SAFED, Israel — With a traditional Hasidic look, wispy white beard, soft voice and thick glasses, Yaacov Kaszemacher is not the person you’d most expect to have a strong opinion on a pop superstar like Madonna.
But Kaszemacher and the Material Girl share one important thing in common: they’re both students of Kabbalah. Only, Kaszemacher doesn’t believe that Madonna is a real Kabbalist.
“It is not respectful to what is really Kabbalah,” he said, discussing Madonna’s foray into the mystical side of Judaism.
Kaszemacher is a Kabbalist photographer and artist from Safed, a small mountaintop town that serves as the spiritual center for the Kabbalah movement.
Since Madonna made Kabbalah fashionable — and after she visited Safed last September — the town has transformed dramatically, leaving residents to debate the changes and Madonna’s position as the world’s most famous Kabbalist.
Hollywood’s adoption of Kabbalah, said Laurie Rappeport, coordinator of Safed’s Visitor Center, “made it popular. They made it almost its own religion. And Madonna had a lot to do with it.”
It’s for this reason that Kabbalists like Kaszemacher are annoyed. Kabbalah is not its own religion, or some sort of Jewish offshoot. Rather, he said, it represents the deepest levels of understanding of Jewish religious texts, drawing out subtext and hidden meaning to achieve a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith.
In other words, many serious Kabbalists believe that only after decades of studying the Torah and top scholarly works on Judaism is a person ready to delve into the world of Kabbalah.
Madonna “doesn’t know anything about Kabbalah,” growled Moshe Yiar, a Kabbalah artist who paints verses of the Torah into his watercolor works. “There are even big rabbis that don’t understand Kabbalah.”
The irony of comments like these, though, is that Kabbalah’s popularity in the West is the main reason for the renewal of the art scene in Safed.
“I don’t think these artists would have developed here if the popularity weren’t there,” Rappeport said.
After the founding of Israel in 1948, Israeli artists began flocking to Safed’s then-empty Arab quarter to buy up its cheap real estate. In the 1950s and 1960s, because of the culture that developed around the art scene, “Safed was the Bohemian capital of Israel,” Rappeport said.
By the 1970s and 1980s, the town went into a period of creative decline as the older artists began to fade from the scene and the government complicated procedures for new ones to buy land.
Even 10 years ago, Rappeport said, there were very few galleries in town. But as Hollywood embraced Kabbalah, Safed renewed its hippie vibe, blending it into the area’s conservative backbone.
Yemenite Jews now run an organic pizza stand in town, while down the block an old couple watches over their store of traditional Jewish souvenirs. Young Israeli hippies plow the streets alongside buttoned down Hasidic Jews. And all of these scenes play out within the narrow, winding limestone alleys of a town considered to be one of Israel’s holiest.
The art galleries here today can largely thank Madonna for their success. When the 51-year-old singer first began to study Kabbalah more than a decade ago, tourists and new Kabbalah enthusiasts alike began to pour into town. As a result, more galleries opened — and they did so outside of the traditional artist quarter, which was too far from the usual tourist sites to attract crowds.
While Kabbalist art is wide in scope, many artists employ basic geometric constructions to convey religious ideas. In Hebrew, each letter is assigned a numerical value; so by playing with shapes, artists can draw out numbers, which equal letters, which can spell words, which can have religious meaning.
Kabbalist art also delves into the theme of finding balance in life. As a result, artists use opposing colors (like black and white) and divided shapes to convey a point.
While artists like Kaszemacher and Yiar believe that Madonna has cheapened Kabbalah, not everyone agrees.
Avraham Loewenthal, originally from Michigan, moved to Israel 15 years ago and is now a prominent Kabbalist painter in Safed. While other artists stressed the complexity of Kabbalah, Loewenthal said that it boils down to several simple themes at its core.
When asked to pass judgment on the change that Madonna has brought to his adopted town, he dismissed the question — and, seemingly, the Material Girl’s critics too.
“It’s so hard for a person to find out what their spiritual work in this world is,” he said. “Within the Kabbalah, we only look inside ourselves because we can’t know what someone else’s spiritual work in this world is.”