One’s on my left shoulder-blade, the second on my right inner-bicep, and the third on my chest near my heart; each tattoo a sequence of three Hebrew letters:
1) aleph, lamed, daled;
2) kaf, hey, tav;
3) nun, lamed, kaf.
“What do they say?” I’m asked time after time.
“They don’t translate,” I’ll bashfully answer and elaborate: “In Jewish mysticism,” or, “in Kabbalah”—they’re symbolic, protective, meant to ward off bad luck—I’ll explain: “I was a teenager.”
I was a teenager in the early 2000s when Madonna was avidly advocating the creeds of the Kabbalah Centre. A non-profit organization established in 1984 by Karen and Philip Berg, the Centre (on its website) promises “ancient spiritual wisdom that empowers us to improve our lives, discover our purpose, and achieve the lasting fulfillment we are meant to receive.”
Among numerous displays of devotion to Kabbalah, Madonna (and I) wore a bracelet of red yarn, which supposedly had been wrapped around Rachel’s Tomb in the West Bank; thereby infused with—thus providing for the wearer—the protection that biblical Rachel provided for her children. Sold by the Centre, the red string should be knotted seven times on the left wrist (“the receiving side of the body and soul,” reads the packaging), tied by a loved one who recites the Ben Porat Prayer in Hebrew, while visualizing (from right to left) aleph, lamed, and daled:
The Centre identifies seventy-two of these combinations, each purported to evoke supernatural energy for various specific purposes, such as victory over addiction, the ability to speak the right words, or to find one’s soul mate.
1) banish the evil eye,
2) defuse negativity,
3) eradicate illness.
I was eleven years old when Kabbalah entered my consciousness, via an episode of The X-Files titled “Kaddish” that aired February 16, 1997. Mulder believes a golem made of mud has avenged the death of a Hasidic man killed by Neo-Nazis. After Mulder and Scully find the Hasidic man’s body buried with a self-immolating book on mystical Judaism, they consult a Jewish scholar who tells them: “The early Kabbalists, they believed that a righteous man could actually create a living being from the earth itself, fashioned from mud or clay.”
Always prone to this type of magical thinking, I was already entrenched in such mysticisms (and soon to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder)—terrified of “evil” numbers, I glorified “good” numbers—and I believed that certain actions or thoughts had the power to manifest desired (or undesired) outcomes in reality. My mother’s eldest sister, the most devout Jew I knew, considered Kabbalah to be taboo. Restricted to the study of married men over forty for many centuries (until 1969, according to the Kabbalah Centre, when the Bergs claim to have opened it for observation in popular culture), Kabbalistic provenance had been long obfuscated by misinformation and occluded by occultism. (Also true of tattoos: It’s a fallacy that tattooed bodies can’t receive burial in Jewish cemeteries, while many people also misconstrue a passage in Leviticus [19:28], popularly translated: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.”) This illicit quality further provoked my curiosity. I bought a stack of books—at The Golden Notebook during a visit to Woodstock, New York—but found the elucidations too opaque. Nearly a decade later, the Kabbalah Centre started publishing commercially oriented spirituality titles; though riddled with falsehoods and oversimplifications, these books rendered the fundamental ideas of Kabbalah with newfangled accessibility for people around the world, including Madonna and me.
Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism (1975)—which I didn’t discover until my thirties—demystifies Kabbalistic evolution, depicting the foundational Kabbalistic texts as works of poetic literary criticism in the form of revisionist interpretations of the Torah. Bloom reads Gershom Scholem’s definitive history, Kabbalah (1974), to reveal the origins of the tradition—and the term kabbalah roughly translates to English as “tradition,” Bloom relays: “in the particular sense of ‘reception,’ and at first referred to the whole of Oral Law” (i.e., the commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai).
