It was unintentional. Scout's honor. I never, ever watch The Maury Povich Show, but on this particular morning my VCR malfunctioned, and I had to stare at something while taking a long walk on a short NordicTrack.
The guest was James Van Praagh, author of the mega-selling, "Talking to Heaven." Van Praagh is a psychic, a medium, a man with powers far greater than the rest of us mortals. He sees angels and ghosties and other spirits that, apparently, flap around but are visible only to certain psychically anointed. Like James.
The producers lined the stage with ten ready-to-weep panelists wallowing in their moments of national fame. A rather unspectacular and corpulent "regular guy," the guru of the beyond began by addressing a woman: "Someone you loved died of cancer."
My heart began to beat faster. Because I was astounded by his gifts of illumination? No. I was picking up the pace on my NordicTrack. As for Van Praagh, well, I figured, this guy did his math. Ten middle age people…gee, what are the odds any of these folks will have lost someone to cancer?
Later, he spoke to a woman whose teenage son had died. "I see statues," he said. Ha! I knew just where he was going. A teenage boy. Statues. Trophies! He wants the mother to say her son had trophies in his room. Alas, Van Praagh received only a blank stare.
But Van Praagh made a partial recovery. "Did someone give you a plaque?" "Yes. My sister did!" "I see it near pictures," Van Praagh proclaimed, and the woman, appropriately amazed, confirmed that "near pictures" was the precise location of the plaque. The audience read the flashing APPLAUSE sign and dutifully complied.
Um. Excuse me, but don't most people hang plaques near other pictures? Again, what are the odds?
Van Praagh concluded each personal encounter by discerning a hovering presence, a deceased spirit who inevitably acted as a loving guardian angel, protecting and nurturing the gullible survivor.
Whereupon the audience sniffled. On cue.
All of which started me thinking. What would happen if this guy were to address a Jewish crowd?
"I see a truck, an eighteen wheeler. It's…it's a Mack Truck. The name Mack…Mack…why do I keep seeing the name Mack?"
A slightly sardonic voice from the rear suggests, "Maybe you mean Max?"
"Precisely!" Van Praagh declares, and nearly every person in the room leaps up in an eager frenzy. "My great-grandfather was named Max!" "I had an Uncle Max!" "Max was my grandpop!" Later, it is determined that fully 35% of the audience also have a dog, cat, or gerbil named Max.
And what of those looming spooks, those apparitions that inhabit Van Praagh's shows? With a Jewish audience he'll reveal that hovering behind many a participant is a deceased former business colleague, dedicated to providing his living ex-partner with an eternal supply of acid indigestion.
Years ago, on a Saturday night, a college sophomore called me at home. He and some friends were preparing to visit a psychic that evening, and he wanted to know the Jewish attitude towards such practitioners. I shared some history with him about false prophets and stoning, but added, "Look, you never know for sure. I propose a test: ask the psychic to reveal your rabbi's maternal grandmother's maiden name. If she's right, she may even make me into a believer."
Late that night, my phone rang, and an excited male voice nearly shouted, "Rabbi! Was it Cohen?"
Nice try. Yup, it's all in the math. It's all in how you play the odds. Only this time, it didn't work. That psychic didn't convince Robert A. Alper.
Grandson of Etta Lewensohn Katzenstein.