Anyone who’s read a celebrity gossip rag has seen them — modest red strings encircling the wrists of Hollywood royalty such as Madonna and Britney Spears.
But the strings aren’t just another form of bling or an entry bracelet to a secret spiritual club of the rich and beautiful.
“Kabbalah means ‘what was received,'” says Rabbi Yossi Marcus of North Peninsula Chabad in San Mateo. “For thousands of years the teachings of Kabbalah weren’t written down, they were passed down from masters to students and kept in a small circle…the teachings weren’t popularized until the Hasidic movement.”
Hasidism is a form of mystical Orthodox Judaism founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer in Eastern Europe in the 1700s. Men who practice Hasidism wear full beards, dark clothes and hats. The women wear head coverings and modest dresses. This distinctive clothing style often causes outsiders to assume that Hasidic Jews are ultra-orthodox fundamentalists, but the beliefs of Hasidism include ideas of reincarnation, prophetic dreams, miracles, angels and spiritual healing. Many of these ideas were derived from the teachings of Kabbalah.
In popular culture, Kabbalah is often portrayed as a separate religion or a New Age philosophy. But most Jewish scholars of Kabbalah see it as an integral part of spirituality — additional wisdom to expand on one’s faith. Therefore, there are no specific Kabbalistic rituals within Judaism. Instead Kabbalah is considered a part of other Practices and high holidays.
Despite the deep history of the teachings, most mainstream Americans are only familiar with the symbol of the red string, which is said to ward off the negativity of the “evil eye.”
Authentic red strings have been wrapped around the tomb of Rachel, the great matriarch, in Bethlehem. When worn around the left wrist, the strings are supposed to impart blessings and
protect the wearer from the negative looks of others. While the red string is part of an old Jewish tradition, the popularity of the strings as fashion statements hasraised a certain level of ambivalence among scholars of Kabbalah.
“There’s a certain part of the population, or a group of people, that want symbols or amulets so they can have physical contact with their beliefs,” says Tina DelRosario, a Pleasanton resident who studies Kabbalah at American West Learning Center in San Francisco. “Others don’t need that and want to explore their own self. I guess if a red string causes them to feel something that’s good.”
Many Jewish community centers offer courses on Kabbalah. Jewish spiritual communities such as Chochmat Halev and Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley include concepts of Kabbalah as part of the spiritual practice of Judaism.
But, you don’t have to be Jewish to study Kabbalah.
At the Kabbalah Centre, which has locations across the globe, including two in Southern California, those who are curious are encouraged to embrace what they call “the oldest, most influential wisdom in all of human history.” It is through the Kabbalah Centre that celebrities such as Madonna and Britney Spears have embarked on their Kabbalah journeys. It is also the place that helped popularize the symbol of the red string, selling the bracelets to the public, along with an accompanying book about Kabbalah, for $26.
Stores such as Target and online retail giant Amazon.com have also sold the strings in the past.
There is Kabbalah water, “imbued with ancient kabbalistic meditations,” and T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “God disguised as.” Cosmetics retailer Sephora peddles Kabbalah candles which, in varying fragrances, promise to instill emotions of happiness or sexual energy.
But the Kabbalah Centre’s brand of knowledge has some Jews a little suspicious of the spiritual motivation.
“Kabbalah has many beautiful concepts that can make life easier and more meaningful,” says Marcus. “But trying to make money with Kabbalah water and candles is questionable…but if it is making people better, less selfish, and more giving and spiritual it is good.”
Marcus teaches courses on Kabbalah at North Peninsula Chabad and says he has seen an increase in interest in Kabbalah since celebrities have dabbled in the practice.
“If I advertise a class on Kabbalah I only gain from the fact that it has celebrity status,” says Marcus. “It’s a mixed thing, it’s neither completely good nor completely bad.”
But Marcus is also slightly cautious about some of the materials that the Kabbalah Centre sells in the name of spirituality.
“It’s a little strange to me to see T-shirts with the name of God on them,” says Marcus. “With a Jewish upbringing, the name of God was always holy, protected. It seems like they are treating it a little too casually.”
Getting out the word
Alec Shapiro, a Pleasanton resident who studies Kabbalah at American West Learning Center in San Francisco, has a different opinion.
“I actually love that (places like) Neiman Marcus sell the Kabbalah ‘word,'” he laughs, referring to the red strings and books available at some department stores. “It’s a tremendous way to get out the word. More than 99 percent of the people which buy it don’t know what it means, but that will all come later. It raises awareness as to the actuality of what Kabbalah is.”
Originally, studying Kabbalah was a privilege reserved for married men over the age of 40. It was thought, and in some circles still is, that those without firm grounding in education and life experience would misconstrue some of the deeper mystical secrets of Kabbalah and become misled in the teachings.