Gershom Scholem traced Kabbalah’s roots to the influence of Merkabah literature, written circa 100 bce to 1000 ce, by Jewish mystics who recorded visions of heavenly ascent via celestial chariot—and divine encounter with the universal creator, whose superhuman form is described in hallucinatory detail: “They enumerate the fantastic measurements of parts of the head as well as some of the limbs. They also transmit ‘the secret names’ of these limbs, all of them unintelligible letter combinations,” Scholem wrote. The emerging Kabbalistic doctrine would follow this example of belief in formational power transmitted through sequences of “unintelligible letter combinations.”
The earliest document ascribed to Kabbalah, Sefer Yezirah (“The Book of Creation”), was composed in Palestine sometime from the third to sixth century ce, according to Scholem, by “a devout Jew with leanings toward mysticism” (though its authorship is often dated earlier, and even attributed to Abraham). Akin to the Merkabah mystics, whoever wrote Sefer Yezirah viewed existence as inscriptional process and numerical order; its author believed, as Scholem summarizes: “From the primal air God created, or ‘engraved’ upon it, the 22 letters”—the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which constructed the universe, the visible and invisible world, its heavens and its earthly creatures (Scholem: “From this point stem the ideas connected with the creation of the golem by an ordered recitation of all the possible creative letter-combinations”—see aforementioned episode of The X-Files). To Scholem, Sefer Yezirah communicated that “the world-process is essentially a linguistic one, based on the unlimited combinations of the letters.” Such phantasmatic notions—the generative and transformative potency of (unintelligible) alphabetic arrangements (or “secret names”)—assembled the Kabbalist’s entire worldview.
To Bloom, Sefer Yezirah offers “no literary or spiritual value, but historically it is the true origin of Kabbalah” because it blueprints the vital Kabbalistic schema of the Sefirot: “the divine emanations by which all reality is structured.” (More on the Sefirot soon.) Bloom found higher value in the second-most fundamental Kabbalistic text, Sefer ha-Zohar (“The Book of Splendor,” commonly referred to as Zohar)—a collection of manuscripts written in Aramaic that Scholem attributed to Moses de Leon, who wrote in Guadalajara circa 1280. In the Kabbalah Centre’s national bestseller of 2004, The Power of Kabbalah (which Madonna blurbed: “No hocus-pocus here. Nothing to do with religious dogma, the ideas in this book are earth-shattering and yet so simple”), Yehuda Berg asserted that the Zohar was written during the second century and then discovered by Moses de León circa 1270—this, one of several discrepancies touted by the Centre.
In large part, the Zohar comprises lyrical exposition on the Torah; riddles and anecdotes that encourage a modern perspective in deciphering ancient text. Bloom explained: “The Zohar is organized as an apparent commentary upon Scripture, just as much as the later Kabbalah is organized as an apparent commentary upon the Zohar.” Scholem described the Zohar’s emphasis on the importance of following the biblical commandments in order to safeguard the collective fate of the Jewish faith and community. Scholem also detailed the Zoharic conception of the Sefirot as a structure of metaphysical planes that radiate out from the heavens to the human realm—in Bloom: “an immutable knowledge of a final reality that stands behind our world of appearances”—both a channel enabling individual communion with the creator and a series of partitions that obstruct the human realm from divine, eternal light (which resulted from a Big Bang–like event) wherefrom existence emanates. Scholem located that same light, obscured behind the Sefirot, contained within the sacred secret names.
Over the next two centuries, Kabbalistic literature proliferated—particularly rabbinic commentary on the Zohar—and especially in Spain, where philosophical inquiry combined with sympathetic magic and meditative practice to attempt what Scholem noted as “return through mystic communion to [the] original source” (similar to Bloom’s final reality that underpins our world of appearances). Following the penultimate turning point in Kabbalistic history—the expulsion of the Jews (who included my mother’s mother’s ancestors) from Spain in 1492—Scholem noticed that Kabbalah aimed at a new objective: a messianic “journey toward redemption.” Around 1530, in Palestine, Isaac Luria emerged as the last major foundational Kabbalistic leader, appearing in Scholem as a charismatic messiah-figure to the recently dispersed Jews; among his offerings, “exercises in meditation based on mental concentration on the combinations of Sacred Names.”
