It’s late on Sunday evening at KFI 640 AM’s &’9;Koreatown station, and within the confines of an overly bright fluorescent-lit radio booth, a tall man with Phil Donahue-white hair and a scraggly reddish beard worthy of the Norse god Thor sits alone at the mike.
Dressed in dependable Chabad wear — white dress shirt, black slacks, yarmulke and tzizit hanging out — Rabbi Chaim Mentz is an unexpected voice, booming out of the radio in a heavy Brooklyn accent.
"You got questions, I got answers!" Mentz enthuses in a gravelly voice.
Mentz, or "the Rabbi," as his listeners fondly address him, also raises questions, every Saturday and Sunday night, when he conducts something of a live farbrengen, minus the Absolut Vodka. With a spritz of humor and little egotistical radio jock pretension, he tackles some serious issues.
"Who are our friends in the Middle East?" he asks his callers. After the commercial break, he ups the ante: "Give me four names of countries in the Middle East helping us."
Merv from Los Angeles starts listing countries: "Israel, Egypt, Iran… "
"Iran!" responds Mentz. "I don’t know what world you’re living in where Iran is your friend!"
"Israel," states a woman caller. With disgust, she then sizes up her view of the U.S. coalition with several Arab nations: "They’ve been taking our money and spitting in our face. They won’t help their own people."
Which is exactly where Mentz wants the conversation to go. "America has been giving billions to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and they’ve done nothing," he says on the air. "When you’re not letting us bring soldiers to your land, you’re helping bin Laden."
Notice how Mentz himself has not mentioned the word "Israel" once during the show.
It’s all a delicate balance. Look around the recording booth, and you will find Sunday’s newspaper, an Osama bin Laden "Wanted" poster; but you will not find a soapbox — it’s just not the rabbi’s style. His style can be summed up in a word that is also a place, a state of mind: Brooklyn.
The Crown Heights-raised rabbi is a follower of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose practical wisdom informs the way Mentz dissects moral ambiguities.
Mentz’s discourse comes wrapped in that jocular, boisterous bluntness common to his native borough. At times, he becomes theatrical, as only a New Yorker can, singing along with the patriotic tunes on his bumper music or reminding listeners, "We can’t forget Sept. 11."
"I’m just here to shed light," Mentz told The Journal in his thick Big Apple accent.
Leading? Manipulative? Perhaps, perhaps not. What is certain is that Mentz’s humor-leavened backdoor approach makes for compelling radio. Take the way Mentz addresses the anthrax panic and the accompanying 24/7 news, both of which he believes are overblown.
THE RABBI: "We had a scare over here at KFI. A little coffee powder, and they’re calling the FBI."
PHIL FROM DOWNEY: "Fear is a very natural emotion. Fear is what keeps people alive. I’m glad they evacuated Congress. I wouldn’t want 500 dead congressmen."
THE RABBI: "You don’t see anyone panicking over breast cancer or food poisoning, and more people die from that. This is exactly what the terrorists want from us. Their whole realm is negative."
AMY FROM WHITTIER: "I’m wondering if I’m weird. I’m not afraid at all. My husband and I are going out to help stimulate the economy."
THE RABBI: "Take it with a grain of salt, and just be careful."
Mentz’s gregariousness is evident in the way he kibbitzes with colleagues at the studio between segments. On this Sunday night in October, Mentz is in especially good spirits — earlier, his beloved Yankees defeated the Seattle Mariners. He can barely contain himself on the air, and during the breaks he banters with other KFI alpha males the way sports-lovin’ men do, in that nearly foreign, mile-a-minute dialect of numbers, surnames and nicknames.
Mentz later remarks how at home he feels at the radio station. When throwing parties, his co-workers will often pick up a cake from Schwartz’s Bakery for him.
"Even if the food isn’t kosher, they invite me down because they just want me to be there," Mentz says, beaming.
The rabbi’s salt-of-the-Earth style has endeared him also to high-profile people. Laura Bush has conversed with him on several occasions. Mentz has also interviewed Hadassah Lieberman, the then-vice-presidential candidate’s wife, and discussed the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s attempt to negotiate with the Taliban with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel’s highest-rated program "The O’Reilly Factor." According to Mentz, Vice President Dick Cheney’s camp contacted him to schedule an interview after the rabbi’s conversations with the first lady.
Mentz once reported from a rave to expound on the values of American children today. As DJs pumped two-step beats by techno groups like Propellerheads, Mentz interviewed a handful of the 15,000 revelers, some of whom were high on Ecstasy.
"I was easily the oldest person there," he reports.
Mentz, 42, lives in Bel-Air with his wife, Charna, and their five children, ages 4 to 13. Since 1985, Mentz has led Chabad of Bel Air services at his home. KFI notwithstanding, Mentz’s only previous broadcasting experience was "Basic Judaism," a public access show he hosted on Century Cable in the early 1980s.
"I built my synagogue through that show," Mentz says.
In his two years at KFI, he has received only eight pieces of hate mail: two from gentiles; six from older, secular Jews who felt that Mentz sounded "too Jewish." Which amused Mentz, because it is his very ethnic appeal that attracts much of his younger Jewish audience.
But Mentz estimates that the bulk of his listeners are non-Jews, such as those who greet him with an Anglo-twanged "Shalom, Rabbi!"
It’s about 11:30 p.m. Mentz tells listeners about his recent brush with a Muslim man at a Ralphs supermarket who inquired which synagogue Mentz led. Mentz fibbed, telling the stranger that he did not belong to a congregation. The rabbi begs his audience to judge him — did he do the right thing? Once again, by presenting a micro-scenario, KFI’s rabbi has snuck his listeners into a wider discussion: in this case, racial profiling.
TRICIA FROM L.A.: "You did the right thing. If that happens again, you should ask, ‘Why do you want to know? Do you plan to convert or to bomb me?’"
THE RABBI: "We live in a very strange time. Thanks for your call."
TRICIA FROM L.A.: "I love you, Rabbi."
Catch Rabbi Chaim Mentz on KFI 690 AM Saturdays, midnight-3 a.m.; and Sundays, 10 p.m.-midnight.