Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rabbi and Toastmaster

It’s often said (and I’ve heard this in the name of no less formidable a speaker than the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik) that the worst time to speak is Kol Nidrei, when people are stressed and worried about the Yom Kippur fast as well as their davening, bloated from their pre-fast meal, and tired from the day’s labors.

Over the years I’ve spoken in a broad range of settings, synagogues and chapels, my own pulpits and those of others, at breakfasts and kiddushes and bar mitzvahs and weddings, bris and shalom zachar and funeral and funeral and hakamat matzeivah (unveiling) and funeral, Shabbos and weekdays and after minyan and Yamim Noraim, etc, and I’d agree that Kol Nidrei is tough.

Nonetheless, I find the toughest speaking slot to be a communal Shabbos lunch.

* Food in front of people, passed around tables, possibly distributed by wait staff or, at any rate, lounging enticingly on a buffet.

* Kids freed from davening and youth groups and let loose to roam or munch or play.

* Social conversation around the table rudely interrupted for the words of a speaker – that would be moi – who may be heard any other time, in any other venue.

What can you say at such a moment, that will be more interesting to people than their food and their friends? How can you even get their attention?

I know the formula, of course:
* A joke or an amusing story
* A leading question
* A light lesson
* A closing zinger.

Simple, to the point. You’re not there to lecture, and it’s not the forum for a deep concept. In that setting, most people are looking for food, not food for thought.

But although I know the protocol, I find this to be my most challenging pulpit. I’m just not as smooth at the light presentation, and particularly in front of crowds I don’t know well.

I had a chance to do it at Shabbos lunch at one shul a couple of weeks ago, and wasn’t able to pull it off; I came away quite unsatisfied. I have another such engagement this coming Shabbos, at a different shul, and there I am supposed to speak with real depth on a serious topic. It’s going to be a challenge.

In one sense, I’m glad there is an opportunity to grow, something I don’t do as well as I could/should, a speaking skill I need to develop. But it’s nerve-wracking, nonetheless.

And I need to find a good lead-in joke for a serious class on the Halachah and Ethics of Prisoner Exchanges…


  1. Your money or your life

    I'm thinking.
    (Jack Benny)

    Take my wife,

    please (Henny Youngman)
    Joel Rich

  2. My father taught me this lesson about public speaking, "Be bold. Be brief. Be gone." :)

  3. Assuming that no one comes up to you to tell you how unenjoyable the speech was, how do you guage the fact that it was unsuccessful?

  4. As an aside (this comment does not deal with the main topic of your post),do you plan to post the mar'eh mekomos for the lecture on prisoner exchange? It's a topic I am interested in researching.

  5. Joel-
    Thanks! It's a thought, anyway...

    Yes, that and the comparison between speakers and matzos - Anything more than 18 minutes is a disaster.

    My own internal barometer. No one said anything negative to me, and I did have some nice comments, but it's still a pretty reliable barometer.

    The sources are pretty basic; the value will be in the talk itself, and the way the issue is framed. Still, sure, I can post them. Bli neder I will, late tonight.

  6. That is very nice of you, thanks in advance!

  7. Base it on the menu, health and food to get their attention.

    Most North American places leave out water. Start with something connecting water with Torah adjustable to the menu.

  8. I have a simple solution, that is to not allow the food to be served until the speech is given and a majority of those present pass a test.

    Well, that may not be practical, but I think you would have less luck getting the kids reigned in.

    On a serious note, perhaps the acoustics of the room should be taken into account. What I tend to see from my perspective in the peanut gallery is that virtually everyone starts off silent. Then some nudnik will start whispering (which will always happen without a bouncer with a low tolerance for talking and a short temper). The person next to him tries to make short responses so he can listen. Others at the table are unable to hear, so they start whispering, which snowballs into not really whispering.

  9. Batya-
    Yes, that method does work well; thanks for pointing that out. In particular, opening lines dealing with the anticipated length of the shiur do work well.

    Yes, the snowballing whisper is an everpresent phenomenon. Worse, it becomes a distraction for me as the speaker, and throws me off.

  10. sorry i just saw this. Wish i could have helped, but Woody Allen has a great routine about where the FBI and his captors have a back and forth over his capture in a bank, ill try to find it and send it, but its in his stand-up routines. Brad

  11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4sdnb0sYTc

    here it is, sorry it was a kidnapping, not a bank robbery

  12. Thanks, Brad.

    I ended up commenting that I've learned one may bentch up to 72 minutes after eating, so I figure that's my time limit...