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Mystics 'R Us
There are some writers I just can't get enough of, and I'll read anything they write, no matter the topic. Not long ago in this space, I professed my considerable admiration for Natalie Angier, who writes on science for The New York Times, and, in the past, I've praised another of these favorites, Daphne Merkin. She's been fairly quiet on the journalistic scene lately because it's been said that she's deeply involved in writing a book about her battle with depression, a work I sincerely look forward to reading. But in the April 13 issue of The New York Times Magazine, she penned a sizable piece about another personal tussle, her dealings with the "new" Kabbalah, and I found it compelling -- not just for the subject matter, but for the sheer level of excellence that informs her prose.
Merkin, besides being a critic and novelist, is a contributing writer for the magazine, and her article was titled "In Search of the Skeptical, Hopeful, Mystical Jew That Could Be Me: My journey toward (and back from) the new kabbalah."
As she admitted from the start, what brought her to L.A.'s Kabbalah Center -- "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, not so surprisingly, Madonna herself, who's known "not to believe in death." There was the added fact that Merkin's mother had recently died.
"Somehow, in an effort to reconcile divergent realities," wrote the author, "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."
As Merkin pointed out, in a world where everybody seems to want to latch on to a personal piece of the Kabbalah -- what she described as "an esoteric occult offshoot of Judaism dating at least to the 13th century" -- the center in L.A. has been pulling in the "Hollywood glitterati" from the minute it opened its doors in 1993 -- which has meant people like Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Roseanne Barr and Donna Karan, to mention just a few.
But, of course, most important of them all has been "the stridently non-Jewish and notoriously profane human meteor" known as Madonna, who's a big donor to the center and has helped spread its name far and wide.
As Merkin writes in her nimble style: "Although the center has been mocked and derided since the day Philip and Karen Berg founded it ... , no small part of that mockery is envy -- and resounding disbelief. How could so many people, especially jaded celebrities who have seen it all and then some, fall for an ordinary middle-class Orthodox couple from Queens who hawk their intangible wares -- a kind of 'Spirituality for Dummies' or 'McMysticism,' as it has been described -- with so little guile and so much fanfare?"