Advanced by Luria’s teachings, what had been conceived, to Bloom, as a “rhetorical series of techniques for opening Scripture” matured into “a fresh and vital new religious impulse, in a precarious and even catastrophic time of troubles.” In Bloom: “Before Luria, all of Kabbalah saw creation as a progressive process, moving in one direction always, emanating out from God [. . .] In Luria, creation is a startlingly regressive process, one in which an abyss can separate any one stage from another, and in which catastrophe is always a central event.”
After Luria—in the aftermath of expulsion from Spain—Kabbalistic precepts became fanatically focused on how to live a good life despite the omnipresence of evil; a force that weighs down humanity, hindering us from divine transcendence. To transcend—to contact the source of the light of the Sefirot—would be humankind’s salvation.
Organizing life by analyzing literature, Kabbalistic methodology laid the groundwork for Hasidic Judaism in the 18th century and Orthodox Judaism in the 19th—while Kabbalah’s façade also became scaffolded by non-Jewish traditions and superstitions (numerology, astrology) across time.
Abstracting Kabbalistic history and intention, the Kabbalah Centre glamorized the tradition’s mystic tendencies and fashioned a gift-shop franchise of self-help coping mechanisms for confronting evil in the 20th century.
Bloom concluded: “In its degeneracy, Kabbalah has sought vainly for a magical power over nature, but in its glory it sought, and found, a power of the mind over the universe of death.”
Madonna’s music entered my consciousness at age six, in 1992: she sang “This Used to Be My Playground” for the closing credits of the film A League of Their Own, in which she also costars (with Geena Davis and Rosie O’Donnell)—fictionalizing the real-life 1950s All American Girls Professional Baseball League; partially filmed (and so boastfully popular) in my hometown, Cooperstown, New York. Faintly aware of Madonna until then, her scandalous reputation for radical sensuality had intimated me—the same year A League of Their Own opened in theaters, Madonna notoriously released her fifth LP, Erotica, and published an X-rated coffee-table book called Sex (sold shrink-wrapped and kept behind the checkout counter at my local Waldenbooks). Even in the film, one of Madonna’s central scenes features her character teaching an illiterate teammate to read by sounding out sentences from a “sleaze novel.” Still terrified by my repressed queer desire, I subconsciously aspired to be the chaste, stern type portrayed by Geena Davis’s character. But in 1996, I played, rewound, and replayed my double cassette of the Evita-remake film-soundtrack until the tapes wore thin then severed, and I recorded the movie on VHS during a weekend of free HBO. Here, Madonna Louise Ciccone’s image dramatically altered: as María Eva Duarte de Perón, First Lady of Argentina and polarizing candidate for the country’s vice presidency—who rose from actress and model to advocate for labor rights and woman’s suffrage—dubbed “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” by Argentine National Congress, and deceased at thirty-three; depicted as coquettish starlet–turned–stalwart politician by a thirty-seven-year-old polarizing pop-star. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stockin (who encouraged my enthusiasm for writing), listened to Madonna’s Evita on a CD-player while the students left her classroom for lunch or recess—and I suspect her private enjoyment of that music encouraged my enthusiastic listening. My era of hardcore fandom was fully underway by 1998—one year after that Kabbalistic X-Files episode—when Madonna released the music video for “Frozen” from Ray of Light. With slender face draped by long straight black hair (uncannily resembling my mother) and her costume a blend of Eastern European with South Asian styles, the aesthetic—conspicuously accentuating Buddhist imagery—confuses disparate cultural allusions. And yet the song unmistakably reveals Madonna’s burgeoning interest in spiritual guidance. I converted. I sketched lines of henna on the backs of my hands, scribbled the symbol for om—ॐ—on my notebooks, observed a daily yoga regimen. Almost age thirteen, I was one-year shy of outwardly admitting my queerness.
