Judaica store owner sets out to reclaim meaning of red string

PITTSBURGH – The owner of a Judaica store wants to educate people about the significance behind a strand of red string worn around the wrist that’s linked with Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.

The string, also known as a bendel, has been increasing in popularity in recent years and has been seen on the wrists of Madonna, Demi Moore and Lindsay Lohan.

But Shlomo Perelman worries an article of faith is being transformed into hollow fashion.

“It’s been co-opted by Hollywood types and its been adopted by mass-market, New Age people” who aren’t aware of its significance, he said. “It’s not being linked at all to Judaism.”

The string’s meaning for Jews is based on its connection to Rachel, one of Judaism’s four matriarchs, according to Perelman. For centuries, Jews have tied on their wrists red string that’s been wrapped around Rachel’s tomb in the West Bank.

Though some people believe the string can relieve pain and protect from the evil eye, Perelman said its importance lies in connecting Jews with Rachel.

“We want to connect with great people and Rachel was a great Jewish person,” said Perelman, who owns Pinsker’s Judaica Center in Pittsburgh and founded Internet retailer Judaism.com.

Perelman has spent about $10,000 producing a video about the red string. The video, which runs about seven minutes, can be seen free on Judaism.com and is included with the purchase of the string (he sells two plain strings for $10 and string and silver bracelet for $25.)

Kabbalah’s followers believe that by studying Jewish texts and achieving a more intimate relationship with God, they can understand the hidden meaning of the Torah and can call on God to alter nature on their behalf.

In the Middle Ages, Kabbalah was passed on to Jewish men over 40 who were deemed to have the maturity and pristine spirituality to handle mysticism’s power. In recent years, Kabbalah centers have been opening throughout the United States, teaching a hybrid version with no restrictions on age, gender or religion. Orthodox Jews dismiss the trend as a fraud.

Arthur Green, a professor of Jewish mysticism and theory at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., and professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., calls selling red string “all nonsense” and “a rip off.”

“It’s commercialization of people’s psychological weaknesses. I’m opposed to it at any level,” Green said. “This is the most trivial level of Kabbalah … There’s lots to talk about Kabbalah, but the red string isn’t part of it.”

Perelman said it troubles him that Jewish teenagers consider Madonna and other celebrities “icons of Jewish spirituality.”

“It’s not healthy for our community and it’s really difficult to combat the power of the media,” he said.

Madonna, who has described herself as a student of Kabbalah, has said it irritates her when people say she’s jumped on a celebrity bandwagon. Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhard, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton all have been reported to be interested in Kabbalah.

Discount chain Target even sold the red string for a while last year, but no longer does.

Even though he’s a businessman, Perelman said he’d rather forego a sale than sell the red string just because it’s trendy.

On the Net:

Judaism.com red string site: http://www.judaism.com/redstring/index.asp

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Associated Press, via The Intelligencer, USA
Feb. 4, 2005
Dan Nephin

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday February 5, 2005.
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