Goodbye, Certainties: My Children and their Memories of Growing up in the Kabbalah Centre
Sunday evening, David had his first flag football game of the season. (My son threw a touchdown for the New York Giants. One is proud.) It was a big football day; his birthday present each year is a day with his father at SoFi Stadium to see our beloved Rams play, and we hurried straight from a fine afternoon victory in Inglewood to another on a Santa Monica playing field at dusk.
After dinner, I drove both children home to their mother’s house. She lives in the heart of the Pico-Robertson— the center of Orthodox Jewish life in Los Angeles. My children have called this single square mile — teeming with synagogues, kosher delis and yeshivas — home for as long as they can remember. Their mother and I moved there in 2009, as part of our commitment to the Kabbalah Centre. Though we have all long since left the Centre, Heloise and David still live in the same neighborhood they have known all their lives.
The Kabbalah Centre — Google will tell you of the myriad controversies that surround the organization — offers a controversial spin on Chassidic Judaism. The most devoted students of the Centre adhere to an Orthodox lifestyle, keeping kosher homes, and educating their children in the Centre’s bilingual schools. I wore a kippah, did not let a razor touch my face, and for years — both before and after my fall from grace — tried to follow strict kosher rules. My children grew up with no idea what it was to eat a cheeseburger, or to play with electronics on a Friday night. They did grow up with a smattering of Hebrew. I was “abba” before I was “daddy;” my ex-wife is still “ima” as often as she is “mom.”
We kept all the holidays. And no annual holiday is more publicly evident to non-Jews than the one concluding this day — Sukkot, “the festival of booths.” To drive through the Pico-Robertson is to see boxy white tents (sukkahs) on sidewalks and in front yards; many elaborately decorated, most with palm fronds serving as roofs. Many have lamps and tables, and on Sunday night, we saw families eating and praying inside their sukkahs.
Both children talked animatedly about their memories of life in the sukkah. They spoke of the holiday that comes tonight — Simchat Torah — when the devout dance with the Torah for hours. They remembered the old rules they had had to follow, and the things they could not eat. They remembered the singing — so much singing! — and they remembered what it was like to wander up and down the street on Saturday afternoons, knowing they could simply toddle into any home they liked. They were raised by a community of hundreds. (Our pediatrician believed that babies should be held by at least 100 people in their first three months of life, as it was good for both the immune system and their emotional development. My children beat that by a factor of ten, as children in crowded and close-knit religious communities are wont to do.)
My son with a plush Torah, Simchat Torah 2016
And then it all stopped. My ex-wife — long a senior leader in the Centre — finally saw too much. She saw too much scandal, too much hypocrisy, too much mismanagement. She saw too much sexual abuse swept under the proverbial rug. After 15 years and — by our joint estimation, more than $250,000 in donations — she was done. We were not victims, but rather volunteers, and we harbor no animosity to our old spiritual home. The miracles were real, perhaps, but so too was the staggering fraudulence. In the end, the cost of the latter outweighed the wonder of the former.
With my consent, the children switched to public schools. Shabbat was suddenly no more. I no longer took David to the mikveh to bathe with the men on Friday afternoons. Heloise and her mother stopped making challah and lighting candles. Friday evenings, we went to the movies instead of shul: Saturdays were for baseball and soccer, not Torah. Many other families left the Centre at the same time, and my children kept some friends, but the upheaval was immense.
A Shabbat celebration at Heloise’s school, 2015. She loved that scarf because it made her feel like an “ima.”
I was raised by atheist philosophy professors, themselves each children of non-believers. I was taught to read the Bible as literature; mama felt it important that I know Scripture because it was a foundation for so much of Western civilization. A well-rounded man should know the parable of the prodigal; a gentleman should be familiar with the life arcs of Abraham and Sara, Rebekah and Isaac, Tamar and Yehuda the same way he knows the difference between a fish and cake fork. If you are to go anywhere and everywhere, you want to know other people’s reference points!
