ARRIVING in Jerusalem late last year, Paula Abdul wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Having traversed the globe as a hit recording artist and now as a judge on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance Australia, the 51-year-old Californian native suspected her first trip to Israel would prove memorable.
What she didn’t know was that it would be the “most magical” time of her life.
For Abdul, who has always been proud of her Jewish heritage, there were many highlights over the following 10 days, ranging from a personal meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres to emotion-charged moments at the Kotel and Yad Vashem.
None was more poignant, though, than when Abdul fulfilled a long-held dream to celebrate a belated bat mitzvah with a ceremony at the International Centre for Kabbalah in Tzfat in northern Israel.
“Having a bat mitzvah was something I had always wanted to do,” reveals Abdul, who is currently based in Sydney for Network 10’s So You Think You Can Dance Australia.
“My mother is Jewish. My father was put into an orphanage from the first day. His parents were Syrian and Brazilian. My father was adopted at the age of nine by a Jewish family and my dad had his bar mitzvah.”
Growing up, Abdul and her family celebrated the High Holy Days every year, yet neither she nor her sister marked their coming of age with a bat mitzvah.
“I wasn’t raised in an Orthodox sense,” she says, “but I now have my rabbi at home in the States and I belong to Chabad of Bel Air [in Los Angeles], and he had me starting to study the Torah.”
While Abdul initially intended to hold her bat mitzvah ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem, a last-minute change of plans saw her heading to the ancient city of Tzfat.
“I was supposed to have it at the Western Wall, but with people knowing I was there, I wanted it to be something more private for myself,” she explains.
“The rabbi [in Tzfat] made contact with my rabbi and one other girl was having her bat mitzvah as well. It was just beautiful. I shed so many tears of joy.”
Certainly, Abdul – who travelled to Israel with two friends as an official guest of the Ministry of Tourism – hit the ground running from the moment she arrived in the country.
“Every day I was in Israel was filled from morning to night,” she says. “There was so much to do and so much to see.
“For me, Israel really was the most beautiful experience – it was everything and more. I am beyond grateful that I got to take such a wonderful trip. It doesn’t matter what your background is, Israel strengthens everything. It’s a sense of community and a feeling that you belong in such a profound way.
“And of course,” she adds with a laugh, “I tell people that I have never eaten better food in my life! We went to amazing restaurants in Jerusalem, Tiberias and Tel Aviv. I really did eat my way through Israel.”
While Abdul’s father now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, his face lit up when his daughter filled him in on her time in Israel.
“It’s a blessing that I get to see him when he’s present. My dad is full of joy,” Abdul says quietly. “We were looking at my pictures from Israel and he was just beaming.
“Dad knows that I am now out here [in Australia] doing So You Think You Can Dance Australia, and I feel very blessed that he is still able to be aware of what is going on – that he’s not at that point yet.”
Abdul has sold a staggering 60 million albums worldwide as a recording artist in the late 1980s and early 1990s with hits such as Straight Up, Cold Hearted and Opposites Attract, which also won her a Grammy Award for Best Music Video – Short Form. Little wonder, then, that the former American Idol judge is relishing her latest role as a dance judge in Australia.
“I’ve never worked with a better group of people who are so passionate and committed to doing an excellent job,” she enthuses.
“These young dancers are so giving and they work so hard that it’s a sheer joy to watch them. I believe the show is a true gem.”
Abdul clearly loves passing on her knowledge to the show’s aspiring young performers.
“The best thing you can do is always remain a student because that way you always end up being a great teacher,” she reflects. “These kids continue to inspire us judges and mentors and we continue to give the gift of our wisdom and experience back to them.”
Does Abdul, who began her career as a cheerleader with the Los Angeles Lakers, still enjoy putting herself through her paces on the dance floor? The answer is a resolute yes.
“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” she smiles. “It’s the spirit and psyche of a dancer – it stays within you. Dance changes your life for the rest of your life. It’s a transformational gift.”
So You Think You Can Dance Australia screens on Sundays at 7.30pm on Network 10.
REPORT by Jackie Brygel
PHOTO of former singer Paula Abdul, who is a judge on the TV series So You Think You Can Dance Australia.