Kabbalist Madonna to embark on 80-date musical, spiritual trek with stop in Israel.

Madonna 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Madonna 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
What could be more Catholic than a young Italian- American woman named Madonna singing “Like a Virgin”? From her iconoclastic 1983 debut, Madonna Louise Ciccone embarked on a pop pilgrimage that took the crucifixclad singer through Papa Don’t Preach, Like a Prayer and a whole host of imagery inspired by the Holy See.
Later this month, Madonna – now a.k.a. Esther – descends on Israel with her four children to celebrate Shavuot and then launch her 9th world tour. Shavuot is the holiday of religious conversion, marking the journey of Ruth, the grandmother of King David, from Moabite to Jew – not by rabbinically supervised conversion, but by her actions and her revolutionary declaration: “Your people are my people and your God is my God.” MDNA, an 80-date musical and spiritual trek, will solidify Madonna’s own journey from iconoclast to icon, from Catholic to Kabbalist, from flirt to convert.
To dismiss Madonna’s Jewish shtick as a Kabbalistic craze is to turn a blind eye to a lifelong and serious journey. Madonna, it seems, is finally one of us.
Already disenchanted with the dogmas of Catholicism, Madonna’s identification with the Jewish people began in New York when, aged 20, she danced in Pearl Lang’s production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly in 1978. Already skinny, Madonna had to lose an additional 10 pounds to play a ghetto child. The young dancer lived for over a year in an old synagogue in Corona, Queens, with Sid and Dan Gilroy, where she began her music career, learning to play the guitar and drums, write songs and sing in a band.
Even before her spiritual quest brought her to the Kabbalah Center, I had spotted her Jewish soul. In 1989, I watched the video for Like a Prayer and sat mesmerized at the dark-haired young singer in front of burning crosses, kissing an African American incarnation of Christ, and dramatizing racial injustice through her art. This signature song, one of a record-shattering 42 that reached the Billboard #1 – more than Elvis, the Beatles or Michael Jackson – was originally performed with a gospel choir in a church setting. Over the years, Madonna dropped the crosses on the choir costumes, signaling the move away from her Christian roots.
Tackling taboos
What struck me was her courage to smash idols, whether busting the myth of a white Jesus, engaging in cross racial intimacy, co-opting burning crosses in a video with African Americans, or, in the subtext of the video accompanying the song, standing up for justice and minorities.
Since Like A Prayer, Madonna has been chastised several times by the Vatican for tackling taboos through her art, and has courageously celebrated diversity, fought prejudice, stood up to authority, and promoted social justice while accumulating 12 albums and selling 300 million records.
Then, in 1997, came the seminal moment in her life, the birth of her first child, Lourdes.
“I was pregnant with my daughter,” Madonna wrote in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth before her Israel concerts in 2009. “I had just finished the film Evita and realized I had spent my whole life worrying about myself.”
“I was raised a Catholic and my father was very religious but none of my questions ever really got answered when it came to trying to understand why people suffered in the world or what the meaning of life was all about. And suddenly I thought, ‘What will I teach my child about the important things in life?’…I was looking for an answer.”
She appears to have found it through her involvement with the Kabbalah Center. “In a burst of creativity following the birth of her daughter, she produced what many critics believe to be her best album, ‘Ray of Light,’ which takes its title from the kabbalistic theory about the origins of the world,” The Forward observed. “Madonna seems with Kabbalah to have settled finally into herself and the world.”
The transformation became evident in the music video for the James Bond movie Die Another Day, where she represents the Jew as victim with a fighting determination that ultimately, with God’s help, triumphs.
The video contains two action-packed story lines. First there are the dueling Madonnas, one decked in black and the other in white, symbolizing the internal fight of good and evil. Second, there is the battle against evil in the world, with a brutal sequence in which a totalitarian regime tries to interrogate and break Madonna, who has three large Hebrew letters tattooed on her right arm: lamed, aleph, and vav – one of the Kabbalistic names for God. In the course of a chase scene, she wraps tefillin around her forearm. At the climax, the evil Madonna is slain by her good alter ego, while the bad guys pull the switch on the electric chair to which they have fastened her with her tefillin.
