Daphne Merkin

In Search of the Skeptical, Hopeful, Mystical Jew That Could Be Me

What brought me to the small, neat office in the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles — at the tacky southern edge of Beverly Hills where the upscale ambience of Doheny Drive turns into a decrepit stretch that includes two gas stations and multiple Korean nail salons — was Madonna, who doesn’t believe in death. And then there was my mother, who had recently died. Somehow, in an effort to reconcile divergent realities, I must have been looking for a resolution of the irresolvable, a way of navigating a path between the absoluteness of mortality and the lingering hope of something beyond it, between the immutable reality of personal loss and the promise of spiritual consolation.

In a world where everyone is angling for a piece of the kabbalah mystique — an esoteric occult offshoot of Judaism dating at least to the 13th century — the Los Angeles center has been attracting Hollywood glitterati since it first opened its doors in 1993. And who can blame the neighboring institutions — the bevy of run-down ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and religious girls’ high schools with names like Torah Hayim and Ohr Haemet Institute, many of which have their own makeshift signs attesting to introductory kabbalah classes — for trying to cut in on a share of the booty? It all looks so easy, not to mention remunerative, thanks to the pricey little doodads offered in the center’s store (ranging from red kabbalah bracelets at $26 a pop to bottles of kabbalah water at nearly $4 apiece) and to the hefty donations solicited from members old and new...

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New York Times Magazine | April 3, 2008