Kabbalah Gave Me a Lighter Wallet, But no Enlightenment

New York Post/October 24, 2004
By Marianne Garvey

Los Angeles -- Sitting in the crowded classroom, I listened to Madonna's kab balah coach promise me love, money, a soul mate - and the ability to see into the future.

All these things were guaranteed to come, said Rabbi Eitan Yardeni, if we fully devoted ourselves to kabbalah - and became comfortable shelling out big bucks for his teachings.

"All of us have the potential to be psychic," he said. "You will be able to see the light."

Sayings like these became commonplace over the three weeks I spent studying the 4,000-year-old Jewish mystical philosophy at the high-profile Los Angeles Kabbalah Center in Beverly Hills - where Madonna, Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher are students.

At the end of the three weeks, I had whipped through more than $600 and I definitely couldn't see into the future.

But I did see Lucy Liu - who had stopped kicking ass in "Charlie's Angels" long enough to take notes and laugh loudly - and her buddy, Soleil Moon Frye, who played TV's Punky Brewster. Britney Spears' older brother Brian also showed up.

And I did meet followers who claimed kabbalah had helped them in mysterious ways - like curing their friends of cancer and helping them save their businesses.

The classes are held in a white, Spanish-style, one-story structure surrounded by palm trees on Robertson Boulevard.

Cameras have never been allowed inside and non-students have a hard time entering.

The classes are shrouded in secrecy and employees are reluctant to reveal any information, unless you have paid your fees.

Before I gained entry into this secretive world, I paid $195 to attend a one-day intensive class and then another $250 for the advanced course at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center.

I approached the heavy metal gated entrance and rang a buzzer.

"Who is it?" a voice asked.

I said I was there for my first class at the center and was buzzed in. I walked a few steps to my classroom, the middle one of three spare, white-painted rooms labeled Classrooms 1, 2 and 3.

The prying eyes of about 10 volunteers watched my every step.

At the glass classroom door, a volunteer standing behind a podium took attendance.

In the belly of the building is a large temple with rows upon rows of wooden pews.

To the left of the temple is a bookstore that sells all the fa miliar kabbalah trinkets - red bracelets, special kabbalah water and piles of kabbalah books.

To the right of the temple is a small office with a row of desks and phones set up like a mini-telemarketing firm. This is where about six volunteers sit, constantly dialing people who have shown an interest in attending classes.

"Isn't kabbalah great?" they ask. "Did you love it?"

My classroom was a small room, packed with people sitting at four round tables and on metal chairs with navy blue fabric seats lining the back wall.

Since the course was "Kabbalah Two," many of the students had known each other previously.

When Rabbi Yardeni walked in, a hush descended over the room. He is regarded among his celebrity followers as the best kabbalah teacher in the world.

He stood in front of a white board and, with an electric blue marker, wrote the theme of the class: our ego.

Yardeni, a good-looking, soft-spoken man, drew a diagram to describe what kabbalah is.

He scribbled an empty bowl - to represent an empty human who wants good - and drew three arrows trying to enter the bowl. These stand for "the light" trying to enter the human being.

Yardeni summed up what kabbalists believe: that the world is divided into two parts - a 1 percent realm, which is our everyday reality, but also an "illusion" - and the other 99 percent, the spiritual realm, where all the unexplainable exists.

He told us the 99 percent is the "light," which kabbalists are trying to get closer to in order to rid themselves of negative traits.

Kabbalah teaches you to believe in reincarnation, that none of your bad traits is a result of your parents, that negative energy in the universe can break us down and make us physically ill, that our purpose in life is to rid ourselves of our ego and all our negative traits, that there is no such thing as accidents or luck and that any action for the self alone is bad.

Everyone in class nodded when Yardeni claimed we can "transform our creation" and, with kabbalah, "become a different human being."

"You should be telling yourselves, 'I'll do whatever it takes to transform,' " he said. "Kabbalah is truly, 'I want to feel good about myself. I want to rid myself of my selfishness.' "

And then he mentioned money.

He said, "Money for the purpose of you alone is selfish, it is meant to be shared.

"Give whatever makes you feel uncomfortable, break that barrier. If you are uncomfortable giving money away, give more."

Which is what Kenny, 62, a business consultant, has been doing happily for the last six years.

In the beginning, Kenny was skeptical about handing over money to the center.

