A petite blonde steps into an unassuming five-storey building in midtown Manhattan, strides past a poster with her image on it, takes an elevator up a storey and steps out into a gleaming white chamber with rows of pews decorated in a Greco-Roman motif. A man leading a service for 200 worshippers glances up from a book. The entire room inhales at once. One woman's jaw goes slack.
Madonna - Esther to her friends here at the Kabbalah Centre - has entered the building. Back before she was Esther, Madonna was my childhood idol. So I was curious how Kabbalah had inspired her - how she had gone from covering Don McLean to covering the Barry Sisters, as she did in July, performing at a private party for the head of the Kabbalah Centre, Rabbi Philip Berg.
The first time I went to the Kabbalah Centre was for a Friday-night Shabbat service. The place was packed, albeit unevenly. The men were seated throughout the left and centre sections, the women squeezed tightly into the right section, except for an empty front row. I slid in there and heard two women by the door whisper and point. Slowly it dawned on me: I had planted my ass in the designated celebrity row.
When Madonna walks into the Kabbalah Centre, chairs materialise out of thin air to form a new row in front of the celebrity row. A bearded man runs over with an electric fan and aims it at Madonna, who is flanked by two thin, attractive women in bad blond wigs. Sitting with one yoga-sculpted leg over the other, Madonna dismisses the man with a wave of her hand and he returns, humbled, to where he was sitting.
The service continues: rabbis take turns leading prayers, then when they're finished step off the stage to shake Madonna's hand. The Material Girl follows along nonchalantly, mouthing indiscernible nothings to her husband, Guy Ritchie, sitting across the room from her in the men's section. Her daughter Lourdes comes over to sit with her mother, then runs out of the room. Men steal glances, women whisper among themselves. I look, too, and I'm both mortified and delighted to learn that, if you stare at Madonna for long enough, Madonna will look right back at you.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is said to have written Zohar, the 2nd-century mystical document now considered Kabbalah's most important text.(These days it also provides the basis for a T-shirt 'I Scanned Zohar with Ashton', a reference to the actor and Kabbalah devotee Ashton Kutcher). According to legend, the Aramaic manuscripts were lost for years and found by Moses de Leon in the 13th century in a cave in Israel. 'Kabbalah', literally 'to receive', became an esoteric practice studied only by male Hasidic scholars over 40, and later a legitimate element of Judaism.
Philip Berg (né Feivel Gruberger) is trying to change that. An insurance salesman and Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, Berg became involved with Kabbalah when he met the renowned Kabbalist Yehuda Brandwein. He studied with Brandwein in Jerusalem and married his niece Rizka. Eight children later, he left her and took up with Karen Berg, an acquaintance from his days selling insurance. According to Centre literature, she possesses 'an extraordinary sixth sense and intuition'. She was the one who suggested they start the Kabbalah Centre in Israel in the early Seventies, then return to the US in 1981.
When Berg spends Shabbat at the New York Kabbalah Centre, he sits at the head table with Karen on his right and Madonna on his left. On Madonna's recent Reinvention tour, he blessed every stage she danced across. Berg's gravitas has made enough of an impression on Madonna that she has recommended his Centre to Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears, among others. Roseanne Barr lectures at the Centre in LA. Among the stars seen with the Centre's red strings around their wrists are Sharon Osbourne, Winona Ryder, David and Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Mick Jagger, Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love.
Paris Hilton, Madonna explained in an ABC interview, was brought to the Centre by her parents after they heard about her sex video. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, who wore matching his-and-hers baby costumes to the Centre's Los Angeles Purim party in March, may have a Kabbalah wedding in Tel Aviv.
Certainly Madonna has given Berg's organisation a particular sort of credibility. Former presidential candidate Wesley Clark seemed taken with Kabbalah as he grew interested in Madonna's support; in December 2003 he gave a speech that included Kabbalah in a list of major world religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Just as Madonna draws the celebrities who admire her, those celebrities in turn draw those who admire them. On the Kabbalah Centre website, a young devotee says her interest in the Centre began 'the minute I heard that Britney wears the bendel and that it was also shown in her latest music video, "Everytime".'
