Hatchet man

As his eyes adjusted to the low light of the National Guard Armory, Rick Lemberg found himself among a cast of characters seemingly plucked from a truck stop moments before Steven Seagal hurls everyone through a plate-glass window.

There were bandana-wearing, 6-foot, 3-inch Southerners sporting tank tops to better flaunt their tattoo-laden arms. There were heavily bearded men with tobacco stains dripping down their wizened chins. All told, it was a half-eclectic, half-terrifying mix of good ol’ boys, American Indians, Civil War re-enactors, professional martial artists, circus performers, rodeo sideshow acts and the occasional snarling bodyguard.

“And me? I look like an accountant,” recalled Lemberg. But that’s not entirely accurate. He was a stockbroker.

It was the 1996 World Knife-Throwing Cham-pionship in Charleston, S.C. Three weeks earlier, Lemberg hadn’t known such a sport existed. He took 10 minutes to memorize the rules, then went out and threw handfuls of knives large enough to make Crocodile Dundee proud.

He finished third. And, for what it’s worth, the good ol’ boys, Indians and mountain men decided he was one of them. He still is — just not sartorially.

“No, Rick doesn’t look like a knife-thrower — until he gets to the line. Then you know he’s a knife-thrower,” said a chuckling Mike Bainton, the executive director of the International Knife-Throwers Hall of Fame in Austin, Texas, where Lemberg was inducted in 2003.

Rick Lemberg is not the only Jew on the professional knife-throwing circuit. Still, the only other Semitic blade man he can think of in short order is a 5-foot, 4-inch former Army Ranger who pays his bills as a tattoo artist, sports a beard like a rhododendron bush and keeps wolves as pets.

No, Lemberg does not posses a mien that would induce anybody to subtly place his hand atop his wallet. He’s a stocky, middle-aged man of average height with thinning salt-and-pepper hair, round glasses he occasionally pushes up the bridge of his nose with an extended pointer finger and an endearing smile. He met his wife, Tonya, on an Israel trip and the two were married at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, where they still attend.

Lemberg looks like the sort of guy you would see pricing a lawnmower at Home Depot or hawking burgers and Doritos at a small-town high school football game to benefit the local P.T.A.

And yet there he was last month, hurling 13-inch-long steel blades weighing a pound apiece at Omar Sharif on a TV pilot. For Lemberg, it was his 96th “impalement” — the unfortunate term knife-throwers employ when describing the art of narrowly missing a spread-eagled human being with razor-sharp duggers.

A pair of leggy models grabbed the 75-year-old Egyptian actor’s hands and extended his arms as Lemberg went into his trance. When Lemberg hurls knives, his jovial expression melts away and is replaced by a menacing, almost maniacal stare. His round eyes open unnaturally wide and his jaw clenches. It’s not a particularly pleasant sight to behold, especially for someone having foot-long steel blades hurled toward them at 60 mph. So Sharif, understandably, closed his eyes.

If Lemberg had lost his concentration and winged Sharif, the only way he could have possibly been more reviled by the nation’s middle-aged female filmgoers would be if the blade ricocheted and stuck Harrison Ford to boot. But that didn’t happen. With half a dozen satisfying thunks of metal piercing wood, Lemberg traced the actor’s silhouette. Sharif opened his eyes, flashed his illustrious gap-toothed grin and uttered, “Am I dead?”

Lemberg’s path toward the 2002 knife and tomahawk-throwing titles began about as inauspiciously as possible. On the eve of his bar mitzvah, his parents gave him a Boy Scout Swiss Army knife as a Chanukah present. Fifteen minutes later, he had plunged it into his hand.

“They took it away — for a whole year. I had a year to ‘learn some responsibility,'” recalls the Sunnyvale native.

“I spent that whole year wanting that knife. I got it back,

I picked it up and

I threw it.”

While Lemberg was always picked last for recess sports teams as “the short Jewish kid,” he noticed early on that his eye-hand coordination was extraordinary (even now, at age 47, Lemberg can nearly crack 90 mph with a baseball and can hustle any bar in eye-hand heavy games like

billiards or darts. Similarly, he shoots a Rick Barry-esque 90 percent from the free-throw line). As a teenager, Lemberg quickly picked up magic tricks and juggling, and soon began juggling knives.

As a young stockbroker living in San Francisco’s Sunset District, he fell upon a stress-reduction activity he could undertake in his limited outdoor space: knife-tossing. He would come home from the trading pit each day, toss his jacket and tie on the table and begin hurling knives at a target in his small backyard.

Around a dozen years ago, Lemberg’s pastime shifted from tossing knives in his backyard to hitting targets in Las Vegas showrooms packed with thousands of (bearded, tattooed) attendees — thanks to a random phone call.

At that time, the San Jose Mercury News had just started an eclectic feature in which a reporter opened the phone book and called the first number he or she came across. In the feature’s first week, the Merc wrote about a young doctor. The next week, they wrote about a stockbroker who threw knives in his spare time (for the record, there were no jokes about splitting stocks). A picture of a grinning Lemberg wearing a business suit and hurling a knife appeared in the paper’s living section.

One month later, he was tossing knives around Raj Matthai, the sports announcer on Channel 11. Then he got the letter from the World Federation of Knife Throwers. And the rest — assuming you’re familiar with the esoteric world of professional knife throwing — is history.

Lemberg’s prowess with the blade opened many doors the little Jewish kid who was snubbed for sports teams thought possible. He’s had knives custom made for him. He has appeared on television numerous times, even putting in seven-hour live shifts as the knife guy on a home shopping channel.

He’s also an expert witness with the Santa Clara County court system, determining if a seized knife is truly a deadly weapon or a flashy toy. And, most amusingly, he played the drunken mohel in last year’s Emanu-El Purim spiel at the behest of Rabbi Stephen Pearce. “They have these doors that are like 45 feet tall, and before the show someone told me they’re worth like $50,000 each — so don’t hit them,” Lemberg recalled.

Incidentally, Lemberg claims he can throw “anything — credit cards, garden tools, anything with an edge.” His wife, Tonya, agrees, adding that in 20 years of marriage, he has never taken his knife work home with him.

“He can throw anything, but he doesn’t do that at home. He’s well-behaved at home,” she said.

Lemberg, who lives in Montara on the San Mateo coast, got out of the stockbroker trade in 2000 and now works out of his home selling rare maps — and tossing knives, of course.

“Misty and 57” is about as apropos an atmospheric description of Montara as “sunny and 72” would be in Los Angeles. Indeed, a fine layer of drizzle coated Lemberg’s spectacles as he led me to his backyard knife range. He painted bright orange and blue targets on his perforated woodpile a few days before my visit. But in Montara’s perpetually moist conditions, the paint had yet to dry.

“Just as well,” he said with a sigh. “Avoiding a target is just as difficult as hitting one.”

And miss the targets Lemberg did. With a wild, over-the-top delivery, Lemberg fired blades to within millimeters of the paint from eight, 15 and then 33 feet, making certain to rotate the to match the distance. Over the course of several hundred throws, only two or three blades failed to stick in the wood.

I can’t claim the same level of success. Indeed, my first toss hit the wood handle-first and ricocheted off into the bushes.

Lemberg, who has about a dozen students, quickly discerned an over-rotation problem in my delivery and a wrong-for-the-sport snapping of the wrist.

Thunk! My next throw embedded itself deep in the woodpile (albeit in the midst of a gooey glob of blue and orange paint). Without exaggeration, it was exhilarating, and Lemberg’s grin was a reward in and of itself.

“Great,” the master said. “Now do it like that for the rest of your life.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.