Madonna’s involvement with the Kabbalah Centre commenced around 1996 (age thirty-eight), the year her first child was born. Although 1998’s Ray of Light conveyed notions more Buddhist than Kabbalist, it conspicuously deviated from the hedonistic debauchery that dominated the first decade of her career.
I believe her campaign for Kabbalah reached crowning visibility with the release of her music video for “Die Another Day” (theme song to the eponymous James Bond film) in 2002. The video’s main narrative features Madonna in custody—dirty; bloody; blonde hair chopped at the jawline; wearing black slacks, black bra, and white tank top; outer right bicep tattooed with three characters: lamed, aleph, and vav—two executioners drag her down a hallway and then strap her to an electric chair. At video’s end, the outlines of lamed, aleph, and vav burn into the back panel of the empty chair as Madonna escapes the facility.
According to The 72 Names of God, Yehuda Berg’s nationally bestselling Kabbalah Centre title, this letter arrangement—the only one of seventy-two assigned dual functions—facilitates both “Banishing the Remnants of Evil” and “Great Escape” (the latter illustrated by comparison to fleeing the “prison” of the ego).
“Kabbalah says the Bible is a complete code,” Berg imparts. “It’s a cryptogram. When this Biblical code is cracked, something wonderful happens: awesome spiritual forces are suddenly released into our souls and discharged into the world at large.” Through the “most powerful and most ancient technology” of Berg’s 72 Names, each letter sequence “operates much like a cable transmitting various blends of energy into our physical world.” Meditating on “their unique shapes” and “the patterns expressed in their lines and curves” imbues you with their power: “you stop your reflexive egocentric impulses and unleash the proactive will of your soul.” Utilizing this function of the 72 Names effectively amounts to a tool of cognitive-behavioral therapy for breaking free from the incarcerating anxieties of your ego—and our egos, Berg claims, remain the heaviest, darkest partitions obstructing our reception of divine energy. We activate each Name by simply seeing it: we look; thus “spiritual Light of unimaginable force and brilliance is ignited.” Here, the Kabbalah Centre most faithfully recreates the original Kabbalistic intention: to engage texts (and letter combinations) as conduits for accessing the eternal, divine light of the Sefirot.
“The polymorphously perverse child wants to know where [it] comes from,” Julia Kristeva announces in her book This Incredible Need to Believe (transcribed from an interview and published in 2006).
Kristeva’s alluding to this passage in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: “From the very first children have a copious sexual life, which differs at many points from what is later regarded as normal [. . .] they direct their first sexual lusts and their curiosity to those who are nearest and for other reasons dearest to them—parents, brothers and sisters, or nurses; and finally, they show (what later on breaks through once again at the climax of a love-relation) that they expect to derive pleasure[. . . .] Children may thus be described as ‘polymorphously perverse.’”
The child’s behavior is deemed “perverse” merely because it detours from the contemporary socially acceptable norm of sublimating erotic impulses toward more constructive goals, such as developing into an expressing being—who learns to speak and spell (if able to hear and see)—which sentences erotic drives to a period of relative latency. Freud’s “Infantile Sexuality” from Three Essays on Sexual Theory similarly determines: “It becomes in the end impossible not to acknowledge that this same predisposition to all perversions is a universal and fundamentally human trait.” While I hesitate to propagate such an immense generalization, I concede that (in my experience) at least a kernel of truth resides there.
And so, Kabbalah’s fixation on theories of origin appeals to Kristeva’s polymorphously perverse child’s primordial curiosity, whetting that carnal hunger to know how and why we’re here, from whence we came, and where we’re going to. Further, by projecting one’s expectations to receive (and/or give) pleasure toward another, Freud’s polymorphously perverse child resembles Bloom’s diagnosis of Kabbalist Isaac Luria, who “saw the whole function of creation as being God’s catharsis of Himself, a vast sublimation in which His terrible rigor might find some peace. This is not unlike Freud’s extraordinary explanation as to why people fall in love, which is to avoid an overfilled inner self. As [humans] must love, in Freud’s view, in order to avoid becoming sick, so Luria’s God has to create, for His own health.”
