequent kabbalah, or that had become liturgical or represented the romantic or poetic tendencies of the Zohar. Matt was interested in presenting the contemplative elements in the Zohar, as well as capturing that work’s sense of wonder at the phenomenal world.

Matt and Scholem also saw the Zohar as having been written in the 13th century by a single author, Moshe de Leon of Guadalajara, Spain. This view has been rejected by contemporary scholars, who see the Zohar as the work of multiple authors.

Now Rabbi Philip Berg, director of The Kabbalah Centre, has weighed in with his interpretation. In making his presentation, Berg has to transcend his influences. The school of thought, of which he claims to be part of, originated in an obscure Chasidic community in B’nei Barak. There, in the 1920s, Yehudah Ashlag, a gifted writer and kabbalist who functioned as a minor Chasidic rebbe, composed a voluminous exposition of the Zohar. This work, known as "The Sulam" (the ladder), included a Hebrew translation, variant texts and a commentary based on the mystical system of Isaac Luria. Ashlag also wrote a voluminous presentation of the Lurianic system, "The Talmud of the 10 Sefirot" (emanations of God), and was responsible for publishing a complete set of the Lurianic canon. Upon his demise, Ashlag was succeeded by Yehuda Brandwein, who was Berg’s mentor, according to Berg.

The Lurianic kabbalah that was Berg’s spiritual inheritance is, however, a complex, abstruse, obscure, and frankly off-putting, set of ideas. As a result, in explicating the Zohar for the masses, Berg ranges into more general spiritual language. If the work has a weakness, it is in the broadness of the expression. Kabbalah is presented as the doctrine of the coming "Age of Aquarius."Otherwise, Berg avoids the complexities of Lurianic Kabbalah and presents a kabbalistic system based in the doctrines of the "Sefirot," a widely circulated and, since the advent of Chasidism, highly psychological body of doctrine with a strong basis in biblical imagery.

As an introduction to mystical theology, the selections chosen by Berg represent a good overview of many of the Zohar’s central motifs and themes. The role of the Shekhinah, one of the most widely circulated of kabbalistic ideas, is the subject of an entire chapter. Berg presents a number of accounts that illustrate the popular quality of the Zohar’s spirituality.

Berg also preserves the exegetical nature of the Zohar by presenting interpretations of difficult biblical passages, such as the incident of the golden calf, the affair of David and Bathsheba and the tale of Joseph and his brothers. In each case, the interaction of the "Sefirot" is the true reality that underlies the problematic biblical account, wherein all ambiguities and difficulties are resolved. The Talmud states, "Whosoever ponders four things, it would have been better if he had not come into the world: what is above and what is below, what came before and what will come after" (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1). The metaphysical concerns of kabbalah comprise a program of complete defiance of that dictum.

Finally, Berg’s work implicitly speaks to an area of controversy regarding the outreach policies of The Kabbalah Centre and proposes what is essentially a paradigm shift of kabbalistic thought. For it has been long the dirty little secret of kabbalah studies that, according to most understandings, gentiles are not bequeathed with a highest level of the soul, the neshamah. This truth is largely soft-pedaled by contemporary scholars. In fact, an overview of Chabad soul doctrines was published by a reputable scholar from the Hebrew University that neglected to mention this point, which underlies the pregnant query, "Are you Jewish?" that commences so many encounters with Lubavitcher Chasidim. Hence, it is significant that "The Essential Zohar" begins with a defiant declaration that, "Kabbalah and Zohar belong to everyone who has a sincere desire to learn, grow and transform."

In declaring this potential "mission to the gentiles," Berg has dedicated this reasonable and sensitive selection of seminal mystical texts to an affective purpose beyond the aspirations of prior works of this type.

