Paula Abdul’s visit to Israel started out last Tuesday with a bang. It all looked so promising when she landed in Israel and kicked off what was supposed to be a ten-day visit, starting off with the fanfare of a visit to the president’s residence on Tuesday, where she traded compliments with the 90-year-old president adding herself to the list of Hollywood women like Barbra Streisand and Sharon Stone that are card-carrying members of the Shimon Peres fan club.
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The media coverage of the visit was heavy, focusing on the Jewish pop star and reality show judge, child of a Russian-Canadian mother and a Syrian father, visiting Israel for the first time, to have an overdue Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall.
The exciting initial days of the visit were recorded by hordes of photographers and camera crews - Abdul dutifully toured the Old City of Jerusalem, hitting the Israel Museum, strolling through Mahane Yehuda Market shaking hands, squeezing the oranges, feeling the love and of course, tasting the hummus, pronouncing everything she saw "fascinating" or "amazing."
The trip was dutifully recorded by reporter Ilan Lukatch from Israel’s largest news organization Channel Two News.
His story aired Friday, and as it opened, it struck a tone very different from the other breathless press coverage. Anchorman Danny Kushmaro opened the story of Abdul’s visit:
“At age 51, she decided she wanted to close a circle with her past and throw herself, finally, a Bat Mitzvah. So the Tourism Ministry decided to climb aboard the PR opportunity - and then - something went wrong.”
Wrong? What went wrong? Are we talking diva behavior?
Lukatch seemed deliberately cryptic in the report regarding the problems, clearly out of respect for the star, who granted him a long sit-down interview about her life, Jewishness, celebrating the Jewish holidays, which she said, were "a big part of my life" and how excited her father was that she was going to the Holy Land, and tracing her eclectic career from Lakers girl to choreographer to the stars, including Prince, Michael and Janet Jackson, to hit recording artist in her own right to iconic American Idol judge, and confessed that she had wept with excitement after meeting Peres.
But as enamored as he seemed with Abdul, Lukatch also showed disdain for an Israeli government that he felt was trying to use Abdul’s social media outlets “as some kind of secret weapon that will uproot the hatred and anti-Semitism.”
His report showed Tourism Minister Uzi Landau lecturing her “Please go back and tell everyone what you saw with no filters and no censorship so people will see a different Israel from what they see on the BBC and CNN, through the eyes of Paula Abdul.”
That’s a heavy load to carry. Lukatch then noted that the ministry had packed the 51-year-old performer’s schedule with all-day back-to-back activity crisscrossing the country. Lots of activity - without much rest and relaxation or allowance for jet lag.
“At a certain point she apparently lost her patience and wanted a little break,”Lukatch intoned. “She cancelled Masada, postponed - with her rabbi’s blessing the Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel that was supposed to be the climax of the visit - and crossed out the Dead Sea.”
The postponed - and possibly cancelled - Bat Mitzvah was the shocker, since so much had been made of it.
Something about the Bat Mitzvah plan hadn’t made sense to me since the first media reports of it surfaced. Supposedly, the press reported, the inspiration for her Israel trip came from her Chabad rabbi in Los Angeles. She has been under the tutelage of Rabbi Chaim Mentz, who established the Chabad center of Bel Air, Los Angeles, and under his influence has raised money for Chabad and sung the praises of lighting Shabbat candles.
But the super-traditional Chabad movement and a Western Wall Bat Mitzvah? The two never really seemed to go together, never mind that this is a time of heightened tension with Women of the Wall.
So Abdul is still in the country somewhere, but it appears she has broken free of her Tourism Ministry handlers. And the Bat Mitzvah appears to be on indefinite hold for disclosed reasons.
I called Lukatch to ask what he really thought of Abdul, since he had spent so much time with her preparing his report. He sounded as taken by her off-screen as he did on-screen, clearly approving of her move to call her own shots and refusal to march to the Tourism Ministry’s tune.
“I think she's one of the most charming people I’ve ever met. I’ve met a lot of celebrities, who had bigger egos. She is a people person, no filters. She’s intelligent, and it was a pleasure to spend time with her. She came with the intention to be proud of her background and we need to be proud that she came to spend time here and with us.”
But what about the Bat Mitzvah? Is it on? Is it off? Will it happen?
Lukatch refuses to make a prediction. “We won’t know till the last minute. She has changed her mind several times on this trip, she can change it again.”
UPDATE: Channel 10 news reported that in place of a scheduled high-profile Western Wall Bat Mitzvah, Abdul celebrated her belated coming-of-age ceremony in a low-key ceremony in the northern city of Safed. The television report showed her wrapped in a tallit with a few friends, and interviewed the rabbi who performed the ceremony, Rabbi Eli Reese, identified as the head of the Kabbalah Center at the gallery where it took place. He reported on-camera that the festivities lasted close to three hours and involved lots of klezmer music.
The report echoed the message of the Channel 2 story that Abdul’s Tourism Ministry itinerary had been too jam-packed and paparazzi-filled for her taste, and Abdul had taken charge of her own schedule, noting that “Abdul isn’t a twelve year old (Bat Mitzvah) girl anymore, and likes to do things at her own pace.”
And now that Abdul’s officially all grown up and Bat Mitzvahed, she’s now enjoying the privileges of an adult on vacation, kicking back and relaxing in Tel Aviv.