Likewise, the child extends its erogenous enjoyment beyond its body; such copious lust—if healthily sublimated—can catalyze creativity.
Sigmund Freud, analyze this, Madonna dares in “Die Another Day.”
Interviewed by Oprah in 2003, Madonna described one of the Kabbalah Centre’s principal precepts:
There is an all-giving, all-loving force. You can call it God—the light-force of God, the energy—Kabbalists call it the light. But essentially it is God. The idea is that this force, this God, is all-loving, and all-giving, and when we disconnect from this force, that’s when we have chaos, that’s when we invite pain and suffering into our lives.
To Kristeva, the onset of depression in adolescence can result from the disappointing realization that the “total satisfaction” of an “absolute partner”—mother’s comfort—will never be guaranteed. This frustration fuels destructive drives that may lead to harm against oneself or the other; destructive drives that can be—sometimes effectively (but seldom sufficiently)—rerouted toward devotion to an endlessly generous godlike authority.
“The shadow of the ideal has fallen over adolescent drive and crystallized into the need to believe,” Kristeva emphasizes (her italics). “Our belief that the Ideal Object exists is forever being threatened or even brought up short. Then the passion in search of an object shows its other side, the side of punishment and self-punishment.”
August 26, 2001—age fifteen (one year after declaring my queerness)—at my mother’s father’s house in Pomona, New York, I watched HBO’s live broadcast of Madonna’s Drowned World Tour performance, in promotion of Ray of Light, at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan (which neighbors Madonna’s hometown, Rochester Hills). Svelte, compact, confident, she exhibited pride in her Pilates-sculpted body that tantalized my thirst for such proud confidence in my body, which embarrassed me—not only as a result of suppressing my sexuality but also under societal pressure to slenderize my silhouette of its still-unwieldy baby-fat. The next night, I binged and purged for the first time in an ensuing decade of grueling control over my weight and shape through bouts of bulimia and anorexia.
Kristeva’s lecture “Interpreting Radical Evil” (2016) defines “the anorexic syndrome” as “an over-investment in the purity-and-hardness of the body, in the phantasm of spirituality [. . .] where the body disappears entirely in a beyond with heavy paternal connotations.” The adolescent’s insatiable appetite for utter fulfillment—frustrated by reality’s constraints—potentially warps into nihilism, delinquency, addiction, and additional symptoms of “ideality disorder” (coined by Kristeva here: “The adolescent, who believes in the relation to the ideal object, cruelly experiences the impossibility of it”). Now, the need-to-believe and desire-to-know are stimulated by the infantile greed for an infinitely gratifying and unconditionally accommodating alterity, beyond which churns the fear and fervor of vanishing into divine void.
“There cannot not be an absolutely satisfying other: such is the faith, the passion of the adolescent unconscious,” Kristeva explains (her italics, my underline), back in This Incredible Need to Believe. “‘He’ or ‘she’ disappoints or fails me, I have only myself to blame and to take my disappointment out on: mutilations and self-destructive attitudes follow.”
When an idol—a celebrity, a deity—or an ideology deludes us, and we punish ourselves for craving that delusion, we inflict pain on the body that the mind may perceive as pleasure.
In a yearbook portrait from 2002, I’m skeletal—spectral—my eyes bulge from sunken sockets, my smile beams broader than the width my pallid face. I remember that day; the sensation of being svelte, compact, so content I could’ve expired. Having modeled my self-perception on Madonna’s latest lifestyle appropriation, I’d created myself in her image.
Interviewing Madonna about Kabbalah in 2002, Larry King asked: “What attracted you to it?”
