(KRT) – These days, you can’t choke a celebrity without seeing one of those red string kabbalah bracelets. Madonna was first to usher it into the mainstream, because Madonna is always first.
She wears the slender red string, also called a bendel, as part of her self-professed devotion to the study of kabbalah, an ancient form of Jewish mysticism. (Lest you think she’s not serious about it, we’ll remind you that she did adopt the Hebrew name Esther.)
The bracelet is said to ward off the evil eye and bring good luck to its wearers.
And now, because all stars must follow their leader, there are a slew of new hipster passengers on the bracelet bandwagon: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore and a gal who readily comes to mind when we think of ancient Jewish mysticism: Paris Hilton.
The “Red String Package” even briefly appeared on Target’s Web site as a “hot buy” ($25.99!) – a sign that the accessory has become so hip that it’s in danger of becoming oh-so-five-seconds ago. But when it mysteriously disappeared from the site, a gossip Web site called Defamer claimed the bracelets were removed after Target received a customer complaint (not that we report gossip).
Target and the source of the Red String Package – the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles – didn’t return calls.
Regardless, the Kabbalah Centre’s eagerness to profit from the red string does seem to be at the center of a knotty debate over kabbalah vogue.
As of recently, the bracelets are available locally, but the Kabbalah Centre has been a leader in hawking them. However, some Jewish leaders and activists have criticized the Centre for commercializing the bendel and other products, such as “Kabbalah water,” which supposedly has healing powers.
Such hue and cry for a wee bit of thread? Turns out it’s much more than that.
It has an ancient tradition – well pre-dating Madonna/Esther – to Israel’s Rachel, the Matriarch. Her greatest desire, according to the Kabbalah Centre’s Web site, was to protect her children from evil. If they are authentic, the bracelets have been cut from a long string that has been wound seven times around Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem.
The bracelet is tied around the left wrist and, according to the Kabbalah Centre, there are then two prayers involved, one being the Ana Be’Ko’ach (read from right to left). This meditation comes handily on a card along with the Kabbalah Centre’s package.
Some believe the Centre’s brand of kabbalah grossly oversimplifies an intense, intricate study.
“I think that people need to know that there is a difference between studying kabbalah and the Kabbalah Centre – they’re two completely different things,” says Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich ofCongregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth, Texas.
“If you came to me to study and I start talking about energy and the level of the seed, this is very nice, this can help you in your life, like it helps Madonna maybe. But it’s not the kabbalah.”
Those who follow Jewish tradition believe a person cannot really even begin studying the kabbalah until they’re 40 years old.
“You can really not study the kabbalah before you know Judaism – it’s the highest Judaic study you can find,” Zeilicovich says. “What the Kabbalah Centre is doing is giving the people the sense that they know how to multiply without teaching them how to make an addition.”
Unlike the majority of celebrity bendel wearers, David Granat is 43, Jewish, and has been doing self-study of kabbalah for several years. For the last seven months, he has been studying with a rabbi. His bracelet was given to him by a friend, who had received it from some people who had been to Israel.
Granat, who owns Granat Cafe and Bakery in Dallas, is puzzled by the bendel frenzy but not offended. “It used to insult me, but each person to his own. If they seriously are looking for some spiritual aspect to their lives, if they are able to achieve any spiritual fulfillment from wearing a piece of string, then go for it.”
The bendel does seem unstoppable in its recent incarnation, more of a rabbit’s foot-like talisman, which is just fine with Edyth Cohen, manager of the Judaica Shop at Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.
“We never carried it until just recently, but we started because of the popularity among people who are not necessarily Jewish, because of celebrities who wear them,” says Cohen. “It’s come a long way.”
Indeed. The version at Cohen’s shop is a sterling silver bracelet with the red string threaded through it. Just this summer, she’s already sold about three dozen. A new Dallas shop, Lone Star Judaica, which carries Jewish gifts, is already out of the 50 it had in stock.
“Everyone’s curious about it,” Cohen says. “They think: `Well, why not? Just in case.’ “
So, Madonna – good for business, but what about the faith?
“In my opinion, it’s not healthy for Judaism,” Zeilicovich says. “Because this is transferring God’s power to an object, it’s a kind of idolatry. . . . Somebody is using a mystical Jewish study and really making a good profit off of it.”
Cohen sees it differently.
“I don’t think she’s doing us any harm,” she says of Madonna. “She’s certainly drawing a lot of attention to the tradition.”
Of course, the Britneys and the Lindsays and the Parises may be another story. We can’t know for sure, but our guess is that Paris Hilton has “not” read the Ana Be’Ko’ach from right to left before tying one on.
Still, while Madonna may have started the trend, the others are responsible for stringing us along on this red-hot craze.
“Who knows how long it will last?” Cohen says. “Maybe it will last as long as their careers.”
Aug. 18, 2004