Posted by Danielle Berrin
Katie Couric captured the spirit of the moment when she said, “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but that’s it?”
Yep, that was it. Epic hype, legions breathless in anticipation, and it was over in an instant. And still, the minutest moment, the tenderest touch, taps into something deep and profound in the human psyche that causes us to spin, whirl and wonder. Yearn for more.
The royal kiss seen-round-the-world was sweet, as dew, the way Tennyson preferred: “Once he drew, with one long kiss my whole soul through, my lips, as sunlight drinketh dew.” But it wasn’t legendary, like the airport kiss in “Casablanca” when two lovers forever parted by way of puckering up: “A kiss, and all was said,” wrote Victor Hugo.
For a kiss can be a language, a poem and a longing. It contains multitudes, as Whitman might have said. It can even contain Torah.
In Song of Songs, the putative love poem between God and Israel, which Jews read every Pesach, the very second line speaks of a kiss. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” it goes, “for your love is sweeter than wine.” It seems there can be no love without a kiss to seal the deal. But while a kiss is an embrace, it can also be an education.
There are many midrashim (stories) about the ways in which the Jewish people either learn or forget the teachings of Torah. One commentary on Song of Songs Rabba (which is basically a commentary on the original) suggests that God’s kiss could itself transmit Torah.
In Exodus, the Israelites fear divine revelation and ask Moses to be an intermediary between them and God: “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die…So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.” The people were too cowardly to come close; they feared the intimacy of God’s love, and instead spurned God. (It’s too bad God didn’t know Shakespeare at the time, because after such unabashed rejection, the bard’s line may have been of use: “Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made for kissing, lady, not for such contempt.”)
But while kisses can be fearsome, they can also illuminate. Derek Leman (a self-identified “messianic Jew”, but let’s put that aside for the moment) suggests a kiss is the answer to the people’s longing for Torah and for God.
After rejecting direct revelation from God and asking Moses to be a mediator, something precious was lost and its return is passionately awaited:
They returned to their studying but would forget what they had learned. They said, “Just as Moses is flesh and blood and will pass away, so also his learning will pass away.” Immediately they turned and came to Moses. They said to him, “Moses, our rabbi, if only He [the Holy One] would be revealed to us a second time. If only He would kiss us with the kisses of his mouth! If only He would fix the study of Torah as He did before!” (Song of Songs Rabba)
God’s kiss is utterly restorative, returning to the people the wisdom and love they have longed for. With a kiss, their world is redeemed.
Because, a kiss is never just a kiss. It is its own solar system: “‘Twas not my lips you kissed but my soul,” said Judy Garland.
Our regret at this morning’s fleeting bliss is because a kiss is an unquenchable thirst. One is never satisfied (though I say the Richard Gere/Julia Ormond kiss in “First Knight” comes eerily close). And while the presence of kisses lights the world, the end of a kiss is the end of life itself: “What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?” wrote Robert Browning.
For the royals, I’d like to think, the petite peck was nothing but a prelude—which of course bodes very, very well for the activities of their wedding night.
Because a good kiss is worth wreckage. Or as e.e. cummings wrote, “Kisses are a better fate than wisdom.”
[hat tip to kissing quotes]
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April 26, 2011 | 10:49 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
For the cover of next month’s TRIBE magazine, in honor of Israel’s independence month, I profiled a young Israeli financier, Dovi Frances, who serves as primary financial adviser to the Russian billionaire Sergey Grishin. In a leap of faith, Frances recently ditched a comfy finance job with a major international bank to go to work for Grishin, who is trying to establish a stateside presence beyond his captain-of-industry portfolio in Russia.
One of the highlights of the interview was visiting the historic Santa Barbara property El Fureidis, which has a long and storied past—most famously it served as the setting of Al Pacino’s residence in the 1983 classic “Scarface” which makes it a bonafide Hollywood relic.
The 10 sprawling acres it encompasses began a kind of horticultural revolution in Southern California because its landscaping was a dramatic departure from traditional approaches. Instead of a grassy lawn surrounded by trees or flowers, El Fureidis modeled the experience of a wild jungle. There are some 125 varieties of palm trees on the property and the original owner, J. Waldron Gillespie, from a wealthy New York banking family, took the architect Bertram Goodhue on a yearlong tour of Europe and parts of the Middle East to study Mediterranean architecture before building the home that sits at its center. El Fureidis - which, according to one online source is loosely translated as “pleasure gardens” - is considered the first Mediterranean Villa in the United States. Grishin, who purchased the property just over a year ago is currently renovating the property, probably in preparation to re-sell it.
According to the real estate Website, justluxe.com:
Albert Einstein stopped by when he visited Santa Barbara. The estate includes terraced Persian water gardens and one of the rarest tree collections in North America. In fact, Walt Disney loved El Fureidis’ palm trees so much, he uprooted some and re-planted them at Disneyland. This Little Paradise has big-picture appeal—it served as Tony Montana’s (Al Pacino’s) estate in 1983’s “Scarface.”
Of course the other highlight was downing a few vodka shots in Grishin’s private jet. Not as exciting was when the small plane experienced turbulence that threatened to plunge four travelers into the sea. The experience was redeemed just before landing at LAX (where the billionaire and his two right-hand men would “drop me off” before heading to Las Vegas for business) when I was invited to sit in the cockpit and watch the landing. Surrounded by what felt like floor to ceiling windows and thousands of buttons I could never keep track of, I watched Los Angeles sparkle in the sunset as the plane descended upon the runway.
Read the full story:
At a quarter to 7 in the morning, 32-year-old Israeli financier Dovi Frances pulls up in his nightshade Mercedes Benz — a fitting color since it’s still dark outside — on his way to run a company meeting in Santa Barbara. When the passenger door opens, a blast of hip-hop music shatters the early-morning quiet, the driver buoyant with the beat pounding his luxury-vehicle-cum-mobile-nightclub.
“I’m not into Matisyahu,” Frances says with a dash of defiance. “For me it’s Eminem, Tupac, Dr. Dre — you know, hard-core stuff.”
Frances is in many ways quite like the music he likes: experimental, aggressive and forceful. He’s a young, hungry Wall Street type with sharply good looks and a measure of recklessness, whose outsize ambition justifies impulsive risk-taking.
April 25, 2011 | 4:10 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Over the weekend I was in New York and heard the most extraordinary tale. My visit rather providentially coincided with the opening of the Tribeca Film Festival, which brought with it an influx of film aficionados, Hollywood celebrities and the requisite parties, after-hours meet ups and so forth that constitute such international art gatherings. One night over drinks at the Mercer Hotel, a well respected actor (who I’ve not yet persuaded to do a formal interview so I won’t use his name) was talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, rather heatedly, when I interjected with my usual devil’s advocacy and out of curiosity asked why felt so passionate about the situation given that he’s neither Jewish, nor Palestinian, nor Arab, nor United Nations ambassador.
“Actually that’s not entirely true,” he said. “I have a Jewish name.”
As the conversation went further and deeper, he revealed that his father, who had fought in the British army during World War II had seen such horrific things of the Holocaust and Europe’s treatment of Jews on the whole, that after the war, he changed the family to a Jewish-sounding one. It was unclear if his father did this out of alliance, guilt, or a deep, unabated shame at what he had seen. But after that, he was determined to raising his own children with a sense of Jewish identity. This struck me, for many reasons, but mostly for the way in which names can be laden with history, identity, even responsibility. This man, who is a pronounced atheist and is not at all Jewishly observant, feels profoundly connected to the Jewish people and a unique empathy for them (despite his scathing criticisms of Netanyahu) simply because his father marked their names with a Jewish cipher to cover a sordid past. The name change, in this respect, was a way of taking the burdens of the Jewish people onto himself, and it did make me wonder if his father did this because he had seen so many yellow stars without adorning his own uniform.
All of this, of course, is increasingly ironic set in a Hollywood context where an industry famously created by Jews was done so to shed the burdens of Jewish identity and history. And in order to do so, the first things they changed were their names.
April 14, 2011 | 9:54 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Let’s for a moment put aside the indelible image of Tom Cruise giddily love-jumping on Oprah’s couch. Even slightly deranged movie stars deserve to fall in love.
Let’s instead go with another image, perhaps also perplexing to digest, but one the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance would like you to see: Tom Cruise, humanitarian.
