Roseanne's religious awakening

For Hollywood's resident anti-celebrity, Judaism is as much a part of her persona as her loud voice and bawdy jokes.

By TOM TUGEND
March 29, 2006 02:24
Roseanne's religious awakening

roseanne 88. (photo credit: )

Roseanne Barr says she has two secret ambitions. One is to celebrate the bat mitzvah she never had as a youngster growing up in Salt Lake City. The other is to become prime minister of Israel, a sort of Golda Meir II. "My family won't listen to me, but otherwise I know every solution to every problem," she documents her qualifications. Surely, laudable goals for a 53-year old grandmother, who got her religious start as a child preacher in Mormon churches. Couldn't she do more good by replacing the current incumbent as President of the United States, a visitor suggested. "Nah," she replied, "I've given up on that." Her fanciful, serious and sarcastic thoughts ricocheted off the walls of her personal Full Moon and High Tide Television Studio during an interview as she unveiled her new DVD for kids, "Rockin' with Roseanne." I first met Roseanne about seven years ago, when she invited clean-cut Jewish lads to appear on her talk show and prove that they were worthy of dating her three daughters. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, then living in England, but not one to pass up publicity, accepted with alacrity and brought over three Jewish students from Oxford to accept the challenge. The three young couples had some pleasant dates, but nothing more serious came of it. What was striking about our second meeting were Roseanne's more youthful looks. Her cosmetic surgeon had done a commendable job, as had her hair dyer, and she had shed numerous pounds from her still ample frame. She was also less frenetic, more in control, and at times pensive, though with frequent flashes of her trademark bawdy wisecracks. But she remains Hollywood's anti-celebrity; her storefront office is on Main Street in the non-descript Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo and she received a visitor in jeans, flowered shirt and wearing glasses. Roseanne's Jewishness, heightened by her well-publicized association with the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center, is as much part of her persona as her loud stage voice, fat lady jokes, and liberal political bias. Like many American Jews, Roseanne defines her ethnic and religious identity by her own personal standards, which in her case often leads into unchartered territory. Asked about the basis of her Jewishness, she cracks, "An overwhelming desire for carbohydrates." Turning more serious, and mystical, she adds, "It's part of my genetic memory. When I hear stories from the bible or about Judaism, I think that they are about me, that I am part of them, like I was personally at Mount Sinai with Moses." Then the comedienne resurfaces. "Of course, this may be some kind of mental illness," she ponders. "Sometimes I wonder if there isn't a fine line between being Jewish and being crazy." She has another go at the question of religion. "I try to develop an international consciousness, to look at people in an inclusive, rather than exclusive, way," she remarks. Her rather eclectic views on religion may have their roots in her childhood years in Salt Lake City, surrounded by Mormons, during the 1950s and early '60s. There were only 50 Jewish families in the city and there was a lot of anti-Semitism, which sometimes expressed itself violently, she recalled. Her grandfather, descended from a long line of rabbis, had changed his name from Borisofsky to Barr when he arrived from Russia, while her father was a door-to-door salesman of sundry household goods, including a ready supply of crucifixes. To protect her children, Roseanne's mother kept their Jewishness secret from the neighbors, and took the family to Sunday services at a Mormon temple. There six-year old Roseanne discovered her first public stage, lecturing on the faith to Mormon congregations throughout Utah and becoming "like a little preaching rock star." She was even elected president of a Mormon youth group. One story, which her mother had told her, always brought down the house and Roseanne recited it once more. "When I was three years old, I got Bell's palsy on the left side of my face, so my mother called in a rabbi to pray for me, but nothing happened. Then my mother got a Mormon preacher, he prayed, and I was miraculously cured." Many years later, Roseanne learned that Bell's palsy was generally a temporary affliction, so the rabbi arrived too early, while the Mormon came at the exactly right time. Meanwhile, Roseanne's devoutly Orthodox grandmother, who knew nothing about her granddaughter's Mormon escapades, took her to synagogue for Shabbat services. There the little girl was unable to duplicate her stage success, though when she reached 13, the resident cantor introduced her to the mysteries of the Kabbalah. Roseanne never had a bat mitzvah, but is now giving serious thought to catching up. "I was recently at my niece's bat mitzvah and she talked about helping other people in the world," said Roseanne. "I love to be involved and that really turned me on. Yes, I would like to have a bat mitzvah, that would be cool." She thinks that her 72-year old mother might join her as a fellow bat mitzvah girl. Roseanne now counts three ex-husbands, three daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 10 to 35, and two grandsons, named Ethan Zion and Cosmo Dexter. She revels in the role of family matriarch and excused herself during the interview to pick up her 10-year old son Buck at a nearby school. "I love being a nosy neighbor and interfering mother-in-law and all those wonderful things," she exults. "I started doing everything wrong with my children, but have spent the last 15 years trying to make up for it." She and the closely-knit clan, all raised Jewishly, live in the South Bay area, far from the ritzy digs of Beverly Hills and Bel Air ("too many Jews there"). In recent years, Roseanne's name (and those of Madonna, Britney Spears et al) has been closely linked to the Kabbalah Center, which is frequently criticized for its alleged high-pressure tactics to extract money from its followers and the sale of "blessed" bottled water as a cancer cure. Roseanne says she is not a member of the Center, hasn't given any money, is not "a joiner or follower of anything," and visits mainly to check out the Center's library books. Besides supplying books, the Kabbalah Center is also credited with showing her the power of meditation, which has given her greater control over her emotions and made her "a lot nicer than I used to be." After the long, and often stormy, nine seasons of Roseanne, followed by three years as a talk show hostess, a cooking show, and a reality show, the comedienne swears that she will never act in sitcoms again. Last year, she returned to her first love, stand-up comedy, has toured much of the world, and recently did a two-night stint in England, where she wowed the natives. Discussing her latest venture, the "Rockin' with Roseanne" DVD, she observes, "I love to work with kids and I love to dress up in costumes." In her stand-up routines, Roseanne frequently predicts that "unless people wake up," the whole world is going to blow up, and she means it. But even so, there is a silver lining. When Armageddon arrives, she predicts, thin people will die first and fat people will walk over their bones.


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