Roseannes Chanukah well-oiled with shtick

LOS ANGELES — On the sixth night of the Festival of Lights, Roseanne put on a Chanukah play — and the tale of the brave Maccabees and the miraculous container of oil may never be the same again.

In the one-time-only matinee and evening performances, the director, narrator and author — listed as Roseanne Thomas in the credits — mixed show-biz shticks with traditional themes to entertain parents and a raft of noisy kids in the small auditorium of Los Angeles' Kabbalah Learning Center.

Sitting in the second row on a hard folding chair and taking it all in was Madonna and her 1-year-old daughter, Lourdes, and not a single paparazzo within miles.

The cast represented almost the entire 4-to-7-year-old student body of the Kabbalah Day School.

Referring to her young cast, Roseanne proudly noted, "This is the first time in history that children are being taught Kabbalah." And the program boasted that the day school "is the only school in the history of Judaism that offers a full curriculum of Torah studies blended with an emphasis on kabbalistic teachings along with an extensive secular program."

The television star spent more than two months researching and rehearsing the play, and she has attended classes at the center for more than three years. She announced that the Chanukah play made for "the most nerve-wracking day of my career. It's one thing to make the network mad, but to make God mad…"

Amid more traditional scenes, the director-narrator spiced up the proceedings with some innovations of her own.

To force a pious Jew to worship idols, a Hellenizer holds up an Oscar statuette while the victim inquires if his apostasy will at least get him into Disneyland. Notes Roseanne, "Today, many Jews still worship this idol."

The climactic battle between the Maccabees and the Seleucids is shown via video on a wide TV screen, with Antiochus' forces aided by hordes of Scottish Highlanders, led by Mel Gibson, courtesy of the film "Braveheart."

Roseanne herself appears in the video as a reporter for TV station KNN, describing the progress of the battle. As Mattathias dies, she urges the audience to stay tuned.

In a swinging scene depicting the desecration of the Temple, a 5-year-old cocktail waitress fills an order for "one Manischewitz straight up," while a line of similarly aged disco dancers strut their stuff.

On her way out of the hall, she told an inquirer, "Everything I believe in has come from Kabbalah," whose study has raised her to "a higher consciousness."

The center has been sharply criticized by mainstream rabbis for teaching a superficial "pop" version of Kabbalah, while a number of disenchanted former members have complained of high-pressure tactics to donate more money to the center.

None of this has lessened the center's appeal to Hollywood figures in search of spiritual solace and understanding.

In addition to Madonna and Roseanne, reported disciples include the stars Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Courtney Love, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent