It's 9 p.m. on Sept. 29, the beginning holiday of Sukkot, a day of judgment for followers of the religious sect, Kabbalah. I am standing with 60 other devotees in a crude wooden hut in London, where we've been chanting in Hebrew for almost an hour.
The evening, which includes an alcohol-free dinner, cost me $57. Not bad considering that I've been promised I will soon be bathing in the light of mercy. As we sit to eat, a tiny figure is ushered into the room and seated at the top table. I realize I am less than 10 feet away from Madonna and her husband, director Guy Ritchie. Madonna is wearing no makeup and is dressed in casual clothes and a pair of Prada slippers.
But I quickly learn that in the world of Kabbalah some followers are more equal than others. While we wait in line for water and a buffet of salmon, salad and hummus to be consumed from plastic glasses and plates, Madonna, 46, (who prefers to be known as Esther, her Hebrew name) sits at a table stacked with wine bottles and blessed water. She and Guy, 36, drink from elegant crystal glasses.
While Madonna sits at a table with plenty of room, the rest of us sit cramped at crowded tables. The woman next to me, elbows me and whispers, "I spent all of yesterday preparing a special meal for her. I went to a kosher shop for marinated tofu, steamed vegetables and barley." But instead of eating her specially prepared meal, Madonna talks with the Kabbalah leader and his wife on the very spiritual issue of screaming children.
"You look good," someone tells the singer. "No, I don't," she retorts. "I've been working hard and I look tired." I know the feeling.
It's three months since I became a student of Kabbalah, eager to find out the truth about the sect sweeping the celebrity world. Would I find enlightenment and happiness through the teachings of its leader, Rabbi Philip Berg? Or, as cynics warned, would I find the lessons of the former Brooklyn insurance salesman costly and meaningless?
It had all started with a free lecture I attended this past May in London. Afterward, I signed up for a 10-week course, the Power of Kabbalah, for $323. From day one, we were encouraged to spend money. First, we were expected to buy a red string bracelet (cost: $45) which identifies followers. The string would protect me from looks of ill-will and envious stares. A staff member at the center tied it on my left hand, chanted Hebrew and told me to envisage light.
At the classes I took, we were told we would experience miracles, find inner peace and enjoy financial prosperity. For homework, we were to study the 72 Hebrew names for God. As classes became more intense, there was little time for family, friends or even work, and some students began to drop out. Those who remained appeared to have undergone some sort of conversion: They spoke of miracles and said their lives had improved. I was having doubts.
I was pressured to buy a copy of the Zohar, the 23-volume Kabbalah bible, (cost: $502); pressured to visit London's Kabbalah center on a daily basis (even if it meant missing work); and pressured to bring in new recruits. At one point, someone suggested that I get a second credit card or sell a family heirloom to pay for a Kabbalah- themed trip to Israel.
I began to feel that I was losing a sense of identity. When I met with my teacher, he wanted to know about my job, my family and what worries I had. He asked when I was going to buy the Zohar; I told him I couldn't afford it. "Imagine it," he said, "and it will happen."
During another Kabbalah event (cost: $47), we flung our hands in the air and shouted "Chernobyl" to send good energy to the Ukrainian city in the former Soviet Union, where in 1986, the worst nuclear accident in history oc curred. We were told we could cure everything -- even cancer. After chanting for what seemed like forever, we ate a late dinner. Afterward, we had to study until 4 a.m. By 2 a.m., I was exhausted, and I left.
As the weeks passed, I found the courses increasingly invasive and expensive. I was frequently called at home by my mentor, Sarah. "Can't you visit the center more often?" she asked. I felt like I was being pulled by an invisible string. I had just finished one course when I was phoned to ask if I would sign up for another 10- week course, Kabbalah II (cost: $269) that would deepen my knowledge. I paid the money.
I was asked to sign up for more classes that I couldn't afford, including a weekly Zohar class ($23); a 10-week Tree of Life seminar ($271); a Anti-Matter Course ($145) and even palm-reading classes ($163). Some students had taken up second jobs to fund their studies; others were starting to wonder where the money goe s. I heard of one girl who gave up her well-paid accountant job to live and work full-time at the center.
As I tried to follow the faith, I was exhausted and scared of saying no to the pleas to spend more money on courses and books. But the end came when a teacher tried to get me to go to Israel for Rosh Hashannah (cost: $1,794). I was told if I didn't go I wouldn't "get my light" for the year. I considered getting that extra credit card.
But then I woke up. Luckily, I have supportive friends and family from whom Kabbalahists subtly try to alienate you. After talking to them, I did some thinking. My days with Kabbalah were numbered. But other followers were not so strong. I watched others get drawn deeper and deeper into the sect.
As I watched Madonna and Guy at the Sukkot dinner, I wondered what the singer saw in the faith. Seated at her table, she picked at her meal and drank water (while Guy gulped wine). By 11 p.m., most people were tired. Guy stifled a yawn and mouthed to his wife, "Can we go?" They were led through the house; the rest of us left through a side gate.
It's now more than four months since I began studying Kabbalah, and I have broken free. After buying the complete works of the Zohar (running my Kabbalah bill up to $1,794), when they were delivered to my house, I couldn't touch them. Whatever wisdom is contained within them has remained unopened. A spokesperson for the London Kabbalah Center told Star: "Everybody's personal journey is different. If it didn't feel right for her, then it didn't feel right."