I bumped into Madonna at The Kabbalah Centre in New York, back when she only had two children and was still married to Guy Ritchie and I was just beginning my spiritual quest. A work colleague had invited me to attend an open house for “spiritual enlightenment” at the Centre in Midtown. I was curious and decided to attend.
The afternoon consisted of lectures and events that discussed the spiritual laws governing the universe, miracles, destiny, and ego recognition. The message boiled down to: “We are all one.” And regardless of religion, race, background, or sexual orientation, “the Power or Kabbalah Course can give your life new meaning and fulfillment.” What intrigued me most was my “face reading,” whereby a rabbi studied my face and said that based on my features I was destined to “be of service in this life, to bring meaning and compassion to the lives of others,” in order to balance my karma from previous lives. Apparently, I quantum leaped through time, changing sexes and archetypes—from a virgin-like saint to a Jezebel-seductress to a soldier-Casanova type who broke hearts and left children behind after every victory.
To gain a truer understanding of the religion, I read almost every book Kabbalah had to offer, from God Wears Lipstick to The Zohar, and I was never without my trusty red-string bracelet to ward off “the evil eye.” When I vacationed in Berlin, the string broke after an afternoon of swimming. I panicked, but managed to calm down when I found a temporary replacement in the red string that wrapped the lox I’d purchased for sandwiches. I kid you not.
After five months of attending classes and lectures on a bi-weekly basis, I was invited to attend my first Shabbat service. I wore all white as instructed. The centre was packed, and I spotted men that looked like security guards but were camouflaged in white garments. I made my way to the second floor where the services were held and was greeted by the warm Israeli family that had taken me under their wing.
“Shabbat Shalom. Welcome, I’m glad that you came,” the father said in his usual warm tone.
The room glistened. Maybe it was the lighting or just because everything was white and highly polished. Rows of pews were divided into two sections: men to the left, women to the right. I sat in the front, giving me a good vantage over the room. Directly across from me, in a packed row to the right, was Sandra Bernhard. To her left, next to the altar, an entire row was reserved by a young woman holding designer jackets and bags.
“Today the biggest one of all will be here,” the Israeli father said.
“The biggest one of all?”
He placed his finger over his closed lips, winked at me, and pointed at the rabbi—the service had started. Twenty minutes in, the large doors opened and a petite blond with her hair knotted in back glided in like a lioness eyeing her prey. She wore black sunglasses, a newsboy cap, loose khaki pants, and a green-black-white argyle sweater.
It was Madonna.
Everyone watched, but nobody said a word. The entire front row was her personal VIP section. She swapped her sunglasses for a pair of reading glasses. She wore no makeup.
“She gets the star treatment, even during the Shabbat service,” I whispered to the Kabbalah teacher sitting next to me.
“That’s nothing, you should hear her quiet people during the Zohar classes,” he whispered.
I spent the rest of the service looking between Madonna and the rabbi. Half of the room did the same. After the service, the rabbi greeted her and her husband, Guy Ritchie (who sat on the other end of our pew the entire time). As I moved towards the stairs, I saw Madonna, with her daughter Lola, heading in the same direction in front of me. Near the exit, Lola dropped her handbag and her mother bent down to get it.
I stopped short. At that moment all my childhood Madonna memories tumbled in front of me in a montage: My CD collection, Madonnathons on MTV, my first concert, arguing with my mother about my “troubling” fascination with the pop star, the first time I ever saw two men kiss on film (her dancers in the movie Truth or Dare).
There she is, my childhood companion, I thought, feeling a rush of adrenaline on behalf of my closeted fifteen-year-old self.
Madonna suddenly realized there was someone behind her.
“Oh, excuse me,” she said in a low voice, sans British accent.
“No worries, you’re fine,” I said.
“Did you enjoy the service?”
“I did. And now I’m off to brunch,” I said.
She gave me a side smile, stroked my right arm, and took the last step towards the first floor.
The woman I saw in that moment wasn’t the “Pied Piperess of Pop.” She was just a mother with her family. Three months after that encounter, I stopped going to The Kabbalah Centre. I had got all I needed from it. Plus, their constant exhortations to “give more of yourself” turned me off. I don’t regret it though. It introduced me to the Zohar, The Torah, and the Talmud, all of which brought a certain spiritual splendor into my life.
“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers grow,” is a line I still hold close. That afternoon in New York was a full circle moment when my inner teenager finally found his liberation.