“We like to call it the soul of the Torah,” says Marcus. “With the knowledge of the five books of Moses, the prophets and writings of the Talmud, Kabbalah explains the inner meaning of that. The Torah will tell you the practice — like eating matzo on Passover — and Kabbalah explains that the matzo represents
humility. Kabbalah was always seen as the soul of Judaism, not separate from it.”
While Kabbalah is deeply rooted in Judaism, Marcus is quick to note that many of the lessons of Kabbalah have resonance for people of all spiritual backgrounds.
“One of the ideas that many people find appealing is that everything that happens to them on a daily basis is by divine providence,” he says. “It’s not a mistake. Anything that happens to a person is meant to be.”
With a philosophy of unification — all people are seen as parts of one large body — the all-encompassing spirit of giving and caring for one another speaks to both Jews and non-Jews alike.
“I’ve studied many religions, and I have a Catholic background,” says DelRosario of Pleasanton. “Finding a connection to belief is very personal, and I was put off by many religions. But the more I read about it (Kabbalah), the more connections I see because there’s more background to the beliefs.”
A nurse for 30 years with an educational background in chemistry, DelRosario says she questions everything. But since she began studying Kabbalah a year and a half ago, things have changed.
“For me, I spent a lot of time questioning ‘What are we here for?’ and ‘What is the meaning of life?'” she says. “Now I think, ‘Wow, there’s an answer for that?'”
While a person can spend a lifetime studying the teachings of Kabbalah, it is some of its basic lessons that garner attention and acclaim within celebrity circles. The result is a type of rivalry between scholars of Judaism and those studying the popularized versions of Kabbalah.
“What is being taught today doesn’t even come close,” says Marcus. “What is being marketed today — some of it is plain old Judaism. A lot is Hasidic, which started about 200 to 300 years ago and was born out of Kabbalistic teachings. The Hasidics distilled them (the teachings of Kabbalah) and made them palatable for anyone to understand.”
Despite its entry into mainstream Judaism three centuries ago, many teachings of Kabbalah still remain a mystery. Clearly, the philosophical connection between Hasidic Jews, with strong Orthodox beliefs and modest demeanors, and celebrities like Britney Spears is, quite literally, held together by a string.
The red string
In August 2004, the International Society for Sephardic Progress asked the Target Corporation to stop selling small packages of red string emblazoned with the phrase “Kabbalah Red String.” An excerpt of a letter from the ISFSP, an advocacy group dedicated to strengthening and intellectually defending the Sephardic community, states:
“We are offended by the exploitation that Target Corporation is conducting by marketing this item. Just as you would not sell turbans, statues of Buddha, crucifixes or rosary beads, items considered part of Jewish ritual should also not be sold for a profit. We ask that you please reconsider the sale of this item, as it makes a mockery out of the authentic practice and original modality of the Kabbalistic tradition.”
By September 2004, Target stopped selling the strings, but they are still available at many Kabbalah Centre locations.
“I don’t know that it hurts anybody to be wearing a red string,” says Marcus, “if it makes them feel good and secure or gives them comfort. People have been using amulets for thousands of years because we have a deep need for security. Who knows? Maybe it works.”
While red strings may have brought Kabbalah into the public eye, images that capture the mystical qualities of some Jewish celebrations and high holidays are few and far between. Averie Cohen, a Richmond-based photographer, is trying to change that.
She photographs people in local Jewish communities, including Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan and Chochmat Halev and in places as far away as Rio de Janiero. Her work was recently displayed in an exhibit titled “Kabbalah: Spirit Of The Jewish Renewal Movement” at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City.
Cohen grew up in a conservative Jewish household in New York and went to Orthodox school as a child. In 1979, she moved from San Francisco to the East Bay and began to attend events with Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan community.
“I have this ongoing deep question about where Judaism fits in my life,” she says. “I’m very interested in all religions.”
While following her own path toward spiritual identity Cohen found that photography was the best way for her to interact with her faith.
“I think I need some distance, and I get that with the camera,” she says. “But I can also approach…I think people need to try harder to understand each other’s religions and accept them.”
While she doesn’t claim any expertise in Kabbalah, her images capture the mysticism and spiritual intrigue of Judaism in a way that has surprised even her subjects.
“People have said ‘You’ve shown us who we are,'” she says. “It is very touching, very moving.”
While Cohen prefers to study with her camera rather than through texts, she has developed a closeness and mutual appreciation with the participants in all the communities she photographs. But she’s still unsure of the popularization of such a deeply spiritual school of thought.
“Kabbalah is a body of Jewish mystic wisdom, and the texts, the Zohar, are full of word puzzles and esoteric riddles,” she says. “I don’t see how anyone could take that and make it ‘pop’…for somebody to take some classes and say they’re a Kabbalist, well, I just don’t know.”
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