roseanne's REDEMPTION

The famously caustic comedian joins the crowd finding spirituality in the suddenly trendy Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. She's kept her wicked wit, but says she's serious about the new her.

July 21, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The crowd gathered on the steps of the Kabbalah Learning Center joyously sang of Jerusalem. Some came to celebrate the newest facility for the study of Jewish mysticism. Others came in search of a celebrity student.

Television comedian and talk-show host Roseanne Barr easily could have been mistaken for one of the religious women at the event. Dressed casually, her hair covered in a pink scarf in the custom of married, Orthodox Jewish women, Barr stood alongside men in black velvet skullcaps and joined in the chant, "Yerushaliyim."

Noticeably thinner and younger-looking than her sitcom alter-ego Roseanne Conner, Barr fussed with a new video camera.

When the gum-chewing comic was pointed out to a Barr-watcher in the crowd, the woman gasped.

"Is that her with the shmateh on?" an American-born Israeli said, using the Yiddish word for rag.

Yes, that's Roseanne -- the kinder, gentler, in-touch-with-her-Jewishness Roseanne.

The raunchy Roseanne whose life story reads like a trashy tabloid tale is no more. The woman who mud wrestled with an ex-husband on the cover of a national magazine and boasted of her sexual affairs has been replaced by a well-dressed, plain-speaking, talk-show host who observes the Sabbath and meditates.

The 46-year-old comedian attributes her transformation to kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that dates to the 12th century. The study of kabbalah was once restricted to Jewish scholars and intellectuals, married men older than 40 who had mastered the traditional Jewish texts. Today, Hollywood stars have taken up the study in trendy centers in Los Angeles and New York. Devotees include Jews and non-Jews alike: Madonna, Jeff Goldblum, Sandra Bernhard, Elizabeth Taylor and Courtney Love.

For 10 days recently, Barr toured Israel, her biting brand of humor occasionally surfacing as she preached about the healing power of kabbalah and "the most important things money can't buy you."

She visited Jerusalem's holy sights, the graves of Kabbalistic rabbis in Safed and the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem.

And though she tried to focus attention on her new spiritual self, Israelis couldn't forget there was a star in their midst. She was photographed praying at the Western Wall, and an Israeli newspaper offered up tidbits from what it called Barr's diary. Her appearance at the kabbalah center in Israel's secular seaside mecca of Tel Aviv was headlined: "The Visit of the Fat Lady."

In Tel Aviv, dressed in a white pantsuit, a jeweled necklace and stylish clunky white sandals, she leaned against a desk and spoke about spirituality, the Bible and the world since she began studying kabbalah.

"I stood at the edge of everything money can buy. I probably had -- I do have -- warehouses full of stuff. I realized that it cost me everything that money can't buy," Barr said. "To name a few: health, love, family, integrity, decency, connection to people, honesty, beauty, art, personal power. ... I could never buy a spiritual connection to other people, to be part of the elevation of people rather than the denigration of people."

Serious stuff for a former stand-up comic. But some scholars of kabbalah have criticized the movement to popularize the mystical tradition as New Age hocus-pocus.

"It's really a shallow use of an ancient tradition, of a systematic construction of the divinity," said Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University. "Mysticism means to construct the hidden world within imaginative concepts. Disarming it from all its historical context and disembodying it from all meaning is ridiculous. It turns it into a spiritual amusement for the rich. It has nothing to do with the painful heritage from where it sprang, from exile, from yearning for redemption."

Like mainstream Judaism, kabbalah relies on the Bible as its source of all truths. It began as an elite study of the secrets of Judaism. Its method of deriving truth is based on an interpretation of the symbols found in the Bible. Visions and dreams contribute to the imaginative interpretations of the texts.

Over the centuries, a kabbalistic concept of dualism evolved, expressed as a struggle between the left and the right sides of the cosmos, the dark (Satan) and the light (the Divine One).

A movement grows

"There has been an incredible interest in kabbalah in the university, here, the United States and Europe," said Daniel Abrams, a kabbalah scholar at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "Maybe it's just the movie stars that make it into the newspaper, but if you just check on and type in the word kabbalah, see what comes up, it's amazing. I've been in the business at least 10 years, and certainly there are more and more books published about it each year."

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