Madonna's holiday visit splits Israelis

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The Independent Online

There were mixed feelings in Israel yesterday as the Holy Land awaited the arrival of the world's most celebrated kabbalist to share Jewish New Year.

A prominent Hebrew newspaper, Yediot Ahronot , anticipated the arrival of Madonna and her entourage with the headline: "Esther is coming for the holiday," a coy reference to the singer's recent decision to ditch her very Catholic-sounding name for one with obvious Jewish associations.

The Israeli tourism industry is also upbeat about the visit by Ms Ciccone and a crew of fellow celebrities united by a fascination with the study of the kabbala. The group is expected to include the fashion designer, Donna Karan, and the ex-wife of Donald Trump, Marla Maples.

"There's no question having stars in the country is a wonderful way to show the world the wonders of our nation," Rami Levi of Israel's Tourism Ministry told reporters this week.

Madonna was due to arrive in Israel for the sunset meal heralding the start of the festival of Rosh Hashana - or Jewish New Year's Eve - last night. Her five-day visit, which will include a trip to the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem, will culminate on Sunday with Spirituality for Kids, a peace event attended by Israeli political leaders including Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

But despite a six-year devotion to kabbala studies, many Jewish religious leaders were horrified at her visit, complaining it would overshadow the real importance of a kabbalist retreat to which scholars and devotees from 22 countries had been invited. Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, a leading kabbalist, observed that it was forbidden to teach a non-Jew kabbalism,