Picture it: There he is rolling up his custom-made sleeves in Rwanda. There he is again, hugging orphaned children in Haiti. And after that, it’s “Top Gun” redux, as he flies his cargo-loaded jet into Tsunami-stricken Japan.
Or was that George Clooney?
If those images are hard to see, it’s probably because I made them up. And if this subjective measure of what makes a humanitarian seems unfair – sources in Cruise’s camp assure me he’s the consummate philanthropist and gives away “tens of millions”– it’s probably because it is. But even so, tapping Cruise with a “humanitarian” award still seems an odd choice, since one authentic and indisputable aspect of his image is as public champion for the Church of Scientology—and that impenetrable behemoth is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for alleged human trafficking.
The fact that the Wiesenthal Center plans to honor Cruise on May 5 with the 2011 Humanitarian Award is either brilliant strategy or terrible hypocrisy. And it has Tom-lovers-and-haters alike in a tizzy.
One online message board oppugning Cruise’s worthiness quipped, “Hey I know another actor for this prize”—and followed with a wacky photo of Mel Gibson. Another online forum that caters exclusively to “ex-Scientologists” contained a thread around the question: “Do you believe that Tom Cruise is a humanitarian, like within the context of all the other humanitarians who actually did something humanitarian? Like, I don’t know, someone who raised money and went out and cleared landmines, or someone who worked and risked their [life] to stop an actual genocide?”
To be fair, many of the Wiesenthal Center’s honorees from the entertainment industry do not do that type of work. And, yet, every year the center hosts a swanky dinner in Beverly Hills for titans of the industry, the centerpiece of which is the bestowal of the Humanitarian Award—the museum’s highest honor—upon individuals who ostensibly promote human welfare, but perhaps more importantly, can get their friends to write big checks to the museum. Hollywood, as you might imagine, is quite good at this, and over the years recipients have included luminaries like Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Douglas, Amy Pascal, Will Smith, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
Under these criteria—since Cruise is apparently a big giver and obviously a big star—he would seem a natural fit. Perhaps his religious/spiritual affiliations should not matter; why assume that his chosen spiritual system holds any kind of sway in influencing his values? How horrifically unfair to expect public spokespeople to be held accountable for the interior affairs of the organizations they represent.
“Tom Cruise cannot be responsible for an entire religion,” film director Brett Ratner, who sits on the Wiesenthal’s board of trustees said to me by phone last week. “You can’t say he’s the reason the religion is doing what it’s doing. That’s like saying, ‘The Jews killed f———Jesus; why am I a Jew?’”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center is, after all, home to the Museum of Tolerance, which preaches openness and understanding, “promotes human rights and dignity” and is dedicated to “raising awareness about contemporary issues” (as stated in the tribute invitation). Yet, to the chagrin of some, honorees are not selected based upon their religious persuasion but rather, their commitment to the museum.
Rosalie Zalis, senior vice president of Pacific Capital Group and a Wiesenthal trustee said Cruise has been a “major giver” to the museum for almost two decades, and that he’s been a supporter of the Holocaust Studies program.
“There aren’t too many other people, besides Spielberg and Katzenberg, who have really supported Holocaust studies the way he has,” she said. And she is hardly bothered by the unruly elephant in the room: “I don’t know anything about Scientology,” she said. “It’s just like Islam—as we say ‘not all Muslims are terrorists,’ but to date it seems most terrorists have been Muslims, and yet, you can’t condemn all Muslims. Just because someone is a Scientologist, you can’t condemn them as a trafficker.”
When Lawrence Wright, writing for The New Yorker, first reported the investigation into the Church of Scientology in a lengthy expose published last February, the rumor mills spun into high gear. Picking up on the scandal (without verifying its veracity, because it’s the New Yorker, after all) news aggregates blared headlines implicating Cruise: “Scientology Under FBI Investigation For Work Done For Tom Cruise,” ran one headline, posted on The Huffington Post on Feb. 8. Follow-up calls to the Los Angeles FBI offices to confirm the story’s facts were fruitless, since official policy prohibits officers from confirming or denying an investigation.
“It’s true that the FBI doesn’t normally confirm or deny an investigation, but this was an exception,” Wright, the author of the 25,000-word story wrote in an email, adding, “I can’t really disclose why that is or how it came about. I can tell you that nothing I heard from the FBI involved Cruise.”
