If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, consider Marc Salem the maven of mental waste management.
The mentalist with the mostest is setting his mind to his latest task: Wowing, amazing and mystifying those gathered before him for the AMIT Philadelphia Council/Shira Chapter meeting the evening of Nov. 20 at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, where Salem's witchery will obligate medulla oblongatas to surrender to his sorcery.
Can this son of a famous Philadelphia rabbi beat his audience to a pulpit? More like entertain and energize them with his brain-surgeon-style insight into what the body says without the mouth uttering a word.
Native son Salem — whose parents perhaps knew him better as Moshe Botwinick — speaks the body language of success, earning a doctorate in education from New York University and one in developmental psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
But perhaps what bespeaks acceptance best is the stunned silence often greeting his abracadabra antics of "Mind Games," which have earned him spots on and off-Broadway and on-target under friendly fire on "60 Minutes."
But then, he could probably stop their stop-watch with sheer mental acuity if he wanted to.
As for this weekend's meeting at AMIT, maybe honorees Amy and Daniel Erlbaum, and Rochelle and Erwin Nosenchuk better keep their thoughts to themselves unless they want Salem to pickpocket their parietal lobe.
Penny for your thoughts?
Salem's made a good buck from them, but wisely, never claims — actually, denies — being a psychic or mystic, no matter how mystifying his ability to ambush unsuspecting audiences with what they're really thinking.
Pick a number, any number — Salem's got your number, especially if you're … Jewish?
"Most Mediterranean cultures — Jews included — are more apt to talk much more with their bodies and [to] mouth expressions," which are tells to a man who makes his living via intuiting nonverbal vital signs.
Body vitality is part of the prolix process, says Salem.
"Jews watch their words very carefully," since words can — and have, as a people — gotten them into trouble, he explains.
No problem to speak of having a discussion with a fellow Jew if you know from body banter. "You can have a conversation with another Jew without saying a word," which again bespeaks the value of being body-observant.
Some Thoughts on TV
Therein lies Salem's talent: Often hired by lawyers for seminars to train attorneys in how to read witnesses, Salem himself witnessed one of the best in the business: Dr. Paul Ekman, whose work in unmasking the face (also the title of his seminal 1975 work on expression/emotional revelations) is the focus of Fox TV's popular fictionalized "Lie to Me" — and was also "one of my professors," says Salem.
Paean as payback? Some thoughts on television: "I also contributed to the writing of the first three scripts," he says of the complex conundrums depicted on the series.
His contributions to TV have also been more elementary; for many years, Salem served as research director for the Children's Television Workshop, and is still a consultant to "Sesame Street," also having supervised its Israeli version, "Shalom Sesame."
Elmo … Jew? Ha-ha! Well, his religion is ill-defined, but not his body language: Muppet creator Jim Henson "spent many years developing those giant eyes and pupils, which are very attractive to children — and adults," reasons Salem of the Muppet's bubbly body language.
"There's a looseness and joy — and that voice — that makes him" such a warm and fuzzy phenom.
Part of the phenomenon of the new millennium may help a face scanner read between the lines better, acknowledges Salem, mindful of the fact that the explosion of electronic media ("I'm not a big fan") has dumbed down the depth of people's intelligence.
"The less we read … it makes our minds weaker" and more susceptible to thought-thumping, he says.
It all hits home — and academia — for Salem, an esteemed university professor known for his universally applied teachings on major campuses, including the University of Pennsylvania.
"My students are far less curious about the world," with the Internet affording instant gratification without the insight inherent in intellectual investigation.
For a man so adept at numbers, 24/7 may be the most dangerous of all, he claims.
"Being available 24 hours a day," by tapping into tech, "is not necessarily the best thing.
"I know people who are envious of Jews having Shabbat," the one day a week, when all those technology tools can be given a rest.
Shabbat had its own services to play in Salem's life. The son of Rabbi Israel Botwinick and Dorothy Shestack Botwinick, a pharmacist — his father helped found Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown — Salem has perfect recall of his suburban boyhood and understands the risks of taking work home with you.
His father, always involved in the lives of his congregants, died far too soon, at the age of 41 of a heart attack.
Maybe his heart was just too much in the job, says his son, who thinks that "he was too emotionally" attached to his work.
Salem says he keeps that in mind as he prepares his everyday schedule, making sure that family — including Judaic-designer wife Tova and his kids — ranks at the top of the list.
But they know that, don't they?
"With my family," muses the mentalist, "I'm an easy read; I wear it all on my sleeve."