“Once it’s had as much as it can take, it falls off,” pop star Britney Spears recently announced on the Web forum Contact Music.
“It’s supposed to fall off every six months,” the bad press-beleaguered singer lamented. “Mine falls off every other day.”
Perish whatever see-through-body-suit, Madonna-tongue-kiss thoughts you might be having: Spears is talking about her Kabbalah bracelet, one of those trendy, red-string affairs sold online. The bracelets, favored by stars like the aforementioned Material Girl and Demi-and-Ashton, are supposed to ward off negativity.
But for Zhenya Senyak, local author of Hebrew Book of the Dead (Tiktin Press, 2003), this current fad is more than a little disconcerting.
“I hate it,” he stated in a recent interview.
“Red-string Kabbalah is so nasty because it robs you of the joy and terror of reality,” Senyak went on to explain. “In real Kabbalah, behind the face we’re just amphibious beings. It’s a paradox: We’re mud and we’re divine.”
But Senyak also admits that those seeking the quick-fix of a string bracelet are, at least, seeking — which is one of the many reasons the author feels he’s on a mission to expose people to the genuine article.
The word “Kabbalah” means “to receive,” and the tradition — taken from the Torah, or Old Testament — is a kind of esoteric Jewish mysticism originally dating to about the 12th century.
Senyak, however, is quick to insist that these teachings, defined in his book as “a variety of systems leading to a mystical, direct knowledge of God,” should not be interpreted as a specifically Jewish path.
“The word ‘Jew’ isn’t even mentioned in the Torah,” he reveals. “The enmeshing of Kabbalah in Judaism is a mistake in perception.”
He points out that students need not be Hebrew scholars in order to study the texts, so long as they’re willing to have faith in English translations.
Senyak’s book, a mystical translation of the Old Testament, offers complex Biblical passages in terms of straightforward poetic beauty. From Deuteronomy 30: 11-14, the author translates the Hebrew Ki-harov aleycha ha-davar me’od, beficha uvilvavcha la’asoto to mean “for very near you is the Word, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”
Senyak, who also leads Kabbalah workshops, tailors his teachings to the background of each particular group. An introduction of Kabbalah components begins with a focus on breath work: “The word for breath in Hebrew is the same as wind, as spirit,” he notes. “All I’m aiming at is to get a sense of the surrounding world through breathing. [Kabbalah] is meditation, so you can receive.”
He continues: “You empty the mind, aim for calm, become aware of your breathing. Just feel the breath. … It’s the link between body and soul. It carries you, supports you. Once you get a sense of that, it sustains you always.”
The author’s background is in English linguistics, and it was research for another book that led him to the Old Testament and the Hebrew language. Senyak began studying Kabbalah around 1980, producing his first teaching chart five years later.
“The book is the beginning,” he says of his current work, which was posted online for years before finally being published. “It begins the process of feeling that we’re at home in the universe, that we’re OK.
“Workshops,” he explains, “are different. They’re about learning, knowing what’s out there. Whatever spiritual discipline people are coming form — including none — you start from that place.”
A far cry from a mail-order bracelet, Senyak’s teachings offer a richer approach to spirituality.
“It’s a process,” he maintains. “It’s nothing you’ll get in two minutes.”
[Reach A&E reporter Alli Marshall at email@example.com.]
Zhenya Senyak reads from Hebrew Book of the Dead and leads a beginning-Kabbalah workshop at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 3 at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734).