“We should not engage in any guilt by association,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center said. He is focusing on Cruise-the-individual, not Cruise-the Scientology missionary. “We’ve given a medal of valor to the Pope. Does that mean we agree with everything the church has done? No.”
Hier added that the museum is accustomed to taking flack for its high-profile choices, which are determined by the entertainment dinner chairs: Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, CAA Super-agent and partner Kevin Huvane, Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Warner Bros. Entertainment CEO Barry Meyer, Universal Studios president Ron Meyer and Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Tom Rothman. As it often goes in Hollywood, the bigger the celebrity, the bigger the corresponding controversy.
“When we honored Ted Kennedy a long time ago, we received an enormous amount of criticism – enormous!” Hier said. “Because of Chappaquiddick. But we honored him as a great senator and a person who contributed to society. So if you’re asking me if this is the first time we’ve received letters or emails? Not by any stretch of the imagination.”
This could require some Cruise control. One insider suggested Cruise’s handlers may have pressed for the recognition, a little positive PR to keep his image pristine (not that they’d admit it isn’t). For the Church of Scientology, humanitarianism appears to be a value: the official Website lists six different educational projects advocating social responsibility, including programs for criminal rehabilitation and increasing literacy.
Of course, it’s possible Cruise is one of those “quiet givers” who donates munificently to a plethora of organizations. According to the Website looktothestars.org, an online organization that tracks celebrity giving, Cruise has supported the Children’s Hospice & Palliative Care Coalition, the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation and Mentor LA; he also serves as a board member for the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project, a position for which he received an Excellence in Mentoring Award, in 2003, from the National Mentoring Partnership.
All nice things, Tom Cruise, but does giving away lots of dough a humanitarian make?
That’s a question the Wiesenthal Center’s leadership should ponder, for themselves, at least, if not for their viewing public. Because it could be that for the world’s biggest box office draw, writing a check is easy. Even in Hollywood, plenty of celebrities go much further—Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn, for instance—all glamorous movie stars who don’t need to prove their justice work, because we’ve seen it.
Mission Humanitarian: Possible.
April 13, 2011 | 8:44 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
This is too awesome not to be posted.
And for kicks I’ll give you two Jewish connections (really, three):
1) An Israeli introduced me to David Guetta the brilliant music mixologist whose father is of Moroccan Jewish descent—a lineage which, by the way, explains the enthusiastic presence of a Frenchman in a Tel Aviv nightclub. Israelis are seriously crazy for this guy.
2) It’s Queen Esther! That’s gotta count for something. Kabbalah study apparently begets great music videos.
Run with it, okay? And turn the volume up.
April 12, 2011 | 10:34 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It’s difficult to know whether to be thrilled or disheartened that a film from the 1950s understands women better than most entertainment today. And yet, that simultaneous delight and despair at apprehending the social and cultural phenomena of a bygone era, as it plays out in its own time, was what struck me most while watching the 1959 film “The Best of Everything”, a tableau of New York’s mid-20th century working-girl culture.
What is on display – both stylistically and dramatically – are women whose ambitions extend beyond the bifurcated work-or-family stereotype and exemplify, at least in fantasy, what gender equality might look like if it weren’t so intimidating to men. Here, women do not passively accept their fates or the limits of the culture, but dare to want more – much more – the ascending career, the financial independence, the whirl of romantic love and the security of marriage all at once. And though they demand and pursue the ideals they hold, many still become casualties of their out-sized dreams, in a world that wants them to settle for less.
“Everything” offers, by many accounts, the vision of women “Mad Men” would like you to see but falls short of in substance. Stylistically, they are the same. In fact, the lushness of style – the fashions, the furniture, the promising bustle of Manhattan on the cusp of its international prominence – are similarly on display in both canvases, but whereas “Mad Men” is stylistically darker, “The Best of Everything” evokes a certain social darkness that bursts open the seams of sexism, misogyny and feminine ambition in ways “Mad Men” reduces to self-serving clichés.
