What do these people have in common?

After suffering months of chronic pain

The Age--Daily News/December 24, 1999
By Roger Franklin

That great American philosopher and Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn knew what it takes to be a star: Turn up on time, memorize your lines and try not to look hung over in front of the camera. The only other essential quality, he advised, was an aversion to using one's brain.

"It's not smart to be too intelligent,'' warned the MGM boss, a man who knew no good could ever come from thinking deep thoughts in a town devoted to shallow and ever-changing images.

Goldwyn, who is long gone, was worried about his actors falling in with the Tinseltown lefties who flourished before Joe McCarthy's purge consigned them to blacklisted oblivion. But if he were alive today, that consummate cynic might have some equally valuable advice for the credulous celebrities who spill from their limos every Saturday morning outside a dilapidated former church on the edge of Beverly Hills. A sign at the front proclaims that the visitor is about to enter the Kabbalah Learning Center and promises the key to enlightenment is to be found inside.

Some enlightenment. The only qualifications for membership would appear to be a thick wallet and an uncritical willingness to accept some very dubious teachings. How else to describe the KLC's contention that Jews who perished in Hitler's death camps could have saved themselves by studying the Kabbalah's "bible'', an impenetrable 13th century text called the Zohar? Another leap of faith concerns the group's founder, who goes by the name of Philip Berg. Does this bald and overweight 71-year-old really have his own hotline to Heaven?

Plenty of people in Hollywood are certain that he does. Liz Taylor, Roseanne and Dolly Parton are all regulars at the center. Laura Dern pops in from time, sometimes with husband Jeff Goldblum in tow. Gwyneth Paltrow dabbles, while Barbra Streisand and Courtney Love are frequent visitors. Thick-lipped comic Sandra Bernhard swears that the Kabbalah cult's cocktail of Jewish mysticism and New Age palaver has done more than breath new life into her stalled career. ``My DNA has changed, my whole way of being has changed,'' she raved last year to an astonished interviewer.

As for Bernhard's friend and fellow devotee Madonna, just call her the Ethereal Girl. Not only did she ask Berg, a onetime insurance salesman, about the best date to induce the birth of daughter Lourdes, she also sought his advice about how many tracks to put on her most recent album, Ray of Light, which is dedicated to her guru's "creative guidance''.

Elizabeth Taylor is even more outspoken about her respect for Berg. "I don't know what I would have done without him,'' she said. "I was suffering physically, falling deeper and deeper into a fog of pain pills. Then suddenly I found a light to lead me through the darkness. And it was one simple word - Kabbalah!''

Cults are nothing new in Hollywood, which has never been slow to roll out the red carpet for a fraud with a showman's flair. Way back in the Roaring '20s, when the town was little more than a collection of sheds among the orange groves, the first dispenser of spiritual snake oil was a trumpet-blowing con woman called Amy Semple McPherson, who lightened the wallets of a trusting Charlie Chaplin and his equally gullible friends.

In the '30s, before communism became the god that failed, plenty of Hollywood's leading men and ladies displayed a near religious fervor for Joe Stalin and his workers' paradise. Twenty years later, Sammy Davis junior and Jayne Mansfield enjoyed a disturbingly intimate relationship with the Church of Satan and its founder Anton LaVey, who also played the devil in Rosemary's Baby.

The Beach Boy Brian Wilson thought he saw something more than a psychopath in his friend and houseguest Charles Manson, while Psycho star Anthony Perkins spent his final months believing that a yogi master could save him from the AIDS virus that inevitably claimed his life.

Meanwhile, scores of other stars signed up for EST, learned to meditate or sat cross-legged with the succession of holy men who blew in from India. But never, in all the years since Hollywood was born, has such a crop of gurus competed for so many celebrity acolytes.

The list begins with John Travolta, who preaches the gospel of L. Ron Hubbard as a volunteer marriage guidance counselor at the Church of Scientology's Hollywood Celebrity Center. He has plenty of company. Tom Cruise, wife Nicole Kidman, Victoria's Closet star Kirstie Alley and Lisa Marie Presley all share his faith in "E meters'' and "auditing''.

