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Arts & Culture After Childhood As Mormon Preacher, Roseanne Mulls Having a Bat Mitzvah

April 10, 2006
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Roseanne Barr says she has two closely held ambitions. One is to celebrate the bat mitzvah she never had as a youngster growing up in Salt Lake City.

The other is to become prime minister of Israel, a sort of Golda Meir II. “My family won’t listen to me, but otherwise I know every solution to every problem,” she says by way of qualifications.

Surely, laudable goals for a 53-year old grandmother, who got her religious start as a child preacher in Mormon churches.

Sitting in the Full Moon and High Tide Television Studio during an interview as she unveiled her new DVD for kids, “Rockin’ With Roseanne: Calling All Kids,” Roseanne looked more youthful than she used to. Her cosmetic surgeon has done a commendable job, as has her hair dyer, and she has shed numerous pounds from her still-ample frame.

She was also more in control than in the past — and at times pensive, though with frequent flashes of her trademark bawdy wisecracks.

But she remains Hollywood’s anti-celebrity. Her storefront office is on Main Street in the nondescript Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo and she received a visitor in jeans, a flowered shirt and glasses.

Roseanne’s Jewishness, heightened by her well-publicized association with the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre, is as much part of her persona as her loud stage voice, fat lady jokes and liberal political outlook.

Like many American Jews, Roseanne defines her ethnic and religious identity by her own personal standards, which in her case often leads into unchartered territory.

Asked about the basis of her Jewishness, she cracks, “An overwhelming desire for carbohydrates.”

Turning more serious, she adds, “It’s part of my genetic memory. When I hear stories from the Bible or about Judaism, I think that they are about me, that I am part of them, like I was personally at Mount Sinai with Moses.”

Then the comedian resurfaces. “Of course, this may be some kind of mental illness,” she ponders. “Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a fine line between being Jewish and being crazy.”

Her rather eclectic views on religion may have their roots in her childhood years in Salt Lake City, surrounded by Mormons, during the 1950s and early 1960s.

There were only 50 Jewish families in the city and there was a lot of anti-Semitism, which sometimes expressed itself violently, she recalled.

Her grandfather, descended from a long line of rabbis, changed his name from Borisofsky to Barr when he arrived from Russia, while her father was a door-to-door salesman of household goods and crucifixes.

To protect her children, Roseanne’s mother hid their Jewishness from the neighbors, and took the family to Sunday services at a Mormon temple.

There, 6-year old Roseanne discovered her first public stage, lecturing on the faith to Mormon congregations throughout Utah and becoming “like a little preaching rock star.” She was even elected president of a Mormon youth group.

Meanwhile, Roseanne’s devoutly Orthodox grandmother, who knew nothing about her granddaughter’s Mormon escapades, took her to synagogue for Shabbat services. There the little girl was unable to duplicate her stage success, though when she reached 13, the resident cantor introduced her to the mysteries of the Kabbalah.

Roseanne never had a bat mitzvah, but is now giving serious thought to catching up.

“I was recently at my niece’s bat mitzvah and she talked about helping other people in the world,” Roseanne said. “I love to be involved and that really turned me on. Yes, I would like to have a bat mitzvah, that would be cool.”

At 17, she became pregnant, gave up the baby girl for adoption, but has since reclaimed her as part of the family. She now counts three ex-husbands, three daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 10 to 35, and two grandsons, named Ethan Zion and Cosmo Dexter. All of the children and grandchildren are being raised Jewishly.

In recent years, Roseanne’s name has been closely linked to the Kabbalah Centre, which has been criticized for its alleged high-pressure tactics to extract money from its followers.

Roseanne says she is not a member of the centre, hasn’t given any money, is not “a joiner or follower of anything,” and visits mainly to check out the centre’s library books.

Although she left home before finishing high school, Roseanne likes “all kinds of esoteric reading and thinking,” she says, and among her favorite subjects are mysticism, philosophy, comparative religion, science and current events.

Besides supplying books, the centre is also credited with showing her the power of meditation, which has given her greater control over her emotions and made her “a lot nicer than I used to be.”

After the long, and often stormy, nine seasons of her hit TV show “Roseanne,” followed by three years as a talk show hostess, a cooking show and a reality show, the comedienne swears that she will never act in sitcoms again.

Last year, she returned to her first love, stand-up comedy, has toured much of the world, and recently did a two-night stint in England.

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