For instance, in “Mad Men” the turmoil of Betty, an unhappy housewife is resolved when she finds a new husband. In “Everything” the beautiful typist Greg is spurned by her lover and in despair, falls to her death. The idea being that in “Mad Men” women are rescued, and in “Everything” they must rescue themselves – or die. In “Mad Men” playing mistress to a powerful man is sexy and glamorous; in “Everything” only a proper marriage will do. When one female executive, played by Joan Crawford, leaves her job to pursue an elusive relationship, rather than settle for less than what she wants, she returns to the office.
In his essay “The Mad Men Account” published in the New York Review of Books, the critic Daniel Mendelsohn impugns the show’s overall treatment of social issues, suggesting that where complexity is needed, superficiality suffices.
“[The show] proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.
When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today.”
The irony here is that “Everything” isn’t reimagining a historical perspective, it is a document of one. And rather than that particular reality provoking outrage, despite the social norms of the time, it presents something aspirational; the focus of the film, versus the TV show, is not misogyny but female ambition (Misogyny, at least in the film, is a byproduct of feminine ambition and talent, not a reason for precluding it).
There is nothing more “uncomfortable” about the world the film depicts than the world as it exists today. For women, much is still the same. It is still necessary to be fierce in the fight for it all, for the right to craft a professional and personal reality beyond what is common or acceptable. The uncomfortable thing is that the women in “Everything” do not resign themselves to their fates the way the women of “Mad Men” do, which speaks to either a gross misunderstanding of mid-century women or our need to retroactively judge them as less enlightened.
The women of “Mad Men” and the women of “Everything” suffer the same injustices of social imprisonment. But while the “Mad Men” gals resolve to daintily traipse around in their cages, the “Everything” women are clawing their way out, so indomitable are their spirits, their urge to have everything they desire.
(I also want to write on the film’s ideas about love but I have to finish a column on Tom Cruise!)
April 4, 2011 | 1:29 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
UPDATE from Haaretz.com:
Palestinian security forces arrested on Tuesday a suspect in the killing of Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin on Monday.
According to a security official, Palestinian police have been probing the man - a former al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades militant who was released from Israeli prison more than five years ago - but he has yet to confess to the murder.
Ynetnews.com is reporting that Arab-Israeli actor and political activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, who established the Freedom Theater in the Jenin Refugee Camp, has been shot dead. Early reports and photographs suggest a group of masked Palestinian militants shot Mer-Khamis five times as he was sitting in his car near the theater.
Mer-Khamis, who was something of a cultural revolutionary in the Palestinian territories, had been the target of threats before. The half-Jewish Arab-Israeli was the subject of a series of menacing flyers circulated in 2009, and later that year, the door of his theater was torched.
So far the motive for the murder is unknown. But the actor’s complex identity and unorthodox political views may have earned him a few enemies. For starters, Mer-Khamis was born to a Jewish mother, Arna Mer who chose to live and work in the Palestinian territories.
According to a story published by Maclean’s, Arna was the daughter of a distinguished Jewish medical professor but fell in love with an Arab-Israeli political leader:
ARNA MER, the daughter of Gideon Mer, a distinguished Jewish professor of medicine, was one of the first Israelis to ignore parental warnings when she married Saliva Khamis, an Arab and one of the leaders of the Israeli Communist Party, in the 1950s. They were wed in a Catholic church by a priest who was drunk at the time. But Mer wouldn’t realize how deep the divisions ran until 1958, when she joined a protest against the imposition of martial law on Arab villages in Israel. Mer was pregnant with her son Juliano, and went into labour. She was rushed to the hospital, “but the doctors refused to stitch her and she nearly bled to death,” says her son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, 45, a well-known actor living in Haifa. “They knew she was married to an Arab. I experienced this racial lunacy from the day I was born.” As he grew up, Mer-Khamis says, he constantly asked himself: “Do I hate Arabs and love Jews or do I love Arabs and hate Jews?” That question was on his mind when he met the parents of a Jewish girlfriend. “I was sitting with her translating an Arabic movie,” he recalls. “Her father walked into the room. I eluded his questions, but he researched about me and forced her to leave me.”
