Seeing red over the Kabbalah craze

David Landau, executive director of the Committee for Rachel´s Tomb, wraps red string around the tomb in Bethlehem. According to Judaism.com owner Shlomo Perelman, red string traditionally is not a good luck charm, but is meant to be a reminder of R (Judaism.com)

David Landau, executive director of the Committee for Rachel´s Tomb, wraps red string around the tomb in Bethlehem. According to Judaism.com owner Shlomo Perelman, red string traditionally is not a good luck charm, but is meant to be a reminder of R (Judaism.com)

NEW YORK, Feb. 17 (JTA) — The owner of an online Judaica store is waging a campaign to reclaim one of the symbols of Jewish mysticism. Shlomo Perelman, the owner of Judaism.com, launched his campaign after such stars as Britney Spears, Madonna and Demi Moore began wearing the string, a symbol of Kabbalah. These celebrity icons talk about the string’s power to ward off the evil eye or to fulfill personal wishes. When Perelman sees a Hollywood icon wearing a red string on his or her wrist, he gets nervous. As he explains on his Web site — featuring several pages of explanatory information and a five-minute video, with live footage from Rachel’s Tomb in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, traditionally the place where the idea of the red string was born — the string is an important part of Jewish tradition. Far from being a new craze, Perelman’s site explains, the wearing of the red string dates back hundreds of years. Further, he writes, it cannot provide any of the magical promises these stars and other New Agers believe it offers. According to Judaism.com, the red string is not a good luck charm. Instead it is meant to be “a reminder of Rachel (one of the foremothers), so that we try and incorporate her traits into our lives. Only in doing so will our lives become better.” Some of Rachel’s finer traits, according to Perelman’s Web site, are her happiness for others’ good fortune, her humility and her complete selflessness — according to midrashic tradition, Rachel willingly helped Leah, her sister, marry the man who was intended to be her own husband. When asked to discuss their views on the red string, representatives from the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, widely seen as behind the Kabbalah craze of the past few years, declined to comment. Eitan Fishbane, an assistant professor of Jewish religious thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, agrees that the red string’s powers have been exaggerated. Fishbane believes that “the red string has achieved its pop attraction because of celebrities advocating it. People are desperate for a quick fix to their problems” and misguidedly hope the mystical bracelet will offer them easy solutions. But Fishbane doesn’t quite agree with Perelman on the red string’s actual significance. He says the practice of wearing the red string is “associated with people in medieval times who believed in the healing power of magical objects. The tradition of the red string is associated more with folklore than with spirituality.” Whatever the traditional reason for wearing the red string, both Perelman and Fishbane can agree that its use in modern times is misunderstood. Fishbane suggests that he would rather teach others about more spiritually fulfilling aspects of the Kabbalah. For Perelman, the red string fad is just one example of a growing Jewish problem: “We are diluting our connection to Judaism by diverting it” to secular culture. He worries that Hollywood is “hijacking” this Jewish tradition. “Today’s youth, who are most susceptible to outside influences, identify with Hollywood. Now, when they see a star wearing a red string, they will wear one too, not to be closer to Judaism, but as a vessel to reach Hollywood,” he says. Perelman, who estimates that several thousand people have seen the red string information that he has posted on his Website, hopes his campaign eventually will reach a broader Jewish audience. “I would like to see teachers of all denominations show the red string video in their classes, as a way to talk about Jewish traditions, and how they get co-opted by mainstream culture,” he says. Perelman admits that his sales of red strings and red-string silver bracelets have increased, but he says that was not his goal. His ultimate purpose in posting about the red string is simple, he says. “When people wear the red string, I want them to know why they’re wearing it.”

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