The language of truth
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The language of truth

Mentalist Marc Salem of New Milford talks about nonverbal speech

Marc Salem
Marc Salem

Mentalism.

That’s a scam, right?

That’s when somebody’s on stage pretending to read your mind, tell your secrets, maybe embarrass you, all while he’s busy diverting your attention or his assistants are rummaging through your bag, next to you on the floor, or the person whose mind he’s reading is a plant, right? Right?

Well, I don’t know. And I’m not here to tell you one way or another. But I do want to present the case for Marc Salem, mentalist by night, for about 20 years a professor of psychology at such schools as NYU and Mount Saint Vincent (and the holder of a doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Pennsylvania) by day. (Oh, and also, on other days, for nine years, the director of research at Sesame Street, and directly responsible for Rechov Sumsum, Sesame Street’s Israeli version.)

We’re focusing on Mr. Salem, who lives in New Milford and is the son of a rabbi (and whose given name, Moshe Botwanick, would fit less easily on a theater marquee than his taken name), because he will perform at a benefit for Adas Emuno on Sunday (see box for more information).

According to Mr. Salem (who could be called Dr. but prefers not to be, he said), he has always been interested in nonverbal communication, “because people have a much more difficult time lying nonverbally than verbally. We are not really trained to read nonverbal language, but it is much harder to hide emotion because it literally is written on people’s faces.”

He chose developmental psychology because, he said, “I was always sensitive to other people’s nonverbal cues.” From the time he was a small child, Mr. Salem added, he was able to know things about other people that he thought were entirely obvious, until he realized that no one else could see them. “I wanted to go into psychology because the mind fascinated me,” he said. “It was my playground. I thought that everyone could read it, that it was part of everybody’s makeup.”

What began as intuition he later honed and trained, so now he works with a combination of instinct and decades of experience, he said. It’s not magic; it’s observation and knowledge. It’s also fast talking and fancy but obfuscatory theory, of course, but that’s all part of the show.

And so is the idea of leaving audiences feeling puzzled, but happy, never uncomfortable, never pried into.

Mr. Salem’s shows included a stint off Broadway — to rave if disconcerted reviews — and a still-viewable (Google for it) and honestly jaw-dropping segment with Mike Wallace onstage for “60 Minutes.”

It’s all a balance.

There is no real conflict between his work as a teacher and as an entertainer, Mr. Salem continued. “Marshall McLuhan,” the mid-20th-century North American philosopher who pioneered media studies, said “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either,” Mr. Salem said.

Although he’s a writer, as well as a teacher and performer, one thing that he never has done and never will do is counseling, although his credentials would allow him to. Because he can see so deeply into people “I would be too close to people’s pain, and it would hurt me to try to deal with it,” he said. He uses his father as an example; as a pulpit rabbi, at Tel Or in Havertown, suburban Philadelphia, his father, Rabbi Israel Botwinick, counseled congregants, and he worried and grieved with them. As a result, his son said, “My father died too young, because he didn’t know how to build calluses against other people’s pain.” So, he said, he steers clear of avoidable pain. Instead, “I bring joy.”

His shows include tricks like guessing which numbers people are thinking about, or what words; they’re based on an understanding of the sorts of words or numbers people are most likely to guess. Although much of his work is based on visual cues, some of it is purely verbal. For example, on the phone, he said, “Pick a number from one to four.” Almost everyone picks three, he explained, because the sentence that offers the range of numbers — from 1 to (2) 4 — omits three. He offers other, similar tricks, which steer the listener clearly but unconsciously in specific directions. It’s not foolproof, but it’s smart.

His work, Mr. Salem said, “is a matter of being sensitive to other people. If everybody learned to be better at nonverbal communication, they’d be better parents, better siblings, better lovers. It’s the one language that we don’t learn, and it’s the one language that carries the most truth.”

And yes, there is a great deal that is Jewish in his work, Mr. Salem added. “A great deal of what I do involves thinking things through. I think I use a talmudic logic.

“The rabbis of old had incredible memories — and so do I. They could memorize page after page of Talmud. It is the written word versus the oral tradition. I focus on both of them very strongly, and I see how they differ from each other.

“I think — and McLuhan taught — that the written word is very different from the oral word. I think that our oral tradition allows laws to be changed in certain ways, and it also creates powerful memories.

“I worry about things like iPads and other electronics, because of the way we rely on them instead of our memories,” he continued. “The Talmud says that each generation will get weaker and weaker,” and he fears that the devices’ external memories make us dependent on them, and let our own internal facilities degenerate. “I am no Luddite, but I do think we must not let that happen,” he said. “The more technology memorizes stuff for us, the less we use our own muscles for memory.

“We are the people of the book, and I think that the written word is the most powerful. I do think that the power of the linear written work goes into your cerebral cortex. What you hear to some extent goes in one ear and out the other. To retain things, you must be skilled in reading.

“I talk about the difference — not to my secular audiences, of course — between the Torah she’be’ketav — the written Torah — and the Torah she’baal peh — the oral Torah. They are both important, but the 10 Commandments are written in stone — they are unchanging — and the Talmud is an oral tradition.

“I am of the belief that the future hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “Therefore we make our own future. The smarter you are, the easier it is to create your own future — but there is also the random element.

“There is a tribe that used to let its cattle wander based on the cracks that developed in the bones they would throw in the fire. The cracks were random — so they never went back to a place they’d already been. So what they thought was predicting the future really was randomness, giving them a map to travel where they’d never been before. Following randomness has certain advantages. It prevents the bias of thought in doing things.

“It’s like a stream. If a rock goes into a stream, it will be diverted. We have to realize that the rocks will be there.”

Confused yet? Marc Salem says many things; some of them are entirely clear, and others are not so clear. But he can read a great deal about you from the way you express your confusion.


Who: The mentalist Marc Salem

What: Will present “Mind Game”

When: On Sunday, March 11, from 4 to 6 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Adas Emuno, 254 Broad Ave. in Leonia

For more information: Call (201) 592-1712

How much: $10

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