September 15, 2004
JERUSALEM - Madonna is coming to the Holy Land. The pop diva, a student of Jewish mysticism, was headed to Israel on a spiritual quest for the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Wednesday.
Her five-day visit, which includes trips to graves of rabbinical sages, brought a diversion to a country normally focused on the conflict with the Palestinians. Israelis reacted with a mix of excitement, bewilderment and anger.
Madonna isn't Jewish but has taken an interest in Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, in recent years. She has adopted the Hebrew name Esther, wears a red thread on her wrist to ward off the evil eye, and reportedly refuses to perform on the Jewish Sabbath.
She also has incorporated Jewish symbols into some of her music videos, much to the consternation of many religious leaders. The organization hosting her in Israel ordered news reporters to wear white clothes and not to take notes when covering her appearances during the New Year's holiday, or Rosh Hashanah.
"This is entertainment, not Judaism," quipped Uri Orbach, a popular talk-radio host.
Madonna was joining a group of 2,000 other students of Jewish mysticism from 22 countries, according to the Kabbalah Center, sponsor of the trip. Designer Donna Karan and Marla Maples, an ex-wife of Donald Trump, were among the other celebrities expected to attend, the center said.
The daily Yediot Ahronot reported Madonna's visit on its front page.
Inside, it devoted a half page to the singer under the headline "Esther is coming for the holiday." The story included a photo of the luxury suite in Tel Aviv where Madonna will be staying, as well as the special meal prepared for her, including salmon mousse, steak and chicken in mustard sauce, and honey cake.
Israeli officials were giddy over the presence of a big-time star. Tourism, a key sector of the economy, has been battered by four years of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.
On Sunday, Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra is expected to give Madonna an ancient oil lamp and a coin from the Byzantine period.
"There's no question having stars in the country is a wonderful way to show the world the wonders of our nation," said Rami Levi of Israel's Tourism Ministry.
Levi said the ministry was hoping Madonna would agree to shoot a video to promote tourism.
Police spokesman Gil Kleiman said some 1,000 officers were being deployed for the Kabbalah delegation. He said no special precautions were being taken for Madonna, who has private security guards.
The itinerary includes stops at the Western Wall in Jerusalem; the northern city of Safed, a center of Kabbalah; and Rachel's Tomb, the traditional burial place of the biblical matriarch in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
It also includes discussions on the first-centry sage Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the core text of Kabbalah.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee's office in Jerusalem, said the visit did little for interfaith efforts but that he nonetheless saw an upside.
"I know that some of my colleagues find it very offensive. I can't say I'm enchanted by it," Rosen said. "Nevertheless, our tradition teaches that intention is a key factor in people's behavior. I feel pretty confident that her intentions are only positive."
Other religious leaders have been harsher. Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, a leading Kabbalist and revered rabbinical sage, said in a recent newspaper interview that non-Jews - and women in general - are banned from studying Jewish mysticism.
"It is forbidden to teach a non-Jew Kabbalah," he said.