Objects of Jewish Devotion Evolve Into a Fashion Fad

Uma Thurman, photographed with a quilted Chanel tote on one arm and the hotelier André Balazs on the other, is a portrait of chic. But Ms. Thurman has nothing, it seems, on Demi Moore. In recent weeks, Ms. Moore has appeared on the red carpet with Ashton Kutcher at her side and a slender red string encircling her wrist — a diminutive bracelet that could become one of the most coveted accessories of the season.

The bracelet, known as a bendel, is said to protect one from the evil eye and marks the wearer as a devotee of cabala, a mystical branch of Judaism — or more likely, simply as an acolyte of hip. Bendels are in high demand not only at the 50 Kabbalah Centre stores around the world but also on the Web and in boutiques across the country.

“The bracelet has been huge for us,” said Jaye Hersh, the owner of Intuition, a trendy Los Angeles boutique offering silver and red string bendels for $45. Since May, Ms. Hersh has sold more than 1,000 bendels, the amulet of choice for the likes of Ms. Moore, Mr. Kutcher and Britney Spears. “It’s all about, `I’ve got to wear what the celebrity has,’ ” Ms. Hersh said.

The bendel is but one in a catalog of pop Judaica that is finding its way into the marketplace. There is cabala water, sold in plastic bottles. There are tefillin, the sacred assemblage of leather boxes and straps worn by Orthodox Jewish men during morning prayers. There are red candles, and, of course, there is the Star of David, now a gleaming badge of cool.

The adoption of such symbols by the fashion flock was perhaps to be expected, given that they have the endorsement of none other than Madonna. Cabala’s most visible practitioner, she has worn the bendel, along with tefillin and a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Kabbalists Do It Better,” on her Re-Invention World Tour.

Never mind that she is not Jewish. “Madonna has brought a lot of attention to Judaism,” said Sara Schwimmer, a Brooklyn merchant of pop Judaica. Ms. Schwimmer welcomes the current flirtation with Jewish iconography. “Madonna has made Judaism hip,” she said, “and I hate to say it, but the hip factor goes really far.”

Far enough, evidently, to have prompted Ms. Schwimmer to develop ChosenCouture.com, a Web site offering silver and gold bendels and kitsch like “Moses Is My Homeboy” T-shirts, graffiti-airbrushed skullcaps and a crystal-studded Star of David, promoted on the Web site “for those nice Jewish girls with a rock-and-roll edge.”

A less flippant spirituality impelled Harry Slatkin, a fragrance entrepreneur, to introduce a line of candles, called simply Kabbalah, imbued with frankincense, cinnamon and myrrh and said to promote sexual energy, spiritual cleansing and the like. Each candle will be packaged with a bendel blessed at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, said Mr. Slatkin, who is himself a cabala devotee. “We hired an armored car expressly to transport them there,” he said. Come September, he added, the candles will be sold for $20 at Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

Not surprisingly, the embrace of cabala and its symbols has raised alarms among some Jewish scholars. Pop culture cabala is to the genuine practice what pornography is to love, Adin Steinsaltz, a Hasidic rabbi in Jerusalem, told The New York Times last year. “Pornography is intrinsically soulless and doesn’t have any obligations attached,” Rabbi Steinsaltz said. “It’s just using externals.” Pop cabalists, he said, are doing the same thing.

The proliferation of Jewish trinkets also raises concern that its merchants are obsessed with profits, not piety.

“We wouldn’t want to look mercenary — that is something we all have to be very careful about,” said Mr. Slatkin, whose company will donate 20 percent of the retail price of his candles to the Kabbalah Centres worldwide.

Ms. Hersh of the Intuition shop said she had not heard complaints that her wares smacked of sacrilege.

“I actually was thinking that was a possibility,” she said. “We are thinking of donating a portion of our proceeds to the Kabbalah Centre. That way we’ll be covered.”

Sample the New York Times electronic edition

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
New York Times, USA
June 29, 2004
Ruth La Ferla

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