MADONNA: I was looking for something. I mean, I’d begun practicing yoga and, you know, I was looking for the answers—to life. Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How do I fit in to the big picture? I know there’s more to life than making lots of money and being successful. And even getting married and having a family, you know, where does it go? What is the point? What is the point of my journey and everybody else’s journey?
LARRY KING: What’s it all mean.
MADONNA: What’s it all mean? And why is there so much chaos in the world? And is this just the way it goes? I wanted to know the answers.
The Kabbalah Centre doesn’t straightforwardly supply the answer—which they call “the secret”—to the ontological questions they elliptically surround. And yet, Yehuda Berg’s The Red String Book (companion to the package of red yarn; a pocket-size manual published by the Kabbalah Centre) vaunts:
Kabbalah unravels all the mysteries of the universe. In the process, it reveals the spiritual and physical laws that govern both the universe and the human soul. [. . .] It offers practical tools with which to effect authentic change in your life. It creates order out of chaos. And as if that weren’t enough, Kabbalah answers the ultimate question of human existence: Why are we here on this earth?”
In the end, the Centre’s tactile rituals of distraction-through-enigma can divert energy away from the desolation of abyss. Belief in the 72 Names and the red string, for instance, lends some moral support in seeking freedom from the confinement of ego and conquering evils of envy, fear, anger, anxiety, competition, insecurity, impatience . . . after all—before all—The Red String Book assures us, we chose existence over nonbeing. Why? We wanted—like our creator—to enact the ecstasy of creation.
Madonna’s “passion in search of an object” (Kristeva) emerged in her music several years before entering mass-media spectacle. I believe it became markedly overt near the end of 1994’s Bedtime Stories, in “Sanctuary” (third-to-last track), within these six lines bookended by two lines from the book of Genesis and two from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
And the earth was void and empty
And darkness was upon the face of the earth.
Is all of this pain so necessary?
You are my sanctuary.
Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow,
As the water follows the moon, silently, with fluid steps [. . .] around the globe.
In the next-to-last track, “Bedtime Story”—which would’ve been the better closing number (instead of the actual final track; the treacly, tacky “Take A Bow”)—the bedtime-storyteller takes a vow of silence:
Today is the last day that I’m using words
They’ve gone out, lost their meaning
Don’t function anymore
Words are useless
They don’t stand for anything . . .
A bigger-picture pivot in Madonna’s approach, here she undertakes investigating the idea that “love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation” (Joan Didion, on The Doors, in “The White Album”).
The tone and subject matter of Ray of Light, Madonna’s subsequent studio album, follows a natural progression from “Bedtime Story”—although she spent those intervening years of 1996 to 1998 filming and promoting Evita, for which she’d started recording the score in 1995.
(The original 1970s musical soundtrack was forbidden in the house of my mother’s mother—due to the real-life Peróns’ alleged allegiance with the Nazis hiding in Argentina.)
Having played Eva Perón from adolescence to death—which was succeeded, in reality, by pregnancy with firstborn, Lourdes—Madonna seemed to confront a resurgence of the need to believe.
Evita’s finale—“Lament”—conveys Eva’s departing words:
I saw the lights, and I was on my way
And how I lived, how they shone
But how soon the lights were gone . . .
This song was on the set-list for Madonna’s 2004 Reinvention Tour, promoting her album American Life. The tour’s documentary film, I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, contains footage of “Lament”—she sings (her chiseled torso corseted in a voluptuous red-and-white-striped circus-style bodice; striated thighs stretching through sheer-black knee-length leggings; bulbously muscled calves bulging above crimson stilettos), seated on an electric chair. A colossal set-piece studded with lightbulbs—forming the shapes of aleph, lamed, and daled—blinks on and off behind her.
