"Don't Cry for Me Palestina"

Orthodox rabbis and Palestinian supporters speak out as "Queen Esther," aka Madonna, visits the Holy Land for a Kabbalah conference.

By Chris McGreal

Published September 20, 2004 2:01PM (EDT)

The cross and the diamond-studded bodice have gone, and she now announces herself to the world under the Hebrew name Ha-Malkah Esther -- Queen Esther.

But that did Madonna little good with the men in black hats at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall in the early hours of Sunday. As her convoy drew near Judaism's holiest site, Orthodox men chanted shabbos -- sabbath in Yiddish -- while others shouted at her to go home and accused her of desecrating their religion.

The pop diva is visiting the Holy Land for a gathering of about 2,000 followers of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, and to celebrate the Jewish New Year. Kabbalah is fashionable among some wealthy young Israelis, but some Orthodox rabbis say Madonna has debased Judaism's deepest mystical tradition.

Kabbalah means "received wisdom" in Hebrew, and its study has traditionally been the preserve of men. An American rabbi, Philip Berg, popularized the texts in the sixties. Today they draw adherents such as Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Roseanne Barr.

Madonna has been spotted at the Kabbalah conference with her wrist adorned with red string to ward off the evil eye and designer Donna Karan and Marla Maples, an ex-wife of Donald Trump, in tow. Madonna's husband, British film director Guy Ritchie, was seen dancing with a Torah scroll.

"This is entertainment, not Judaism," said Uri Orbach, a popular Israeli talk-radio host.

Some of Madonna's religious critics have not forgiven her for her "Die Another Day" video, in which she bound phylacteries to her arm, a Jewish custom usually reserved for men, and ran from an electric chair on which God's name appears in Hebrew. But the Roman Catholic who shocked the pope with her raunchy use of religious icons has striven to be more restrained in Israel. She is swathed in rather more cloth than usual, and at her behest the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center that organized the conference has insisted that reporters covering her visit must wear white and not take notes on the Jewish high holidays.

No such demands were made of the dozens of policemen present as Madonna made a midnight pilgrimage to the grave of a Kabbalist sage, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, spending more than an hour praying and chanting.

The Israeli tourism minister, Gidon Ezra, presented the singer with an oil lamp and coin from the Byzantine period yesterday. But he could not bring himself to call her Esther. "Madonna's visit to Israel has great significance for promoting tourism in Israel," he said.

Madonna declined to talk to the press, but the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv ferreted out some of those who spoke to her at the Kabbalah conference. Among them was a businesswoman, Galia Albin, who said: "Madonna told me that if she had known nine years ago what she knows today, she would have lived differently." Albin said Madonna also told her: "I am very enthusiastic about Israel. I thought that everyone here would be extreme and fighting, but I see that this is a modern country with thinking people who know how to accept the other." She added: "Israel looks a bit like America to me."

Protesters rallied outside the singer's hotel to object to her visit to Rachel's tomb in the occupied territories without meeting the neighboring Palestinian communities confined behind the controversial "security" wall.

They sang "Don't Cry for Me Palestina" and a version of Madonna's hit song "Holiday." "While you're on your holiday, take some time to educate," they sang.

Chris McGreal

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