Pinchas Giller is associate professor of Jewish thought at the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, Los Angeles. He is the author of "Reading the Zohar: The Classical Work of Kabbalah" (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Running With the Wolf

It used to be said that kabbalah should only be studied by the very old or very learned, otherwise it could inspire madness. In his book “Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom in Everyday Life,” Rabbi Laibl Wolf attempts both to dispel the mythology surrounding this ancient, mystical teaching and to demonstrate its necessity for those of us living in the modern world.

The Australian native recently stopped in Los Angeles during his annual world tour, the first of two planned visits here. One might expect the renowned kabbalah teacher to be a great, dark force with penetrating eyes that could gaze directly into one’s soul, perhaps or a remote, silent sage. Instead, he looks like a sweet, fatherly man who speaks with a charming Australian accent that can make someone immediately feel welcome. His voice was infinitely gentle, even when his gaze grew intense while discussing the current situation in the Middle East.

The main thing that struck, though, was how down-to-earth and essential he makes kabbalah seem.

“The Zohar itself — the Zohar being the primary work of kabbalah — predicted a time would come when the fountains of knowledge would burst open from above and below, meaning spiritually and technologically; and the resulting confusion would require us, all of us, to access the deeper wisdom to gain balance,” he began with quiet intensity. “You and I are the heirs to this radical change.”

Wolf says he feels it is time for a “paradigm shift” in the way we see the world, and his book contains exercises and meditations to help alter readers’ perspectives. The key, he said, involves making the change from a self-centered point of view to an other-centered one.

In addition to being an ordained rabbi and studying with such luminaries as the revered Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson and the Dalai Lama, Wolf is also an educational psychologist specializing in working with teenagers.

When not on tour, the rabbi resides in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, Leah, and the two youngest of their seven children. He is currently working on producing a documentary that will combine his meditation exercises with the music of Peter Himmelman.

Like his mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Wolf has a loyal following among the religious, the non-religious and those on the path to Jewish observance.

“Unfortunately, in the Jewish world, we were Johnny-come-latelys in terms of teaching the spiritual side of Jewish life,” he said. “Because of that, thousands of truly questing Jewish people turned eastward to Buddhism or to New Age. They were being cheated by the Jewish establishment, which didn’t offer that meaningful approach to life. Therefore it’s not surprising that kabbalah became popular, because Jewish people saw it as the spiritual side of Judaism.”

Although happy that the community has taken a greater interest in kabbalah, the rabbi admits he was disappointed to see it turn into a fad, a la Madonna.

“I’m not at all impressed by the promotion of Jewish spirituality by highlighting glamour,” he said. “The way I approach the teaching of kabbalah is much more down to earth. I want people to learn not about how they can project astrally, speak with angels or even create miracles in their lives. I’m interested in using the spiritual teachings to assist people to understand the amazing nature of who they are as a creation, their attributes.”

The rabbi also does not recommend the study of what he calls “hard-core kabbalah” by novices. Downloading the texts off the Internet or buying a Zohar at Barnes & Noble and attempting to struggle through it alone or with a few friends, as has been popular for several years are, in his opinion, a waste of time.

“There’s a difference between studying explanations of the Zohar and studying the Zohar itself, and I do not advocate the latter,” he said. Instead, he advocates learning about kabbalah through classes.

Wolf admits, however, that he is not above a bit of commercialism, hence the name for his newest methodology, MindYoga. He said he picked the term deliberately as a metaphor for the series of meditation and interpersonal exercises in his books and tapes. For Wolf, a spiritual exercise session is every bit as essential as a daily physical workout.

“We can practice daily stretching our soul, so that in the moment when the appropriate emotion is needed, we are flexible spiritually. Because at the end of the day, whether we are able to sleep well or sleep fitfully depends on how masterful we were during that day in our relationships, in our family, in our professional or business arena or with a stranger. This is the core of Torah.”

Rabbi Laibl Wolf will join recording artist Peter Himmelman at a benefit for the rabbi’s foundation, the Human Development Institute, on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. For more information, call Lisa Schneiderman at (310) 314-2213.