Saleem Muhammed taught me how to tell a story. He’s one of the comedians who performed at Comedy for Koby, the comedy shows that raise money for the Koby Mandell Foundation, named after our son who was murdered by terrorists when he was 13. (Thank you Avi Liberman for bringing these shows to Israel!)
Saleem has appeared on the Tonight show and Last Comic Standing, and has an imposing physical presence. He’s a large man. One of his jokes is: Don’t invite me to your house if your furniture is wicker.
I first spoke to him while we were both waiting to be interviewed about Comedy for Koby at a radio studio in Jerusalem near the Central Bus Station. I told Saleem a story. A few days earlier I’d received a letter from a prisoner in a maximum- security jail. It was handwritten on thin paper, a kind of aerogram. The prisoner had read my book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, and told me how moved he’d been because he’d lost a child and he appreciated our courage and ability to turn tragedy into something powerful like Camp Koby, the camp we run for bereaved children. In the letter, he wrote that he would like to visit Israel one day but he was afraid to come. I laughed and said to Saleem—“He’s in a maximum- security prison with murderers and rapists, and he’s afraid to come to Israel.” Granted Israel can be dangerous and I’m the first person to know that, but most of our lives are spent very pleasantly. Life here isn’t what they show you on the news in America.
Saleem looked at me and he said: “That’s a great story. But you are a terrible storyteller.”
“I am?” I said. “It’s funny because I’m a writer and a speaker. But I could use some help.”
“I’m really a storyteller,” he said. “I don’t tell jokes. I can help you.”
I asked, “Can you teach me how to tell a good story? It’s hard for me. I get stressed out about it.”
“I can help you,” he said.
“Okay, what’s the secret?”
“I can tell you. But not now, later.”
After his first show, I went backstage and congratulated him, and said, “Please tell me how to tell a good story.”
“Not now,” he said. “Soon.”
After the next show I asked, and after the next show as well. I was soon leaving for a speaking tour of America to talk about my book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart. I needed to know how to tell a good story.
Anyway, for some reason Saleem wouldn’t tell me the secret. I began to feel like I was in a fairy tale. I had to ask three times to have my wish come true. Maybe I needed a magic wand. Maybe I needed ruby slippers. Maybe I needed to beg.
Finally the last night, before he left for America, I pleaded with him. “Please Saleem, please tell me.” He looked at me like a kind father, one who has finally permitted his daughter her wish. He said: “It’s simple. You have to make a mistake.”
“That’s it,” he said. “Make a mistake.”
“What kind of mistake?”
“It’s easy. Forget something. Say the wrong word.”
“It frees you up. It puts you in the minute. It makes things real. And you lose your anxiety. You don’t have to worry about messing up or saying the wrong thing. You’ve already done it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You have to be ready to hear it!”
Well that sounded very wise to me, except that I’d been ready to hear it for his whole visit.
So the next time I spoke in America and forgot what I was saying I said: “Oops, what was I saying?” And somebody in the audience told me. I realized: making a mistake not only relaxes the speaker but the audience too. You’re like them. You’re one of them. We all mess up. We are all imperfect. And ironically, people like us when we mess up. They feel more comfortable with us. We’re fragile human beings, just like them!
To donate to the work of The Koby Mandell Foundation and support bereaved children and families: www.kobymandell.org