New energy drink puts fizz in Kabbalah

The Morning Call Online/April 1, 2005
By Wendy Solomon

Combine medieval Jewish mysticism, a fizzy strawberry-flavored drink loaded with vitamins and a splash of holy water and you have the perfect fusion of two of the hottest fads sweeping the country: Kabbalah and energy drinks.

Next week, the hip, the curious and the thirsty in the Lehigh Valley will be among the first consumers east of the Mississippi to find 16-ounce cans of Kabbalah Energy Drink at select convenience stores and supermarkets. It helps that the East Coast distributor, XL Beverage, is based in Bethlehem.

What is Kabbalah Energy Drink? A $2 can of sweetened, carbonated, caffeinated, vitamin-charged water to which some Canadian mountain spring water blessed by a rabbi is added. Red Bull, the leader in the nearly $1 billion energy drink market, can't say that.

But what is this newest energy drink's link to Kabbalah, besides its name?

Religious scholars and mainstream Jews say the energy drink and other items marketed under the Kabbalah rubric have nothing to do with true Kabbalah teachings, and everything to do with money.

''Frankly, I think it's marketing,'' says Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, of Congregation Sons of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Allentown. ''The original kabbalists weren't marketing products with logos and the like.''

Chava Weissler, a religion studies professor at Lehigh University who teaches an undergraduate course about Kabbalah, says, ''I would not think there would be any actual spiritual benefit to drink this. The true teachings of Kabbalah have nothing to do with energy drinks.''

Who knew that a secret, esoteric offshoot of Judaism whose earliest documentation dates to 13th-century Provence and Spain would become fashionable - or some version of it - among Hollywood celebrities 1,000 years later?

Or that a small cottage industry of trendy Kabbalah paraphernalia would become hot sellers? Pick up a magazine these days and Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and Paris Hilton can be seen in photos wearing the telltale red string Kabbalah bracelets that some fashionable adherents, and nonadherents, wear.

Darin Ezra, director of Kabbalah Enterprises in Los Angeles, which launched Kabbalah Energy Drink in February, is up front about the enormous marketing potential he saw.

''There was a huge amount of synergy between the Kabbalah brand, energy drinks and the kind of consumers interested in both'' - namely, the 18- to 35-year-old demographic, says Ezra.

Ezra, a beverage distributor, came up with the idea after he was approached by the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles to distribute their bottled Kabbalah water, another trendy product (Madonna has been known to drink it). The center, which opened in L.A. in 1984, and its leaders have been criticized by some for distorting Kabbalah and promoting a business instead.

Ezra credits the Kabbalah Center for establishing interest in Kabbalah in the United States, and indeed, a brand identity.

''If not for them creating a Kabbalah brand and making it a pop culture topic, there wouldn't be Kabbalah Energy Drink,'' Ezra says. He says the Kabbalah Centre is not affiliated with his product, although he might distribute their Kabbalah water in the future.

Kabbalah Energy Drink's success has snowballed ever since Ezra tested the market by sending out 10,000 cans in January to stores in west Los Angeles. He could barely keep up with the re-orders that soon followed. And retailers clamored for more when he brought the drink to the largest packaged goods trade show in Las Vegas the following month.

''We expect to sell 20 million units this year and have some pretty serious growth after that,'' Ezra says.

Gary Hemphill, senior vice president of Beverage Marketing Corp., which analyzes the beverage industry, says the energy drink category has been growing fairly consistently for a number of years. Sales rose 50 percent at the wholesale level, from $653 million in 2003 to $980 million in 2004.

Energy drinks, which also cross over into what the industry calls the ''New Age'' drink category, generally contain high caffeine and sugar content, as well as loads of vitamins, such as taurine, an amino acid, and B vitamins. ''I think one reason the category is so successful is the products actually work,'' Hemphill says.

But the ingredients in some products, such as Red Bull, do not meet standards in all countries. Red Bull cannot be sold in France and Denmark. Even Kabbalah Energy Drink contains a warning: ''Consume responsibly. Limit to 24 ounces per 24-hour period. Not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.'' And it's not Kosher for Passover.

''The water is Kabbalah water. It does have blessings on it,'' Ezra insists. ''The fact is, the water comes from an extremely pure source. For the average consumer, our angle is purely a real high-quality energy drink with premium ingredients that tastes good. The fact that it has Kabbalah water is just like an extra benefit,'' he says.

It remains to be seen how long Kabbalah products remain popular. Every product has a lifespan, but Ezra is willing to ride the Kabbalah energy drink trend for as long as it lasts. ''Who'd guess Red Bull would be around for 20 years? We should get between a three- to 10-year lifespan out of this product. If it runs its course, it runs its course,'' he says.

Rabbi Torczyner remains skeptical. ''I wouldn't be surprised to see Kabbalah Apple Juice because apples are mentioned in the Song of Songs. They could branch out in Kabbalah Communion Wafers, I suppose. Why limit it? It's a much bigger market,'' he says.

That isn't too farfetched. Ezra plans to launch Kabbalah cookies and Kabbalah cereal and other products.

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