She and Guy Were Waited on By Unpaid 'Slaves' at a Table Laden With Fine Wines and Sipped From Crystal Goblets. We Drank Water and Ate Off Plastic Plates at a Buffet Which Had Cost Us Pounds 32 Each. Welcome to the Cult of Kabbalah Where Feeding the Soul Can Leave You Hungry... As Well As Flat Broke
The time is 9pm. It is the holiday of Sukkot a special day of judgment for followers of the religious sect, Kabbalah.
I am standing in a crude wooden hut with 60 other devotees. We have been chanting in Hebrew for almost an hour.
The evening has cost me Pounds 32, which includes an alcohol- free dinner. But I think it's a fair price as I have been promised I will soon be 'bathing in the light of mercy'.
As we sit down to eat, however, the evening takes an astonishing turn. A tiny figure is ushered into the room and seated at the top table: shocked, I realise I am less than 10ft away from superstar singer Madonna, who has arrived with her film producer husband, Guy Ritchie.
She wears no makeup and casual clothes, though the couple have matching berets hers in black, his white. Only a dainty pair of Prada slippers betrays her wealth.
What becomes rapidly apparent, however, is that in the world of Kabbalah some followers are more equal than others. While we queue for water and a buffet of salmon, salad and hummus to be consumed from plastic glasses and plates, Madonna, 46 who prefers to be known as Esther, her Hebrew name, within the sect sits at a table stacked with bottles of red and white wine and 'blessed spiritual' water. She and Guy, 35, drink from elegant crystal glasses.
There's plenty of room at the top table. The rest of us are rather cramped.
Sally, the woman squashed next to me on the left, elbows me sharply in the ribs and whispers: 'I spent all yesterday preparing a special meal for her; I had to go to a kosher shop for marinated tofu, steamed vegetables and barley.' What a waste, I thought, noticing that Madonna does not touch her special meal. Instead she talks with the Kabbalah leader and his wife on the very spiritual issue of the hell of persistently screaming children.
'You look good,' someone tells the singer. 'No I don't,' she retorts. 'I've been working hard and I look tired.' I know the feeling. It is three months since I became a student of Kabbalah, eager to find out for myself the truth about the sect sweeping the celebrity world.
Would I find enlightenment and greater happiness through the teachings of Rabbi Philip Berg? Or, as cynics warned, would I find the lessons of the former Brooklyn insurance salesman costly and meaningless?
It had all started with a free lecture I attended in May at the Pounds 3.65million Grade II listed building in Bond Street, London, that Madonna had donated for the group's use. I signed up for a ten- week course in The Power of Kabbalah.
Chaim Solomon was to be my teacher and the course cost Pounds 180. An hour-and-a-half every Tuesday did not sound too onerous.
My classmates were an odd mix of confused people, many of whom had tried other religions, such as Buddhism. But from the first day we were encouraged to spend money to bolster Kabbalah funds.
We were pointed in the direction of a bookshop where we were expected to buy a small tin containing the precious Kabbalah red string which identifies followers, for Pounds 25. Like everything I was to discover about Kabbalah, it did not come cheap. The string was to protect me from looks of ill-will and envious stares and a staff member at the Centre tied it on my left hand while chanting Hebrew and telling me to envisage light.
Classes started ordinarily enough.
We were told we would experience miracles and find inner peace, contentment, financial prosperity, power and wellbeing. As homework we were to study the 72 Hebrew names for God.
As classes became more intense, and the training more rigorous and repetitive leaving little time for family, friends, and finally even work one or two of my more sceptical peers began to drop out. Those who remained appeared to have undergone some sort of Damascene conversion. They began to speak of miracles, and said their lives had improved. I was having doubts.
There was pressure to buy copies of the Zohar the Kabbalah 'bible', written in Aramaic, and in 32 volumes which cost Pounds 280; pressure to visit the Kabbalah centre on a daily basis, even if it meant missing work, and constant pressure to regurgitate the repetitive teachings and bring in new recruits.
At one point it was even suggested to me that I get a second credit card (bad advice for a young person of 28) or sell a family heirloom so that I could go on a Kabbalah trip to Israel.
I began to feel that I was losing a sense of my own identity and becoming a vessel for Kabbalah and its nebulous ambitions.