Then there is Marianne Williamson, whose feel-good chatter about "positive energy'' has even taken her to the White House, where President Clinton and wife, Hillary, sought her advice on the best way to heal their troubled union.

Demi Moore hangs out with Deepak Chopra, Richard Gere is a Buddhist, while action hero Steven Segal goes one better by claiming to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan Grand Lama.

What makes the Kabbalah cult stand out from the pack, however, are all the warnings that Hollywood's elite are choosing to ignore.

"The celebrities who are investing their faith in Rabbi Berg's creation should take the time to listen to people who have dropped out,'' said cult watcher Rick Ross.

Those who break with Berg have been threatened, beaten up and harassed. One guy found a sheep's head in a burlap bag on his doorstep. The center denies any connection. Still, it's not what you expect from a group that claims a devotion to love and enlightenment.

Just what Berg teaches at the center is a little hard to explain; certainly it is nothing like the mystical traditions of mainstream Judaism. For starters, one does not need to be Jewish to embrace his vision of a God who wants every conscious moment, every petty action, to be a celebration of His presence in believers' lives. The Kabbalah sees God as a mixture of male and female, and explains that 10 emanations of Divine bliss are there to be tapped by all that embrace its opaque mysteries. There are elements of numerology, magic and faith healing, all mixed with a hefty dose of messianic fervor.

And there is also, or so it would seem, a megadose of mind control. Kabbalah refugees tell of being ordered to scrub the Beverly Hills Center with toothbrushes, of being told who to marry and when to get pregnant.

Others say they were threatened with illness, deaths in the family and other manifestations of Divine wrath unless they emptied their bank accounts into the center's coffers. According to a series of lawsuits, followers were told to expect everything from earthquakes to miscarriages unless they gave until it hurt.

Spokesmen for the center insist that all donations - some $3.5million last year - are voluntary. But whatever it is that inspires such generosity, there is no doubt a mountain of cash has changed hands in the two decades since Berg walked out on his family in New York, changed his name from Feivel Gruberger and launched his new career in Hollywood. Wrapped in flowing white robes and perched atop his throne in Beverly Hills, he now commands a network of centers that stretches from Canada to South America and Los Angeles to New York. His group's portfolio includes a $4million building in the Big Apple, a slather of Hollywood properties and sums of cash that some critics assert may well be in excess of $100 million.

"No one wants to keep files on groups, particularly Jewish groups,'' said Debbie Pine, who spent 20 years keeping tabs on spiritual weirdness at the Maynard Bernstein Resource Center on Cults. "But it's wrong not to recognize that something hurtful is going on, that people are being manipulated...''

As for the Berg's creed, mainstream Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man finds it hard to keep the contempt from his voice whenever the subject comes up. Omer-Man also teaches the Kabbalah. But he instructs his students that the path to enlightenment is seldom quick and never easy. ``What the Kabbalah Learning Center is doing,'' he says, ``is cheapening something that is very spiritual.''

``It is absolute mumbo-jumbo - utterly flawed,'' he said. ``There is no blast of light and suddenly, you're there!''

Few people are listening, particularly among Berg's cast of adoring celebrities. Roseanne, hardly a picture of stability at the best of times, hails her spiritual master as a boundless source of energy and inspiration.

``It's cheaper than therapy and deeper than therapy,'' she explained last month. ``Before Kabbalah, I had no friends and everyone thought I was crazy.''

Some might laugh, but not UCLA doctoral student Kevin Fischer, who has spent the past three years working on a book about the strange spiritual trends that have captivated Hollywood's impressionable minds. It is a project that has given him a certain sympathy with the insecurities that plague those who see their names in lights.

``Becoming a star is basically like gambling,'' he observed. ``When you finally get it, it's like the finger of God came down upon you. So there's a real urge to find the reason you're a star ...''

That's one side to Berg's appeal. For another, reflect on a little more of Samuel Goldwyn's timeless wisdom. It's always best to keep an actor busy with four or five flicks every year, he explained. Otherwise, heaven only knows what trouble they'll get into.

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