Once wannabes only had to dress like her; I should know - I was one. Such was my Madonna worship that one night when I was 13 I wore a cross around my neck to Hebrew school. At my bar mitzvah, I sang "Material Girl' in lace half-gloves and rubber bracelets.
These days, though, keeping up with Madonna isn't simply a matter of trading your old black bracelets for new red ones. 'I want people to think like me now,' Madonna told the TV show 20/20 last June. And just how does she think? 'When in doubt,' she said, 'act like God.'
I got to know more Kabbalah devotees by volunteering to set up Shabbat dinner. I'd ask the students what drew them to the Centre and several mentioned Madonna. They'd tell their specific story - an epiphany they had reading one of Berg's books, a serendipitous glimpse of one of the Centre's ads in the paper - then mention Madonna as an afterthought. Few of them gave her sole credit with bringing them to Kabbalah, but just about everyone mentioned her and most said they had heard about it in the first place because of her. Only one credited her without hesitation. 'I saw how much she had transformed because of Kabbalah,' he said, 'and I thought, well, if it worked for her ...'
One evening, when I had just reported for duty, another volunteer asked me, 'Do you have your tickets yet?' 'Huh?' 'Your Madonna tickets!' she exclaimed (referring to her recent Reinvention tour). 'If you buy them from the Centre they are the best seats! And all the proceeds go to the Spirituality for Kids programme!' The royalties from Madonna's children's books go to the same fund, which helped purchase the former Atkins headquarters for the Kabbalah Grammar School for Children. According to WABC, Madonna spent a total of $22 million on the school, which will open its doors in 2005 - but only to pupils whose parents are both Kabbalists.
Celebrity Kabbalah followers like Elizabeth Taylor get private tutoring in their mansions. 'There's no set charge, just donations,' said one student. But the typical donation is $200 to $300 an hour, and students can only serve kosher food.
'During the week ahead we will want to bad-mouth others,' my teacher told a class one Thursday night. 'Miriam got leprosy the second she bad-mouthed Moses.' Pause. 'What is leprosy?' No one says anything. 'Leprosy is when on your skin there's a big stain, like barley. Every time you speak lashon hara ' - talking about someone behind his back - 'you might get one.'
There are other lessons, too. 'Satan makes us feel like we could put things off,' the teacher says. 'This week, work on your sense of urgency to do things. For example, "I want to buy a Zohar , but maybe in two weeks" - then it will never happen!' The Kabbalah Centre loves its product placement. During Shabbat services, one rabbi instructed the congregation to drink $3.80, 1.5 litre bottles of Kabbalah water even as he took drinks from a bottle by his side. According to the rabbi, the process of making Kabbalah water is 'more complicated than that of making Coca-Cola'. In the lobby you can buy a single red string that has been blessed at Rachel's tomb in Jerusalem for $8.50, or a yard's worth for $26. Thesmokinggun.com reported that the US Patent Office rejected the Centre's request for a patent on bendels, so they're not exclusive to the lobby. Next season they'll be sold with a Kabbalah candle at Bergdorf's, Barneys NY and Neiman Marcus.
As I leave a class with Jane (not her real name), we walk past posters advertising a few of the Centre's other classes - 'How to Find Your Soulmate', '12 Steps to Everlasting Love' - with stock photos of couples kissing and kids on swings. Jane tells me that she works in public relations and that 'it's not very Kabbalistic'. We walk past piles of tapes for sale on 'Divine Sex' and 'Kabbalistic Astrology'. Over the speakers, I hear Ray of Light. Later, Jane and I are folding napkins into unlikely origami shapes to add a French-restaurant feel to the next evening's Shabbat dinner. Jane has been fishing for religion since her teens; she's attended Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal and Jehovah's Witness services. She says she likes the Kabbalah Centre best: the principles taught in the classes are easy to apply, especially the notion that when you help others you really help yourself.
I am disillusioned as to how my former idol is no longer the unabashedly confident superwoman I so admired. Plenty of people are still following her, but look what she's following. Maybe once she gets the financial breakdown she requested and finds how her money is being spent, she will reinvent herself as the wayward Catholic iconoclast I loved. My friend and I spend the rest of the night drinking tea in a Chinese restaurant, reading fortune cookies, and commiserating about how we missed Madonna over steamed pork buns.