2017-07-27
Reprinted with permission from 'The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.'

Sandra Bernhard began studying Kabbalah in 1995, when her personal trainer took her to Los Angeles's Kabbalah Centre on her 40th birthday. "My trainer at the gym was Brazilian and not Jewish. He'd been studying at The Kabbalah Centre for a while and was always yelling me about it while we were training. It was very interesting to me," she recalls.

As her 40th birthday approached, Bernhard decided she wanted to make "some big changes" in her life. Kabbalah was her conduit for doing that. She explains, "I'm definitely more aware of my impatience and my level of anger and bitchiness. I've kind of been able to rein in a lot of that. In my relationship with the person I'm involved with, we can have conversations and she can point out things to me that five or 10 years ago I would not have wanted to hear from someone else. I would have gotten a lot more defensive. But that is not what Kabbalah is really about, from what I've read. Kabbalah is really about cleaving to God."

Bernhard and her daughter Cicely, born in 1998, try to keep kosher at the home they share with Bernhard's girlfriend, and they attend weekly Shabbat services at The Kabbalah Centre when they are in New York, their primary residence, or Los Angeles, where Bernhard lived for years. But Bernhard always seeks out a local synagogue at which to attend Saturday services no matter where in the world she finds herself. "I want to hear the Torah reading, because that's the energy of the week. It cleans the palate for the coming week and gives you a spiritual grounding and explanation for the things that have happened. The Torah portion represents the energy of that week, and if you understand what you're getting yourself into, you're a little less likely to blame external things." She's worshipped in synagogues all over the world. "I've been to some shuls that are a hoot. From Morocco to Ireland to Paris and even across the States. I went to a great shul--I think it was in North Carolina—a Chabad where one of the rabbis was black. His wife was wearing her sheitl [wig worn for religious purposes] and the whole thing. I have to say I was pretty fascinated by that." She'd like to go back and make a documentary of the synagogues she's visited around the world but isn't sure how she'd get around one major roadblock: Many synagogues don't allow cameras inside, especially on the Sabbath.


Travel inspires Bernhard. She loves experiencing different cultures, and she celebrated her 50th birthday in Marrakech, Morroco, with a bunch of friends. Her daughter's middle name—Yassin—is Moroccan. It means "girl with a beautiful face" or "messenger of good news."

"Part of the reason I ended up having a kid," she says, "is because I was on a spiritual path. I don't think I would have been open enough to the experience of having a kid before. I was used to being on my own and just dealing with my own life all the time. But I wanted to make room for something else. I felt that I wanted to make a change." Bernhard does not get all goo-goo-eyed or ethereal when she talks about motherhood. "I'm a little less into the wonderment of it all, ya know? I still feel like I'm her mutha, know what I mean?" she says, emphatically. "Cicely is someone who is extremely kind and aware of people. Just a good soul. And she just came into the world that way. I feel that's just the soul that I drew down. I mean, she's a kid. She can be difficult. You don't want a placid kid, you want somebody who can be feisty as well. But her basic makeup is very calm. She's a good kid, and she understands spirituality and love."

Bernhard never lets Cicely out of the house without her roite bendel, the red string bracelet that many Kabbalists believe wards off evil energy. Bernhard wears one as well. "It can't hurt to have something that's keeping away bad vibes," she says almost apologetically, turning her arm to show me the red string wrapped around her slender left wrist. "I used to always rush Cicely to The Kabbalah Centre to have one of the teachers tie hers on, but now I do it myself. I know the prayers, and I feel like I have my daughter's best interests at heart more than some teacher at the centre does."

While she loves traveling, performing, and writing—she's published three books and seven albums since the late eighties—it's in her quotidian existence that Bernhard feels the most spiritually attuned. She's raising Cicely in a more Kabbalistic, Orthodox home than the one she grew up in, and she begins her day with a series of small rituals.

"I do all my meditations in the morning. I wouldn't leave the house before I do them," she says. "The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is to say a prayer of thanks that my soul has returned to my body, because during the night your soul elevates and recharges. It's a little bit like being out of your body, which is why sleep is such a fragile place to be. So when you wake up in the morning, you give thanks that your soul has come back into your body. And then you do a prayer washing your hands because, obviously, all the negative energy comes out of your fingertips. You wash your hands and do a prayer to wash away the negativity. Those are the first two things I do when I wake up in the morning. They're kind of traditional Orthodox Jewish prayers.

"Then in my day-to-day life it's about how I'm feeling that day and whether I can stay in that positive frame of mind all day and not be felled like a tree in the forest by one of two things that shake me up, whether it's work or relationship or my daughter or something that I feel is off. You can't always be in that state of mind. You just can't. It's very hard. So that's part of the work, you know? On a physical level, I work out a lot because it helps me feel grounded. I like to shop, I like to clean the apartment, I like to do laundry, I like to make my phone calls. Routine is very important to me, which is why I like all the rituals of these meditations and prayers. It's about order. Order in the home. Order in the universe."

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