“I don’t like him already,” Leo Shocken barked to Inga, his svelte, silver-blonde assistant, who had just led me into his office. Large-jowled Shocken lounged behind a large desk strewn with files, calendars, and banana peels. He held a half-filled tumbler of bourbon in his hand and both his stocking feet were propped up on the desk. A thick cigar stood erect between his chomped teeth, pointing in the direction of a side wall festooned with the autographed photographs of the most famous Jewish synagogue speakers of our age.
“Misteh Hocken, it’s Misteh Atzman,” she said, tottering on her super-high heels. There was a whiff of Transylvania in her accent. Or maybe it was Palo Alto. She hadn’t yet managed to pronounce enough complete words for me to tell.
“I don’t care who the hell it is,” Shocken growled, looking me straight in the eye. “What can he do?”
Inga swayed precariously. “He a eaker,” she volunteered.
“So you’re an eaker?” He smiled tauntingly. “Don’t worry about Inga. I make her keep pebbles in her mouth. Helps remind my clients to enunciate.”
“First, I just want to thank you for seeing me,” I said.
“Listen, Joe,” he said. “You’ve already taken up 87 seconds of my valuable time. You’ve wasted every single one. That’s all you’ll get if you don’t tell me right now how you plan to make money for me.”
“Well,” I said, “I thought you might be interested in representing me. I mean, getting me engagements as a speaker at synagogues, JCCs, that kind of thing. I hear such good things about you.”
“If you’re hearing good things,” he said as he bit a piece off his cigar and spat it straight at Inga, “then you ain’t speaking to anyone who ever met me.”
“He ery unny,” suggested Inga, wiping the tobacco from her eyes. Her dress was so tight she had trouble lifting her hand that high. Inga seemed to have taken a liking to me during the hour I sat in the reception room. I wanted to believe that she’d been aroused by my rugged good looks. But I suspected that my look of desperation had stimulated her maternal instincts.
“In the world of Jewish speaking,” Shocken said, leaning back in his chair and waving his cigar toward the photographs on the wall, “there are two kinds of unny. There’s the nostalgic. And there’s the mother-in-law joke. Which one you do?”
“Well,” I said, “my line is more intelligent satire with clever literary allusions.”
Shocken’s jaw slowly dropped and the cigar fell from his mouth.
“Let’s get one thing clear right now,” he said. “Satire is not unny. It turns people off. Gets them angry, upset. Then they don’t pay. Then you don’t make money for me. Then I throw you out of here. Got that?”
“I mean like Woody Allen,” I said defensively. “Or Al Franken.”
“No one invites those guys to their synagogue,” Shocken said sourly. Smoke rose from the carpet where the cigar had fallen. “Let me tell you something about this business. When people take the trouble to turn off their DVDs and stow their Ipods and get in the car and go across town to their temple or Jewish center, they do it for two reasons. The first is to learn new jokes to tell about their mother-in-laws. The second is to feel good about being Jewish.”
He heaved his feet off his desk, sat up straight, and opened up one of the files on his desk, which he studied intently. It was as if I had disappeared. Inga looked at me sympathetically.
“Misteh Hocken ants you to mek him eel ood abou being ewish,” she whispered.
I stood there helplessly. Shocken looked up.
“You heard Inga. Make me feel good about being Jewish. You got 30 seconds. Do it standing on one leg, for all I care.”
“I give a few kinds of talks,” I explained. “One’s about my service in the Israel Defense Forces.”
“You were a soldier? I like that,” Shocken said. For the first time a trace of a smile crossed his face. He stood up, came around his desk, and looked me over carefully. “Tales of heroism. Defending the Jewish people. The most moral army in the world. We must stand steadfastly behind the tiny but brave Jewish state. That always goes over very well.”
“It’s more about the conflicts of conscience I faced serving in wars that I opposed politically.”
Shocken clutched at his chest and grabbed Inga’s shoulder to steady himself. He regained his balance but Inga swung like a chandelier on the Titanic, pivoted on a single stiletto heel, and sank to the floor.
“Let me tell you something,” he said, breathing heavily. “The only kind of conflicts that interest Jewish audiences are ones in which the Jews are always right and everyone else is always wrong. In the synagogue world, angst is not marketable. Complexity kills. What else you got?”