Ever conflicted, Juliano was brought up between two worlds. Vacillating between identities, he served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade, but eventually defected:
Mer-Khamis for a time adopted his Jewish maternal name and joined an elite fighting unit of the Israeli army. “For a whole year my father wouldn’t talk to me. He simply kept silent,” he says. But he soon had to face his Arab heritage. The confrontation came in 1978 when he was stationed at the West Bank town of Jenin and a car arrived with three young passengers and their grandfather. When he refused an order to remove the old man from the car, he ended up in a fight with his commander and was imprisoned for a few weeks and left the army. “It was then that I realized,” he says, “that I don’t belong on the Jewish side.”
According to Ynet, Mer-Khamis began his acting career in 1984 with a strong Hollywood foray, starring opposite Diane Keaton in the film “The Little Drummer Girl”. He also starred in Israeli director Amos Gitai’s controversial take on the Yom Kippur war, “Kippur” and was nominated for a Best Actor Ophir (Israel’s version of Oscar) for the 2002 romance “Tahara”.
Mer-Khanis and his mother first established a theater together in 1988, though it was destroyed in the second Intifada. And in 2006, they established what is now known as the Freedom Theater.
Though Mer Khamis was an artist at heart, he held strong views in support of Palestinian self-determination and saw the Freedom Theater as a therapeutic tool in coping with the conflict. According to the theater’s Website, the institution was established to offer Palestinian youngsters a creative outlet for their pain: “Having endured the hardships of an ongoing, violent military occupation, Palestine today is a shattered society and the population struggles with increasing isolation, fragmentation and disillusion. Countering these trends, The Freedom Theatre believes that theatre and the arts have a crucial role to play in building up a free and healthy society.”
In a youtube video about the theater, Mer-Khanis says, “We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural—with poetry and music, theater, cameras and magazines.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemned Mer-Khanis’s murder, saying, “We must not ignore this heinous crime…a gross violation of humane values and against the morals of our people.”
In an eerily portentous interview with Ynet in 2009, the same year the theater was torched, Mer-Khamis said he feared for his life:
“But what choice do I have? To run? I am not a fleeing man,” he said.
“I am an elite force man, formerly of the paratroopers. The only two things I gained from Israeli culture are Shlonsky’s translations of Shakespeare and adequate field training. Now I need it.”
However, the actor added, he was taking precautions. Of those behind the fliers he said, “It makes them crazy that a man who is half-Jewish is at the head of one of the most important projects in the Palestinian West Bank and it is just hypocritical racism.”
“I have never been as Jewish as I am right now in Jenin. After all this work at the camp it would be extremely unfortunate to die of a Palestinian bullet[.]”
Watch: The murder scene captured by Israeli news media
Watch: Mer-Khanis explains the Freedom Theater
April 1, 2011 | 2:55 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
No stranger to controversy or community contemptuousness, the iconic Kabbalah Centre is once again finding itself in hot water.
Several days ago, reports surfaced on the internet that a new spate of lawsuits and an IRS investigation are targeting the Kabbalah Centre, the Kabbalah Learning Centre and several members of the Berg family, the center’s founders and leaders.
According to the entertainment Website showbiz411:
Courtenay Geddes, a wealthy heiress from Pasadena, California, has sued the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles and all of its entities alleging a major swindle. Geddes’s suit — for $20 million– was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in February 2011. The news of the lawsuit comes on top of headlines concerning Kabbalah’s Raising Malawi charity reneging on a promise to build a girls academy in Malawi with pop star Madonna. As I reported exclusively yesterday, the Kabbalah Centre and Madonna have now hired a top spin doctor, Mark Fabiani, to protect the image of the singer and the organization.
Geddes didn’t name Madonna as a defendant in her suit, but she named everyone else from the Berg family to John Larkin of Larkin Business Management. Larkin is the accountant for Kabbalah. (His firm was sued in 2009 by the Black Eyed Peas for failing to file a decade’s worth of tax returns.)
Also under investigation is the Madonna-backed charity Raising Malawi, which I first reported on in April 2009 when a FOX News report suggested that millions of dollars earmarked for Raising Malawi, the Kabbalah Centre’s official charity arm, had disappeared.
The report centered around a 2008 New York City fundraiser hosted by Madonna and co-sponsored by The Gucci Foundation and UNICEF, which reportedly raised $3.7 million for Raising Malawi. According to reports, the funds were earmarked for a school project that would teach spirituality to Malawi orphans, but a year later, no progress had been made and the $3.7 million remained unaccounted for.
