In glamorous showbiz circles, this is the Coke or Pepsi question. Scientology has Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Leah Remini. Kabbalah has Madonna, Ashton and Demi, and Britney. It seems that everyone who's anyone is either/or.
Since I want to move in glamorous showbiz circles, too, I decided to sample both and report back. The good news is, I've lived to tell the tale.
So far. But if I'm found anytime soon clutching a suicide note with a knife in my back, be suspicious.
It's hard to picture Madonna in the unfashionable Fairfax district, hanging out in a one-story former youth center that combines Spanish missionary architecture with Taco Bell. But "Esther" (the Hebrew name she now calls herself) can be found at the Kabbalah Centre on many a Saturday, at one of its jam-packed Shabbat services.
The Kabbalah Centre was founded in 1969 by Rav Berg, a former insurance salesman described as either a money-grubbing cult leader or the second coming (strangely, never both at once).
Our teacher is a schlubbily attired Zero Mostel ringer whose eyes are like big brown yarmulkes. He holds court in a small banquet room whose clothed tables sport neat stacks of pens, scrap paper and course registration forms.
"If a martial artist can break a block of wood with his mind," Zero argues, "can't we remove a little calcium deposit from our clogged arteries?"
It's easy to imagine Maddy digging Zero -- in a Deepak Chopra kind of way.
Kabbalah is based on the Zohar, a 23-volume set of Jewish mysticism written 3,800 years ago entirely in Mel Gibson's native Aramaic. Eventually disregarded by mainstream Judaism, it's based largely on numerology and symbolism that promises consciousness-raising powers.
"We don't know all that's inside of us that we can tap into -- and that's the problem," Zero tells us.
This seems to impress my 10 classmates, who include a dazzling beauty from South Africa, a visitor from the Houston Kabbalah Centre and a woman whose hungry infant continually tries, with mixed success, to acquire dinner by making like Justin Timberlake at last year's Super Bowl.
Speaking of which, the important thing for me when shopping for a new religion isn't necessarily how much sense it makes, but how good the free food is. And this is the first Jewish event I have ever attended in my life with no spread -- not even a bagel. And we're in a banquet hall with tablecloths! (How Roseanne Barr advanced past this stage, I can't say.)
The Church of Scientology's Vatican is the worlds-more-impressive former Chateau Elysee Hotel. Just a skip down the hill from the Hollywood sign, it's been renamed the Celebrity Centre, because there's nothing more churchlike than celebrity worship.
But the name is deceptive, I discover, when a redheaded girl with no discernible fame, only a hacking cough, greets us at the entrance. She smiles a bit too widely as she hands us a form to fill out. (I provide the name and address of a former boss who enjoyed opening my private e-mail.)
Red smiles and coughs through a tour covering the Scientology gym, coffee shop and the roped-off original office of L. Ron Hubbard. He's the former science-fiction author who created this religion in 1951, basing it on his self-help book Dianetics.
Alas, there is no free food here, either. This decision may be harder than I thought.
The halls of the Celebrity Centre (by the way, both religions spell it "centre," not "center," since it's more religious that way) are clogged with students devouring Dianetics and other Hubbard books, underneath photos of other widely smiling followers. Upstairs, in an area we're not shown, celebrities are said to stay in beautifully appointed rooms while exercising the stated purpose of Scientology (clearing destructive memories, what they call "engrams," from their subconscious minds) and the unstated purpose (clearing money, tax-free, from their bank accounts).
"You're not gonna believe me, but the solutions to mankind's every problem are contained in Scientology!" claims a stuffed suit who looks and acts like William H. Macy in "The Cooler."
Tonight's Scientology 101, held in an Ivy League-worthy classroom, has attracted 11 students, the same number as Kabbalah. (In Kabbalah, that probably means something.) They include an Israeli woman, an overweight mom and her daughter, and one teenage girl with red, blue and green hair, who resembles the offspring of a human and a parakeet.
The Cooler is right, at least about my not believing him. Searching is a healthy thing. Finding always makes me nervous. He continues by fielding a question about the "E-meter," a device Scientologists allege measures mental anguish. (In the religion I grew up in, we had only devices for causing mental anguish: Jewish moms.)
The technology for Kabbalah is much easier to understand. In fact, it requires no understanding whatsoever (luckily for Ashton). Kabbalists claim that merely scanning the Zohar will cause its magic to rub off; you don't even have to know how to read the Hebrew letters.
"It's the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims," Zero explains. "Jesus, Mohammed and Moses all studied Kabbalah."
Instead of working together as a human race toward spiritual enlightenment, the followers of these three prophets "ended up picking hockey teams instead," he explains.
Such positive thinking makes it easy to see why Kabbalah is so good at attracting today's celebs, whose mellows are perpetually harshed by lost movie roles and "Celebrities Uncensored" on E!
"You don't have to believe all of Kabbalah," Zero continues. "Just take from it what you like." (But you do have to sign up for the $270 next class, which at least half of my classmates end up doing.)
Back at Scientology, The Cooler is going on about detoxification, the first step toward Scientological nirvana. To illustrate how long drugs stay in your system unless you detoxify, he cites a skier once disqualified from the Olympics because of residual college marijuana.
"It was nearly double the legal limit, and he hadn't smoked in years," he says. Most of the students are impressed.
"Excuse me," says one who isn't. "What's the legal limit of an illegal drug?"
That's Bill Decker, an old friend from New York I invited along because Scientology would be much less likely to want to dispose of two badly beaten bodies than one. I encourage Bill not to interrupt the lecture again, lest my theory be put to the test.
After class, we're ushered directly into a movie in which '80s-coiffed actors tell each other how great Hubbard's books are, and how they're available everywhere but we should hurry up and buy them at the Scientology bookstore.
I never imagined a film so bad without Chris Rock in it.
"Didn't you like it?" Red says, busting our escape attempt. Under her right arm is a stack of books, $20 each.
"Aren't you going to buy just one?" she asks, her wide smile narrowing as she attempts to block our exit, motioning for Scientology backup. I fear the wrath of Tom Cruise with a samurai sword.
"How are you going to find out whether you like it or not if you don't learn all about it?" Red continues.
Maybe she and her friends didn't see the movie. I inform them that the books are available everywhere.
After Kabbalah class, nobody freaks when I exit without a book or registering for the course. Apparently, Kabbalah is the Honda Civic of fringe religions; it sells itself.
But the Kabbalah Centre only wins until I enter its bookstore, where Zero's appealing theories give way to curious realities with hefty price tags.
There's the $26 red string bracelet Madonna/Esther gives to her friends. (According to Kabbalah.com, it "protects us from the influences of the evil eye.") Stones "empowered with the 72 names of God" are yours for $8.50.
And at $3 per bottle, you'd expect Kabbalah water to cure cancer. And you wouldn't be alone. That's exactly what the stuff claims to do, since it's infused with "the energy of positive prayers."
So ... Scientology or Kabbalah?
Maybe glamorous showbiz circles aren't for me.