Madonna narrowly escapes, leaving behind God’s Kabbalistic name burning in Hebrew letters on the chair.
The midrash is clear: if we are internally strong, we can overcome tyranny.
Perhaps the best insight into Madonna’s transformation from pop slut to Jewish mother is through her writing. Her best-selling coffee-table shocker Sex has been outsold by the books she has written for her children Lourdes, Rocco, David Banda and Mercy James, based on Jewish themes and translated into 40 languages. Madonna thanks her Kabbalah teachers “for suggesting that I write these books in the first place” and “for sharing the art of good storytelling with me.”
In T he Adventures of Abdi, Eli the jeweler teaches the orphan Abdi: “Everything that happens is for the best.” In L otsa de Casha she says: “When you learn to share, you will not only find happiness. You will also find a friend.”
My favorite is Mr. Peabody’s Apples. “This book was inspired by a nearly 300-year-old story that was told to me by my Kabbalah teacher,” Madonna says at the end of the audio edition. “It is about the power of words and how we must choose them carefully to avoid causing harm to others.”
“The Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name, who was the author of the original story, was also a great teacher,” says Madonna. “He believed that practicing religion out of habit is a pointless endeavor and advocated instead an understanding of why we practice spirituality.”
At age 5, Madonna lost her mother to breast cancer, an experience she says left her “with a certain kind of loneliness and an incredible longing for something. If I hadn’t had that emptiness, I wouldn’t have been so driven.”
Orphans and orphanhood figure prominently in her books, philanthropy and personal life. In the Kabbalah-inspired, semibiographical English Roses, Madonna is Binah (“understanding”), a pretty girl who excels at school but is lonely and motherless.
The Raising Malawi Foundation, created with Michael Berg of the Kabbalah Center, is now building 10 schools and supporting orphanages in the impoverished East African country. In 2006, she and then husband Guy Ritchie adopted David Banda, who was welcomed into the covenant in a naming ceremony at the Kabbalah Center, sports the red Kabbalah string and wears a white yarmulke to services.
The only Jewish thing absent from her life, it seems, is a man.
“After half a century on this planet, Madonna has creative expression and power, intellectual curiosity, beautiful children, financial security (and then some), and a team of friends and colleagues who she can love and trust. Only one thing is missing,” writes Wendy Shanker in Madonna & Me, Women Writers on the Queen of Pop. “Madonna needs a mensch. I’m picturing a Thomas Friedman, a Rahm Emmanuel, a Guggenheim, an Annenberg – a thoughtful, strongwilled Jewish man who is more impressed by her brain than her résumé or connections.”
Jerusalem-born Guy Oseary is Madonna’s manager, godfather of Rocco, and her closest business associate for nearly two decades.
His book, Jews Who Rock, is dedicated “to my mother, Gila, and to my father, Yossi.
It is also dedicated to my best friend, partner in life, and the most rocking Jew of all, Madonna.”
Small wonder that her Jewish sojourn brought her to Israel, a place she described during her 2009 concerts in Tel Aviv as “the energy center of the universe.” Madonna first performed in Israel in 1993 – before kids – and then visited in 2004 and 2007 for Kabbalah conventions before returning to the stage in 2009.
She has lit Sabbath candles and recited the blessings in Hebrew with Sara Netanyahu, sung Lekha Dodi at the grave of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed, paid a midnight visit to the grave of the Kabbalist sage Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, toured the Western Wall tunnels, thrown breadcrumbs into the water for tashlikh with her children, and met for nearly two hours with President Shimon Peres to welcome the Jewish New Year and discuss “how to advance the peace process, and conciliation and tolerance throughout the world,” according to presidential spokeswoman Ayelet Frish.
The launch of Madonna’s MDNA tour on May 31st is billed as a peace concert. “I believe that if we could all live together in harmony in this place,” she said in 2009, “then we can live in peace all over the world.”
“I am an ambassador for Judaism,” Madonna told Shimon Peres. “And time will tell…”