Then I was called for a onetoone meeting with Chaim in his office. He wanted to know about my job, my family and what worries I had. He asked me when I was going to buy the Zohar and I told him I couldn't afford it. He simply said: 'Imagine it and it will happen.' Next I braved an evening event, at a cost of Pounds 26, where we flung our hands in the air and shouted 'Chernobyl' to send 'good' energy to the Russian village of that name. We were told we could cure everything, even cancer.
Dinner did not start until well after 10pm, by which time many of us felt faint and starving. After eating we were told to study until 4am. Some people chanted, others read. By 2am I had had enough.
Exhausted and confused, I slipped out through a back door.
By this time I was receiving several emails a week from members of Kabbalah.
Most were supportive of the cult, from people saying: 'Isn't Kabbalah great?'
But others had doubts. It is as if they were trying to convince themselves that they had discovered some deep truth, while actually only finding that what they needed was deep pockets.
As the weeks passed I found the course increasingly invasive and extraordinarily expensive. Yet the pressure to give every waking moment to the sect never let up.
'Can't you visit the centre more often,' said Sarah, a girl who had been appointed as my mentor, in one of her frequent phone calls. I felt like I was being pulled by an invisible string. I had just finished studying the Power of Kabbalah when I was phoned to ask if I would sign up to Kabbalah II for Pounds 150. This tenweek course would deepen my knowledge and I agreed.
There were a host of other classes I was gently persuaded to sign up for, but which I know I couldn't afford. A weekly Zohar class (Pounds 13), a ten-week Tree of Life seminar (Pounds 151), a seven week course on Anti-Matter, a Dream Course (Pounds 81) and even faced and palm-reading classes (Pounds 91).
Some students confided in me that they had taken up second jobs to fund their studies, others were starting to wonder where the money goes.
Volunteering at the Kabbalah centre is, of course, free.
I was told that this is 'the true way forward' but my one and only experience there was exhausting. I had to clear leftovers from the chevres' (the name given to Kabbalah followers) lunch before getting the room ready for that night's classes. The room had to be vacuumed and flowers put out.
There were attendance lists, candles, paper and pens to be prepared.
I was astonished to learn that one girl had given up her well paid job in accountancy to live and work fulltime at the centre. Fulltime workers live in a bleak basement with sparse furniture and no personal effects.
I was learning a lot about Kabbalah and the well-meaning and sweet-natured people who are often drawn to it. But I couldn't feel it taking me on a path to a positive future.
Instead, as I tried to fast, chant and follow the faith, I was feeling drawn, tired, and lacking in any original thought. I was also becoming scared of saying no to the constant demands for money for courses, books and artefacts.
The final straw came when my course leader tried to persuade me to go to Israel for a 'tremendous judgment' to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. I was told I should do whatever I could to get there.
If I was found to be lacking I would not get my 'light for the year'. The trip was to cost Pounds 1,000.
Chaim rang me repeatedly to see if I had raised the funds and I began to feel terribly guilty at what I was growing to believe was an overwhelming personal failure. I actually considered his suggestion about the extra credit card. I also felt I was letting down the rest of the group. Then I woke up.
Lucky to have supportive friends and family from whom Kabbalah subtly try to alienate you I listened to their advice and did some cold, hard thinking. My days with Kabbalah were numbered. But other followers were not so robust. I watched many being drawn into the sect. It was, I imagine, the way someone might feel when they are drowning: panicked at first, but then subdued finally sinking without resistance into the depths.
As I watched Madonna and Guy Ritchie at the top table on the night of the Sukkot holiday dinner I wondered what the singer saw in the faith. It is said she is certain it will provide her with the third child she so desperately craves. She barely picked at her meal, and drank only water though Guy was happy to consume copious quantities of wine.
He also appeared to be rather more sceptical than his wife. By 11pm most people were feeling tired. Guy stifled a yawn and mouthed at his wife 'can we go?' Madonna and Guy were led through the house; the rest of us left through a side gate. Guy clutched a copy of a Kabbalah prayer book. He hugged and kissed a couple of the men goodbye. I wondered if, like the rest of us, Madonna was desperate to go to the loo.
It is now more than four months since I began studying Kabbalah and finally I have decided it is time to break free. After spending Pounds 280 for the complete works of the sacred Zohar making it almost Pounds 1,000 that I'd spent altogether I somehow couldn't bear to touch them when they dropped with a thud on my doorstep. Whatever wisdom is contained within that scarlet hardback volume is destined to remain, unopened, in its box.
A spokesman for the Kabbalah movement refused to answer questions. He said: 'We have no comment because this is the Sabbath.'