“A structure, that of language—the word implies it—a structure carves up the body, a structure that has nothing to do with anatomy,” said Jacques Lacan in an interview of 1973 (released as a film titled Télévision, also transcribed and published in French and English). Here, responding to a question posed regarding Freud’s use of the term unconscious, Lacan posited that unconscious thought is exclusive to the minds of speaking beings (which I prefer to re-term expressing beings) because thought is a “consequence” of language (and other modes of human expression). To Lacan, “a thought that burdens the soul that it doesn’t know what to do with” inscribes the expression of a “hysteric” or “obsessional” being—“this shearing happens to the soul,” and it sculpts the body under its burden. Recovery requires transcendence of mind over matter: “The cure is a demand that originates in the voice of the sufferer, of someone who suffers from body or thought. The astonishing thing is that there be a response, and that throughout time medicine, using words, has hit the bull’s-eye.”
To attempt to cure suffering, the “hysteric” or “obsessional” being must attempt to express those unintelligible burdens that cleave their unconscious. Lacan marveled at the potential for psychoanalytic dialogue to pinpoint the psyche’s fractures in order to alleviate the strain of sharp and heavy thoughts.
Let’s get unconscious, honey, Madonna entices in “Bedtime Story.”
After remission from eating disorders in my late teens (excluding a few relapse episodes in my early twenties)—through talk-therapy, medication, and painstaking willpower—Madonna’s influence found another outlet on my body. . . .
The first tattoo was done by Pat, at Pat’s Tatts in Kingston, New York, the summer following graduation from high school—aleph, lamed, daled—on my left shoulder, for protection from evil.
The second tattoo, one year later—kaf, hey, tav; on my right arm, to deflect negative energy—done in a parlor near my mother’s house in Oneonta, New York, by a guy whose face, arms, and legs were inked with solid black banners and blocks that masked his prior tattoos of neo-Nazi iconography.
The third and last tattoo, done one year after the second—at 33 Saint Mark’s Place, the building where my mother’s father’s parents raised their family—nun, lamed, kaf, on my chest over my heart, for good health.
Armoring myself in language—“unintelligible letter combinations” both sacred and profane; talismanic shields (ultimately meant to prevent untimely death) etched into my skin (Touch me, I’m dying, Madonna implores on Ray of Light’s “Skin”)—I’m permanently ornamented with the indelible emblems of my need to believe.
Kim Gordon—in her memoir, Girl in a Band—mused on Madonna in the 1980s Manhattan music scene: “Her voice wasn’t strong, and she wasn’t an obvious diva.” Gordon—whose tough voice enchants me—continued: “She had a knack for knowing how to entertain,” and “she seemed joyful, celebrating her own body,” and “you could feel how happy she was inhabiting that body.”
Madonna’s voice wasn’t what initiated my decade of idolatry—it was how zealously she dwelled in her body. I’d bow at her feet until 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor—but I haven’t listened to a single album since The Confessions Tour CD/DVD (the tour I finally attended, at the Hartford Civic Center in Connecticut, in June 2006). That year, Madonna fell out of vogue with the Kabbalah Centre through financial concerns around Raising Malawi, her joint charity foundation with the Bergs—and then the Kabbalah Centre fell from grace in 2011, under investigation by the IRS and a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former student. Disconnected from Kabbalah, Madonna’s image has reverted to the (pre-Erotica) Catholic iconoclast of Like a Prayer—more motivated by rebellious extroversion than existential insight.
Nowadays, I keep fond acquaintance and embarrassed distance from her music as well as my tattoos. Spiritually, I’ve grown accustomed to worshipping the “big question mark” that Kristeva, referencing Nietzsche (in her preface to This Incredible Need to Believe), locates “at the place of ‘greatest gravity’”—where religious belief and nonbelief diverge.
And from time to time, someone will insist on trying to decipher the Hebrew—despite my insistence that it’s not meant to be read literally—as I conceal the ink with my hands and steer the conversation elsewhere. But occasionally, I’ll receive a knowing nod or wink of kinship from some fellow reformed disciple of Madonna’s Kabbalah.