Pulpit Non-fiction

Roaming through the Jerusalem Book Fair reveals the not-so-well-kept secret of Obama's oratory skills, though his path to stump stardom may surprise.

David B. Green
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David B. Green

The Jerusalem Book Fair may be the only place where you can get from Russia to India via Angola. With a maze of stands representing publishers both local and foreign (this is Angola's first showing at the biennial convention ) you'll need a GPS to find your way around, or at least a map, which is the one thing easily found - right when you first walk in.

In a day and a half of wandering around Binyanei Ha'uma, I still haven't made it beyond the Israeli publishers to the international stands. After passing back and forth a few times before a small stand in the Israel pavilion advertising a book called "Obama's Secrets," curiosity won out over the unpleasant expectation that the work would offer proof of the U.S. president's non-American birth, or his links to the Illuminati, and I stopped to talk with Gil Peretz, the book's co-author.

Neuro-linguist Gil Peretz, co-author of “Obama’s Secrets.”Credit: Moti Kimche

Turns out that the book's subject is what makes the 44th president such an effective communicator, which apparently is not such a big secret that Peretz, a communications coach for executives, and his wife, Nili Peretz, a lawyer and expert on "neuro-linguistic programming," weren't able to crack it by spending a few years analyzing Obama's speeches and writings.

Gil explained to me that after Obama - whose oratory talents, he claims, were once "mediocre" - lost, in fact was crushed, in his 2000 bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he spent a year visiting churches. Each Sunday, he attended a different one, and observed how different preachers spoke to, and inspired their congregants. He also practiced by doing speaking of his own from the pulpit.

"He keeps it simple, and he talks about what will move people," said Peretz, "as opposed to many Israeli politicians, who speak in abstractions."

The authors' statistical analysis of Obama's speeches revealed that in a typical 6,000-word address, 72 percent of the words he uses are of one or two syllables, and 20 percent are comprised of three syllables. Obama, he said, also employs the principle of the "magic threes," which says that when you give examples, you should always give three, that jokes should have three parts, and phrases should be composed of three units, a la "Yes We Can."

Apropos threes, "Obama's Secrets" is in its third printing in Hebrew. It has been picked up by publishers in Turkey and China. As for the U.S., the authors plan to self-publish it in English later this year, marketing it through Amazon. Publication date: July 4.

Aharon Appelfeld has other secrets for effective communication. He spoke about them with typical Appelfeldian indirection yesterday in a Literary Cafe session with scholar and critic Ketzia Alon. The Hebrew author described arriving in pre-state Israel from Europe in 1946 as the lone survivor from his family (only years later did he discover that his father too had survived ).

"I came here with nothing. No family, no possessions and only a first-grade education," he said. He was sent to a training farm outside Jerusalem, run by educator Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi. "I was alone in the world, and I didn't know how to emerge from my feeling of orphanhood. One evening I sat down and started writing: 'My father is Michael. My mother is Bruria. My grandfather is Meir. I was born in Czernowitz, and we lived on Masaryk Street...'"

Appelfeld said that recording these concrete details about his life "connected me to a great world: This list was an opening to myself." He said it was like going home, and "once you have a home, you can begin."

What he began, he explained, was to write about "the things that it is impossible to speak about."

Even for those horrific experiences he went through, said Appelfeld, he is grateful, for simply being alive is a "privilege," and should be a source of "wonderment."

"If there is no wonder, we are simply living in a life 'factory,' but not experiencing real life."

My report yesterday on the fair's opening included a description of the audience's reaction to the speech by Jerusalem Prize laureate Ian McEwan as "polite but tense silence."

That's not correct; McEwan's address received a standing ovation from a large part of the audience.

His specific criticism about Israeli policy in East Jerusalem and of the fact that "there is a Law of Return for Jews, but not for Arabs," did not elicit an obvious reaction, aside from a single individual who responded with a lone boo.

Israeli audiences are usually more raucous than that; they don't throw shoes, but they do tell speakers when they don't agree with them.

My sense is that by the time McEwan came to the podium, the audience, having been subjected to remarks by several politicians, was half-numb, so that even a non-tumultuous standing ovation was a tribute to the man's eloquence.

The politicians seemed determined to deliver good news at a time when that's in short supply; they didn't understand that the audience at a book fair wants to experience real life.

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