The Good was Very Good, the Bad was Horrid: My Daughter Starts to Reckon with Growing Up in the Kabbalah Centre
Last night, I drove my daughter to a friend’s house for a sleepover. Traffic was heavy, as you’d expect in L.A. on a Friday at dusk. We drove along Beverly Boulevard, through the heart of the Fairfax district – and, for at least a couple of blocks, through one of the city’s biggest centers of Ashkenazi Jewish life.
My daughter watched the observant making their way to shul for Friday night prayers. “That was our life,” she said, watching a girl of maybe ten in a long-skirt skipping along, holding the hands of two much tinier boys, kippot in danger of flying off the lads’ heads.
It’s been two years since Heloise’s mother left the Kabbalah Centre, with its own unique blend of Orthodox Judaism and New Age teaching. Eira had been a devoted member for nearly 20 years, before, during and after our marriage. She and I had raised the children in the Centre; donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Centre; relied on the teachers within the Centre to guide our every decision.
In 2009, Eira and I sold our condo in Pasadena and moved to Pico-Robertson to be near the Kabbalah Centre. We wanted to start to “keep Shabbat,” and avoid driving or using electronics on the Sabbath. We wanted to be part of a community, and were told that living near that community would bring blessings into our life. We moved into a huge rented house that we couldn’t afford, taking the proceeds from the sale of the condo and donated them to the Kabbalah Centre. Our biggest single gift that year was $104,000 for a new Torah scroll. We were assured our certainty in the mission of the Centre would be repaid a thousand-fold, one way or another.
Eira and I are not stupid people, but my ex-wife had her certainty, and I had a lifelong and resolute commitment to deferring all financial decisions to the woman to whom I happened to be closest at the time. “Whatever’s right, darling,” was my mantra whenever I was asked my opinion, no matter how reckless the proposition on the table.
Heloise knows this story. She knows that the loss of my job and the huge legal and medical expenses that accompanied it are one reason her life today involves few of the luxuries of her early memories. My daughter also knows that another (if lesser) reason for our ongoing financial struggles was her parents’ willingness to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars that they could ill-afford to lose.
The Kabbalah Centre’s financial and sexual scandals have been reasonably well-documented, and believe you me, what’s in the press ain’t the half of it. The Centre has lost much of the cachet and celebrity involved it enjoyed at its apex of popularity in the late ‘90s and early aughts. Eventually, after one too many scandals that she witnessed up close as an extremely well-connected volunteer, my children’s mother could take no more. She pulled the children out of the Centre’s private day school, and soon thereafter, cut most of her ties with the community. The children, who had kept Shabbat all of their lives, began to make other friends outside of the Kabbalah world. They began to do different things with Friday nights and Saturdays.
I could tell all sorts of sordid stories about the Kabbalah Centre. I could also recount extraordinary acts of generosity and kindness, unconnected to donations, that the Centre and its staff showed to me and to my family. The good and the bad of the Centre, like every institution, live in tension, neither cancelling out the other. As I told my daughter last night, it’s safe to assume that most of the worst accusations of abuse and malfeasance hurled at the Centre are true – and it’s safe to assume that many of the stories of miracles and wonders and astounding warmth that devotees tell are true as well.
Heloise knows my tired old lines. “It’s like you always say, daddy. People aren’t good or bad, they’re good and bad.”
She says this looking out the window, and I am so used to adolescent sarcasm that I assume for a second she’s mocking me.
I mean, I do like to wander around saying that it’s important to be a “both/and” person in an “either/or” world, and I preach this kind of good-humored tolerance ad nauseam. (Because I think it’s just about the most important thing one can teach.) Heloise has more occasion and provocation than most to experience that nausea; smart 12-year-old girls do not always enjoy the pompous pontifications of their papas.
Yet today, she’s not mocking me. My daughter both loves the Centre for what it gave, and grieves for what she knows it took. Heloise wanted her bat mitzvah there despite all she knew, and though she needed some coaxing, Eira agreed to visit that synagogue one last time to support her daughter. That meant a lot to Heloise, who has taken on the responsibility of the bat mitzvah and taken charge of her own spiritual development, choosing to hold on to some of the best of what she learned in Kabbalah while discarding other parts.