“You want something that’s not political?” I was looking at the orange-tipped flames that were visible from behind his desk, but Shocken grabbed my jaw and turned my face back toward him. “Then you might like my Power Point presentation on Israel’s rift valley. I tell about how this immense and ancient crack in the earth was formed by huge geological forces, and about how it has been seen, studied, and talked about by scientists, archaeologists, industrialists, and its own inhabitants since the dawn of civilization.”
Shocken stamped his foot so hard that the room shook. The quake sent Inga, who was just getting to her feet, careening into the wall of photographs, setting several of them rocking violently.
“Too cerebral,” he said. “True, I do get the occasional call for an intellectual-type talk on Jews in the Civil War or Shalom Aleichem. But geology? Inga, anyone ever call us for a lecture about rocks? Even one rock?”
“Not at I can ecall,” she admitted. A large photograph of a stern looking woman dropped on her head and a pebble popped out of Inga’s mouth. Shocken strode over, picked up the photograph and waved it at me.
“You wanna know what works? Take this woman. She’s a Jewish historian. She gets paid ten grand a shot to tell audiences about her lawsuit against a concentration camp denier.” He banged the wall and a photograph of a smiling man with a well-trimmed beard sailed off its hook and hit Inga in the nose. “This guy’s a rabbi who does a presentation about how all of Western civilization actually comes from the Jews. He’s booked up two years in advance.” He glared up at the wall and another photograph jumped from its nail and bounced from Inga’s shoulder onto her cleavage, from where Shocken scooped it up. “This guy’s a motivational humorist. That means he tells jokes and charges people for therapy. I get him hundreds of engagements a year. That’s what sells! And you want to talk about some valley that no one’s ever heard of? Inga, why’d you let this loser in?”
“He ell ood ories,” she said, rubbing her scalp.
He sighed. “These are the ones that are unny?”
Inga perked up. “Nah ust unny. Sum r ought-ovokig and sum r yrica.”
“Enunciate!” Shocken roared at her. “Thought-provoking and what?”
“Yrica,” she repeated with great effort.
“Yrica!” Shocken shouted in exasperation. “Yrica! Watzman, if Inga here hadn’t fallen in love with that forlorn face of yours, I’d have kicked you out from the start. Try to understand. Thought-provoking, lyrical — these are the wrong words. You want to be a success? You gotta give the audience what it wants.”
“Your carpet is on fire,” I couldn’t help pointing out. Shocken glanced behind him and tossed his bourbon onto the flames. They flared up.
“That’s what I want you to give me!” he shouted. “Fire! Passion! You know what? I’ll settle for warmth!”
“So what do you suggest?”
He began pacing the room. “Think of the calendar. We are just past the High Holidays. Nostalgia goes over big in holiday season. I got a friend, Al, and Al says to me on Yom Kippur, Leo, he says, I just love those speakers who make me remember how I used to see tears rolling down my Grandpa’s cheeks when he wrapped himself in his tallis for Yizkor service. And I say, Al, your grandfather was a Communist. He never set foot in a shul. And Al says, yeah, I know, but how I love it when a speaker makes me remember it anyway.”
“I don’t think that’s really for me,” I admitted.
“So maybe you can do Hanukka. Cute stories about menorahs and dreidels in shtetls go over really good at Hanukka. Throw in a few more Yiddish words. Not too many, though.”
I shook my head.
Shocken was beginning to fume. The fire behind his desk was crackling ominously. “Look, I’m trying to help. I really am. You say you do serious. April we do Holocaust, all month. Holocaust is one of our most popular subjects. You do Holocaust?”
“No,” I admitted. “I don’t do Holocaust. I guess I just try to get people to think about the challenges of living as an observant, committed, but skeptical Jew and a loyal but critical Israeli. Doesn’t anyone want to hear about that?”
“I oo!” Inga said brightly. Shocken threw a banana peel at her. He had good aim. She looked like she was being devoured headfirst by a flying yellow octopus.
“Watzman,” he said, his voice sharp as a nail file, “I’ll give you one last chance.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I’m glad you do. Tell me about your mother-in-law.”
“My mother-in-law? She’s a fine woman. We have a wonderful relationship.”
Shocken’s gaze rose to heaven. “Lord,” he said, “save your chosen people from this idiot. Inga?”
“Yeh, Misteh Hocken?”
“Would you please kick Mr. Watzman down the stairs? And make sure he doesn’t miss a single one.”