My children were raised to believe miracles were real, and that the Torah — both written and oral — could make the blind to see, the sick to rise from their beds, the infertile couple to welcome a healthy baby. Where I was raised with doubts, Heloise and David grew up with certainties. Where I was raised with the sense that all things were acceptable in moderation, my children grew up in a community that reminded them that how they dressed, spoke, ate and prayed could determine when and how the Messiah would come. They grew up knowing they were loved and chosen, and they grew up knowing that as “Centre-born children,” they had a special role to play in Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world.
David as a kindergartner, about to be “Shabbat Abba,” 2017.
We are not wealthy people, and indeed the financial reversals we’ve endured since I lost my teaching job in 2013 have been immense. In their lives, my children have only left the Pacific Time Zone to go to Kabbalah holiday events in New York and Miami. Their one foreign trip has been to Israel, where we went to celebrate the holidays of L’ag B’omer and Shavuot — and more importantly, so my son could get his first haircut. (Orthodox early boyhood is defined by two snips — the first, of the foreskin, the second of a lock of hair sometime soon after their third birthday. Just as a mohel must circumcise a boy with prayers to Hashem, so too a rabbi must wield the scissors for the haliqah, or first haircut.)
David blessedly has no memory of the first cut, but the second is his earliest concrete recollection. His sister remembers both vividly.
Since we left the Kabbalah Centre, my children have both “tried” Reform Judaism. My son, as I wrote earlier this year, thinks he wants to be a Catholic. My daughter finds the more liberal and inclusive practices of the Reform to be politically pleasing — but aesthetically and emotionally bankrupt. She was raised on people dancing until they dropped, on men falling to their knees to kiss a Rav’s hand, on slaughtering chickens at midnight in front of a South L.A. poultry market, on the certainty of miracles. The gentle doubts and exquisitely lefty politics of Reform Judaism are thin gruel indeed to a child who grew up surrounded by fiery Israelis convinced that immortality itself was within reach.
Heloise and I talk often about our old life in the Kabbalah Centre. I encourage her to stay in touch with friends who remain within that community. I remind her that it’s okay to grieve what was lost, and okay to wish that our lives were still given over to the exhausting, exhilarating rhythm of prayers and rituals and holidays. I tell her that if she decides to return to Orthodoxy, I will support her. She jokes about wearing a wig and having eight children, and I promise her I’d back even that — but warn her that she’d never have Peeps on Easter Sunday ever again. (When my daughter discovered the gelatin-soaked treats her first Easter after we left the Centre, she announced that she had to eat ten boxes to make up for a dozen years of deprivation.)
I ask her to hold on to the few Hebrew phrases she still remembers, and sometimes, we sing songs she recalls. Her favorite and mine is by Rev Nachman of Breslev, and we sang it often in the Centre. Here’s a wonderful live version by the Chabad rabbi of Slovakia.
Sometimes, Heloise and David and I will dance in their mother’s living room, holding hands and spinning in a circle, singing Kol Haolam Kulo faster as we twirl faster, until we fall, dizzy and spent and giggling.
The lyrics Rav Nachman wrote:
כל העולם כלו
גשר צר מאד
והעקר לא לפחד כלל
The whole wide world is a very narrow bridge,
A very narrow bridge.
But the main thing to recall is to have no fear.
No fear at all.
The world is a terrifying place somedays, and a confusing one when you are 13, as Heloise is. She grew up in a world where every adult she knew devoted their lives to crossing that bridge with exuberant, even reckless fearlessness. She knows the scandals and the shabbiness that led her family out of the Kabbalah Centre. My hope for my brave and beautiful child is that she can hold on to the happy memories, and forgive the transgressions of those whom her parents trusted. I hope above all she finds her way across that desperately narrow bridge, sustained and driven on not by guilt or shame but by the certainty that she is loved and needed. The Kabbalah Centre may have been wrong about many things, but they were not wrong about the truth that we each have something only we can do, and somehow, in community or alone, we must find a way to do it.