Heloise is wise enough to know that anyone who tells you it’s “all or nothing” is trying to sell you on something they’ve already sold themselves. My conservative friends mock “cafeteria Catholics” and “Burger King Christians” who decide to pick and choose what they will believe, holding fast to what rings right to them and discarding what doesn’t. “You’re either in or you’re out,” they insist. Over and over again, in different ways, Eira and I have stressed to the children that those sorts of false binaries miss the mark. You can love someone without blindly affirming all of their choices, and you can embrace a faith without signing on to each and every one of its precepts. Romance, family, and spirituality are, in the end, all about figuring out how best to love someone without signing away your own sovereignty. That’s a delicate dance, and a lifetime one. It’s worth doing. (It’s easier to do in Los Angeles than almost anywhere else, but that’s a topic for another post.)
In the car, I tell Heloise a story she already knows.
It’s December 2013. I've just been released from a dual-diagnosis facility in Malibu, and transferred to a halfway house in Culver City. I will be able to come and go as I please during the day.
I call my old teacher at the Kabbalah Centre, Ruthie Rosenberg. "Ruthie," I say, "I’d like to come back this Saturday for Torah reading."
"So, you should come," she says, her Israeli accent thick as ever. "Is it okay with Eira?"
"Yes," I say. "I just want to know if it's okay with the community if I come back."
There's a pause. I hear the intake of breath on the other end that means Ruthie has a lot to say. I hear her switch her mobile phone to speaker mode.
"Moshe," Ruthie yells to her husband, "Hugo is worried the community is not maybe okay with him coming to Torah reading."
I hear a man's laughter in the background.
Ruthie pauses again, and then lets me have it:
"So, you think you are such an important and terrible sinner that spiritual people don't want you around? Ach, you lied? Ach, you had all these affairs and these scandals? You lost your job and humiliated your family? You think these things are special? You think you are a particular sort of ‘big shot wicked’ of the kind we have never seen before?"
Ruthie's voice rises to a screech, and I hold the phone at arm's length. I hear her start to guffaw; then her voice gets softer, and I bring the phone back to my ear.
"Hugo, you come to hear Torah. You stay afterwards and you volunteer to clean something quietly, and you stop thinking you are the worst person in the world."
She hangs up without saying goodbye.
And I came back that Saturday, for Shabbat Vayechi, and I prayed the prayers and I stacked chairs and I let myself be hugged by old friends.
Heloise knows we still have members of our own family who can't get past the things I've done. As I told my daughter, in December 2013, I felt as if I had lost virtually everything and everyone. I felt welcome in only two places -- the rooms of AA, filled with screwups like me -- and the synagogue of the Kabbalah Centre, filled with people who were neither impressed nor horrified by my particular drama.
“A gentleman remembers which doors opened when he knocked with nothing in his pockets. And he stands by those who welcomed him in at his lowest, no matter what else they may have done or become.”
I tell this, or more accurately, recite this, especially that last paragraph to Heloise. She’s heard this before.
My daughter reminds me, as she should, that her story is not mine. She has no need to be filled with the prodigal’s gratitude. She tells me that she’s thankful for all that she learned in the Centre, and all she experienced in that tight-knit, admittedly rather cult-like community. “It’s like how I think of you and Mom – you had this marriage that didn’t work, but you stayed friends and you made David and me. I’m glad you were married, and I’m glad you’re not, and I am glad I have Victoria. And I’m glad we were in the Centre, because I carry a lot of it with me, and I’m glad I get to go be in the rest of the world now.”
I can’t help but make a joke, which is my failing. “Does that mean you don’t want to be a rabbi’s wife and have six kids?” (This was Heloise’s ambition a few years ago.)
My daughter’s eye roll is almost strong enough to rattle the car. “Just for that, papa, I’m going to have seven.”
I think this is one of the best things I’ve read of yours in a while. It reminds me a lot of why I used to love your blog so much in the old days. It’s simple yet there’s complexity to the concepts of good and evil and duality vs binary. It’s woven well with memoir. Great job!