CULTURE SCHLOCK — By Darren Garnick
July 1, 2004
Q: What do Madonna and my late paternal grandmother have in common?
A: They both took refuge in the color red to scare away the “Evil Eye.”
The Associated Press Style Guide suggests that “evil eye” be written in lowercase letters. I fervently believe that only capitalization can lend the Evil Eye the threatening connotation it so obviously deserves.
In any case, on the advice of her Kabbalah rabbis, Madonna now wears a red wristband to keep away the Evil Eye. My grandmother, a first-generation American who adopted the superstitions of her Eastern European Jewish parents, adamantly insisted that a red object be present in every room to keep Evil out in the cold. I remember a bright red easy chair and matching hassock that she assured us offered extra protection on the porch.
Her parents came from the part of Eastern Europe where it was wise to keep two flags in your garage. One week they would be living in Russia; the next week they would be living in Poland. Either way, they drank the same yucky borscht. It is easy to understand why my great grandparents may have bought into the concept of the Evil Eye. After watching the first three or four Jewish villages get torched for no reason, it was an easy sell.
An AP photo of Madonna’s June 16 Madison Square Garden concert includes a laughable caption informing us that the red thread tied around her wrist is “a common Jewish charm to ward off the evil eye.” Hah! The first reader who finds me a Jewish person under age 85 who uses thread for physical and spiritual self-defense wins a gift certificate to the Red Lobster, where you won’t have to worry about You Know Who.
As you read this, Madonna is just wrapping up her “Reinvention Tour,” an apt name for a woman who has been Virgin Madonna, Material Girl Madonna, Biker Chick Madonna, Cone-bra Madonna and Cowgirl Madonna — to name but a few of her music video identities. Pulling a Prince, she recently announced she now prefers to be called by the Hebrew name “Esther,” summoning the energy of the biblical Queen who once ruled Persia with kindness, courage and dignity.
At the source of the name change is Kabbalah, the Jewish mysticism movement inspired by the ancient Book of Zohar. I won’t dare attempt to define Kabbalah – it sounds so Lord-of-the-Rings-like when you say “Zohar” and “mysticism” so why ruin the moment? But at the risk of offending my fellow members of the Tribe, let’s just say the whole thing sounds kinda kooky.
At the Web site for the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre (Madonna is SO hip to places that adopt the British spelling), visitors are immediately bombarded with an offer for a free Kabbalah book called “The Secret.”
“Like a jewel that has been painstakingly cut and polished, ‘The Secret’ reveals life’s essence in its most concise and powerful form. Michael Berg begins by showing you how our everyday understanding of our purpose in the world is literally backwards. Whenever there is pain in our lives – indeed, whenever there is anything less than complete joy and fulfillment – this basic misunderstanding is the reason.”
Wow, what a teaser! I suppose you could unravel the reasons for your unsatisfying life in the pages of this book – or just pick up a copy of “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard.
Not all Kabbalah scholars approve of the Hollywood Kabbalah brand that lured in Madonna – and now even Britney Spears and Demi Moore. Chicago Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok, of KosherTorah.com, argues that Madonna does not live the “modest and holy lifestyle” required to study Kabbalah.
“Madonna is certainly no Kabbalist,” Rabbi Bar Tzadok writes. “If her teachers have told her that she is, then they are using a criterion of definition unique unto themselves and most certainly not accepted anywhere else in the traditional Jewish community and especially amongst the community of true holy Kabbalists.”
Either this Chicago rabbi knows what he’s talking about or he’s insanely jealous that he can’t lure a Nora Jones or a Beyonce into one of his “Authentic Kabbalah” workshops.
Either way, Madonna is planning to spend this Jewish New Year’s holiday of Rosh HaShanah in the hills of the ancient Israeli city of Tzfat (also known as Safed) – the birthplace of Kabbalah. I’ve spent a few weekends in Tzfat and can attest that she’ll find what she’s looking for. Think Cambridge, Massachusetts. Think Sedona, Arizona. Think Bible Code. Think kooky.
Perhaps most ironic is Madonna’s choice of biblical role models. Scholarly consensus is that the original Queen Esther was draped in lots of royal fabric – at least during public appearances. The aforementioned AP photo of the Madison Square Garden concert, dated two weeks ago, shows Madonna-Esther in a corset-like top, skimpy bottom and thigh-high leather boots.
No doubt she’s rehearsing for her next high-profile gig: a Victoria’s Secret tribute to “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column runs every Thursday in The Telegraph’s Encore magazine. Feedback is encouraged via e-mail at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com. Readers interested in a non-schlocky overview of Kabbalah can visit www.aish.com.