I joined the outer circle of the Kabbalat Shabbat celebration at the reformed synagogue. In the center of the room sat the rabbi, canter and several musicians whose instruments included a harp, violin, and dobro. As I flipped through the pamphlet to lead me through the service, I thought about how ordinary everyone in the room looked—regular grandmas and grandpas and middle-class couples, not the eccentric wizened elders one might associate with an ancient mystical tradition. These were people who shopped at Target and attended their kids’ soccer games. Then the band started up and all the voices joined together. My pamphlet had phonetic translations of the Hebrew and some English explanations, but I opted to play it by ear. These were the usual prayers, but performed in a steady rhythmic fashion. I found I could join, particularly at choruses when phrases and words were repeated over and over in a beautiful hypnotic loop. At one point everyone stood and turned to face the doors of the room. Rising, I quickly consulted my guide and found we were at a prayer to greet the Sabbath. The explanation read, “The Kabbalists used to go out on Friday nights and dance as the sun was setting. It is traditional to face the entry of our prayer-space on the final verse to greet the Sabbath bride.” I had seen this analogy before—Sabbath addressed as a woman, particularly as a wife-to-be—but in this context I understood the connotation on a deeper level. In a sense, we were welcoming our own ability to receive, nurtured by the vessel-like, feminine aspects of Sabbath.
Profound Kabbalistic tidbits arrived at unexpected times throughout my Judaism journey, like offerings dropped in my path, but the one time I went looking for them—when I visited the actual Kabbalah Centre—they were harder to come by. For years, I had been reading about the Kabbalah Centre, usually in the captions beneath tabloid photos of celebrities exiting a building with a little red string freshly tied around their wrist. Or it was Madonna in an interview talking about her life-changing study of this ancient wisdom, and mysteriously revealing that her “Kabbalah name” is Ester. I had no inkling what Kabbalah was and when I decided to visit the Kabbalah Centre in the early stages of my journey I still hadn’t grasped the basics.
I found the place on a busy street in what appears to be an old Spanish-style house. It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and no paparazzi were in evidence on the sidewalk outside. Inside, young women seemed to be running the show. One was at a reception desk, another manning the gift shop. A third was wandering from room to room. She approached me. She had a name tag and was something called a “Study Path Manager.” She couldn’t have been more than 25; that she should be the first representative of an ancient wisdom I associated with wizened elders struck me as strange. Maybe she’s very wise, I thought.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “What is Kabbalah?”
By way of an answer she posed a scenario. “Say you gather the best basketball players in the world,” she said, “but you don’t give them the rules of the game. What happens?”
I stared at her fresh, dewy face. I was confused, how did we know they were the best players if they don’t know the game? “They aren’t able to play?”
“Yes! Kabbalah is the rules.”
She handed me a bright shiny flyer that said, “YOU DESERVE GREAT THINGS” and invited me back for a free seminar on Tuesday night at 7 pm.