"A lot of people can't break through their comfort zone, whatever that may be," he said.

"Giving my money was too much effort for me. Now I don't even worry about the money."

Between classes and Shabbat dinners - held every Friday night and Saturday morning at the center - Kenny said he spends about $600 a month at the center.

But he said he doesn't question what his money is being used for because he believes kabbalah has worked for him.

Like the time he healed his own excruciating toothache - or helped cure his friend's bladder cancer.

Yardeni teaches that when negative energy builds up too highly, it can cause illness. By meditating on this area, you can relieve yourself or others of the pain.

"Headaches and stomachaches are the light fighting to get in," Yardeni says. "Cancer is masses of negative energy.

"I know it's tough to believe. Doubts are typical," he says.

Kenny believes.

"I needed a root canal and when I meditated, it went away," he said. "And after months of concentrating my energies on my friend, he went into remission."

There are other "tools" kabbalah uses to get closer to the light - and they are sold in the Kabbalah Center bookstore.

Rabbi Philip Berg, 76, the leader of the modern kabbalah movement (who was paralyzed last month by a severe stroke), has made a fortune selling the "tools." These include the "Zohar," a book written in Aramaic and originally restricted to Jewish men over 40. Non-Jews were not supposed to read it.

Berg's form of kabbalah welcomes everyone to read the Zohar and "find all the answers to the universe." The 23-volume set costs $415 in the bookstore.

A kabbalah devotee, Doly, 49, explained to me after class one day that she used the Zohar to help bring her 80-year-old mother back from the brink of death two years ago.

Doly had been studying kabbalah and had purchased the ancient book at the suggestion of a rabbi she knew.

A doctor told her that her mom was about to die from a kidney infection that had spread to major organs.

"I asked the rabbi for help and he told me to scan the Zohar," she told me, explaining that she was to run her fingers over the Aramaic letters.

"I sat by my mom's bedside every day for weeks scanning and scanning and one day she just walked out better."

Doly couldn't understand the writing, but kabbalists believe that simply scanning the letters - without even knowing their meaning - will help you achieve certain things you want; like health, success or love.

Most books sold at the center are written by Berg and his two sons, Yehuda and Michael.

Most followers buy products from the center's store, like the familiar red yarn bracelets - seen on Madonna's wrist - to help "ward off negativity."

Followers drink kabbalah water, at $3.80 a bottle, for "cleansing."

Tamra, a full-time volunteer at the bookstore, said the molecular structure of the water actually changed after it was "infused with kabbalistic meditations."

"The rabbis here at the center pray and meditate good energy into the bottles," she said. "It's the closest thing humans can get physically to the light or the universe."

Regulars at the center also attended Shabbat services to gain positive energy for the upcoming week.

Alison, a volunteer, said she "cannot live" without coming to the service every Friday night.

At the services, the men wear all white "to attract positive energy."

The dress code was very loose, usually white track pants or sweat pants, white T-shirts and baseball hats. Some wore white yarmulkes with gold glitter and sequins sewn on. They looked like break dancers.

The women and men sat apart, as in a traditional Orthodox Jewish service.

For more than two hours, a few rabbis stood in the front part of the temple and read aloud in Hebrew from the Shabbat prayer book.

One of them shouted the page number he was on - "Page 399!" - so you could find where he is and scan the letters quickly like a speed reader.

During pauses in the readings, there were certain things to say, chants the regulars knew by heart, and shouts like, "Aaaayyyyyyyyaaaaahhhh!!!" Everyone sat, stood, yelled and flapped their right hand in the air.

Britney Spears' older brother, Bryan, 27, was an enthusiastic participant.

When I asked Alison, the volunteer, what all of this meant, she said it was just another exercise for "gaining good energy."

"All the things we do in here put life and positivity out there into the world," she said.

The familiar faces at the center stay for meals after the services, held in a back room. The banquet tables are set like an elaborate wedding reception.

Seating is arranged prior to the meal, which costs $30, and an additional $10 if you don't reserve a spot a few days ahead of time. They eat a few courses, all kosher. A meal is usually salad, salmon or chicken and desserts like cookies.

Well-known cult expert Rick Ross has been watching Berg's kabbalah group since the '70s.

He calls Berg a "brilliant" businessman who has mastered the sale of a line of products. "That's his genius," he says.

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