What’s Madonna doing writing yet another moral-heavy children’s book? And why has she become such a vocal supporter of Kabbala? Dina Rabinovitch, a long-time fan, jumped at the chance to ask her straight out – but was left distinctly unimpressed by her answers.
A day in the life of the Ritchies. Kids at school, Madonna at her computer. She has a book deal to write children’s stories – the only problem is, there’s nothing on the screen yet. “It didn’t come easily,” she says. “I’m methodical, so I set aside time to sit at my computer – of course, in the time that the children are at school – for four hours every day, but nothing came out. My husband [the film-maker Guy Ritchie] said: ‘Write what you know about, and it will come, and then you edit out the bits you don’t like.’ And he was right – that worked.”
Madonna, the original material girl, is on the fifth of her moral-heavy children’s books. Lotsa de Casha is published this week and the message is, money can’t buy happiness. Her first children’s book, The English Roses, was launched in London, with a celebrity-studded rooftop party. The author – much prettier in real life than in photos, and very tiny – was surrounded by heavies and nobody was allowed to approach. This time she is publicising her book in New York, but she has decided to give two UK interviews, to the Guardian and Grazia magazine. Madonna will phone me, I’m told, not the other way around, and it will be at 9.40pm British time. And sure enough, to the second, she does: “Hi, this is Madonna.”
She sounds just like a regular New Yorker – quiet voice, clear American accent. So, fellow American, I don’t do the English dance of politeness, but come straight out with the questions I’m really curious about.
I ask about the Kabbala Centre, of which she has become an habituée. To Jews, I say to her, it’s a little odd that someone with the kind of business acumen she obviously has has been drawn into the Kabbala Centre, which is regarded within the Jewish community as being run by charlatans. “Is it?” she says. “Yes,” I say, “the selling of water at ludicrous prices, and claiming holy properties for it … selling bits of red string … claiming to teach Kabbala [a branch of Jewish mysticism], not something you can study without an in-depth knowledge of Hebrew, and Judaism …”
“I have an incredible teacher who is very wise,” says Madonna. “The last thing you’d accuse him of is charlatanism. I do think lots of the ones who started the centre, they’re not worldly-wise, they’ve been naive about marketing themselves. What I say is, don’t listen to the messenger, hear the message.” A message I keep reading back to myself from my notes of the interview, and still can’t make sense of, actually.
But what about the financial shenanigans? “If people want to delve into the veracity of religious organisations,” Madonna says, “have a look at the evolution of Christianity; or hop over to the Vatican. Where does all that money go? Have you seen all the gold on that roof? Not that I’m picking on Catholics; God forbid, my father would never forgive me.”
Her father was very strict when she was growing up, she says. It’s left her with a certain regard for discipline and method which she applies to work, and to parenting. She passes on a household tip which I think is little short of brilliant. Her daughter Lola (Lourdes) leaves clothes all over the bedroom floor. So how does that play when your mom is Madonna? Not good, apparently. Floor-bound clothes are bagged up and Lola only gets them back if she keeps the room tidy for the rest of the week.
Wow, I say, how did she think that one up? “Uh, I was talking to my housekeeper, you know, telling her not to pick all the clothes off the floor, and then I just suddenly thought of it – this is how to deal with it. And it works, mostly.”
So she was a pretty tidy child herself, then? “Yes, very.” And she never rebelled, did that teenage thing, dropped clothes on the floor? “Well, obviously I did rebel, as you know, but not in that way. I was never untidy.”
Really, all through the rebellious years? “Yup, tidy, and ordered and meticulous.”
Madonna’s five children’s books are beautifully produced, each illustrator vying to outdo the other. Gorgeous frontispieces, and yes, meticulously detailed drawings. All five stories are laden with Jewish imagery, from the heroine of The English Roses, called Binah, which is Hebrew for understanding, through the use of “everything is for the best” – gam zu le’tova – a saying of a Jewish scholar, nicknamed Nachum Ish Gamzu, because of his habitual use of the phrase. Two of the tales are credited to the Ba’al Shem Tov, a Hassidic leader in the 1700s.
“I didn’t get the stories from the Kabbala Centre,” Madonna says sharply. “Well, some I gleaned from my studies, but I’ve adapted them to a modern vernacular. Some I made up. The idea of sharing is not unique to Kabbala. The story of The English Roses is universal. You know,” she says with some feeling, “people jumping to conclusions about other people.”
She was attracted to the Kabbala Centre, she says, because her Catholic school never answered any questions: what is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of creation? If there is a God, why is there suffering? How do you reconcile Genesis with Darwinism? “When the student is ready,” she told me, “I guess the teacher appears.”
“Here’s exactly what happened,” she says, sounding like someone who is relieved to set the record straight. “I was pregnant with my daughter and I went to this dinner party where I heard someone talk about Kabbala, which seemed to address questions I’d started asking.
“I’ve been studying for nine years. I know there’s all this fuss about it now, celebrities and so on. When I started, there were no celebrities, and I just sat at the back of the class.”
She then tells me that the Kabbala Centre has nothing to do with Judaism really, or indeed religion, because, she says, she has a problem with religion – “people just doing stuff because they’re told to, no explanations”. The Kabbala Centre is something else entirely. “I don’t consider it Jewish or religious, because I meet all kinds of people there – Hindus, pagans, Buddhists …”
The centre has profoundly changed her, she says. How? “Ten years ago, I never thought I’d be writing children’s stories and giving the money to charity.” But the money goes to the Kabbala Centre, I say.
“Well, it goes to something they’ve founded, Spirituality for Kids, which is, you know, doing work with families all over the world, the occupied territories, even in London … well, outside London. Ken Livingstone’s trying to help set one up.” She heavily emphasises the words “occupied territories”.
By now, big fan that I am, I am feeling rather depressed. Madonna’s a keynote figure in our household – my husband’s daughter Chloe dresses up as Madonna on the Jewish festival of Purim, and any other day she can get away with it. Desperately Seeking Susan is my all-time favourite movie. Bagging this interview with Madonna was like winning the lottery – only cooler.
But I’m really floundering now at the news that Kabbala is nothing to do with Judaism at all, at the parroted stuff she keeps spouting about reconciling science with spiritualism. I loved Desperately Seeking Susan, but now it turns out she was acting more than we realised – messy bedrooms are so not her thing. I wanted this woman, my generation, my aspirations, to be great. But it doesn’t turn out that way.
“Do you want to ask me any more questions?” Madonna says, very levelly indeed. “No, no, it’s enough,” I splutter. “You must be tired,” I think I say.