The report also questioned why the Malawi government had initially rejected Madonna’s request to adopt a second child from that country (they eventually acquiesced). Was it an act of retaliation? A hint of bad blood between the government and the pop star?
As Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman wrote on bloggish, “From it[s] inception Kabbalah Learning Center has been a frequent target of lawsuits, rumors, publicity good and bad, and controversy.”
From a 1997 story on the Kabbalah Learning Center, Eshman wrote:
That a Jewish institution has met with such success would—or should—normally be the cause of much rejoicing in the Jewish community. But if a golden touch blesses the center, a cloud of rumors, investigations, lawsuits and exposés shadows it. “What they’ve done is taken Kabbalah and twisted it out of shape for their own purposes, and it’s very destructive,” said Congregation Neve Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Robbins, founder of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles’ Cult Task Force. “This is not Judaism. This is not kabbalah. This is narshkeit [nonsense].”
But supporters hail the KLC as a salve for all the ills of the modern soul. The center survives on and solicits contributions like any synagogue, they say. And adherents are no more loyal than Chassids are to their rebbes. Said Michael Berg, the son of the center’s founder, Rabbi Philip Berg: “We teach kabbalah; we wear white on Shabbat. Is it a cult or is it a group that is different from what you’re used to?”
Like Scientology, whose practices are shrouded in secrecy and have aroused public suspicion, the Kabbalah Centre attracts celebrities who are struggling to make sense of their lives. Madonna, for instance, didn’t wind up there because she felt fulfilled and stable on her pop-music pedestal, but because she was questioning her values, selfish behaviors and seeking deeper meaning. Listen to her 1999 album “Ray of Light” and you’ll hear the center’s diluted version of Kabbalah in nearly every lyric.
As Eshman notes in his story, there are several main criticisms of the center’s methods:
Sore points for the critics include:
* “Scanning,” a KLC practice that means looking over the pages of the Zohar, the five-volume central kabbalah text, even though some can’t read the Hebrew it’s written in. “The Hebrew words are channels through which light is transmitted,” said Michael Berg.
“It’s like an Evelyn Wood thing,” said the Chai Center’s Rabbi Schwartz. “This is so anti-intellectual, and we are the People of the Book.”
* Teaching that the victims of the Nazi Holocaust chose or provoked their fate. Inflammatory as this subject may be, the conclusion is inevitable considering the center’s approach to kabbalah. “We should all remember this,” wrote Karen Berg in a recent issue of Kabbalah, the KLC’s magazine. “If it happens to me, I must deserve it.”
“If you look at it in the big picture, the Jews were, in some way, the cause,” said Michael Berg. The KLC’s promotional video, “The Power of Kabbalah,” states that Ashkenazic Jews were slaughtered and Sephardic Jews were saved because only the latter studied kabbalah. “That’s ridiculous,” said Dr. Alex Grobman, national director of the American Society of Yad Vashem. “The Sephardim were simply not in the Nazi’s line of fire.”
* The lack of traditional Jewish instruction. “Real kabbalists were also Talmudic scholars,” said a local Orthodox rabbi. “People can’t have a full spiritual experience without putting in the work.”
The Orthodox particularly abhor the KLC’s non-halachic approach to Jewish learning. “They’ll sell you a Zohar before they sell you a mezuzah,” said Schwartz.
But most KLC participants, said Eitan Yardeni, a senior teacher at the Los Angeles center, have “never been involved” in Jewish learning. For them, learning observance is secondary to learning spirituality and kabbalah.
* Teaching love, preaching intolerance. Rabbi Berg emphasizes the importance of “causeless love” among Jews. But at least one public utterance seems to fall short of that. At one Shabbat service, which The Jewish Journal attended, Berg, who was in town, sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center “don’t want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment.”
According to the article, Dr. Rabbi Philip Berg has repeatedly refused over the years to disclose the source or official credentials of his doctorate.
More than a decade later, and as evidenced by Geddes’ the newly filed lawsuit, the Kabbalah Centre continues to attract major donations in support of its services. But where the money goes and why one-time supporters of the center become disillusioned and angry remains enshrouded in mystery.
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