While Jews make up less than 3% of the American population, nearly 20% of American magicians are Jews. There’s David Copperfield, Ricky Jay and David Blaine, the endurance artist who sports several controversial tattoos, including the numbers that were branded on Primo Levi’s arm at Auschwitz.
“Magic involves study and appeals to intellectuals who appreciate book learning and the historical,” says Peter Samelson. “Even though the world today is run by the Internet, a huge library of books on magic exists and you continue to need a master and to find a book or secret text that will teach you. That’s very Jewish.”
Peter Samelson, 64, may not be a household name, but he is a perfect example of a magician whose background informs a multilayered and wholly original onstage aesthetic that is by turns professorial, lyrical and downright childlike.
Samelson, who majored in physics at Stanford University, joined me for lunch in a bustling coffee shop in Manhattan’s garment district. He told me his parents were German-born academics who fled Europe in 1941. “My grandmother was a friend of the Frank family, and Otto Frank stayed with them in Switzerland after the war,” he said.
In an era that afforded few opportunities for Jews desperate to immigrate to the States, the Samelsons gained sponsorship through their cousin Harold K. Hochschild (of Harold K. Hochschild Foundation fame). Samelson’s father, a mathematician, was invited to teach at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, where he remained before taking teaching posts at an array of universities across the country.
“Because of my European heritage and the loss of family in the war, I had a sense of how life can be shaped by national historical events,” Samelson said. “My parents understood social responsibility and I grew up with the idea that the actions one takes are important. During the Nuremberg trials the standard answer, ‘I was just following orders,’ doesn’t cut it.”
Samelson, who spent most of his youth in Ann Arbor, Mich., believes his convictions emerge from his sense of history and a Jewish sensibility.
“I identify with persecuted minorities living in countries where the government can abuse its power and exploit minorities when in fact they should be defending them,” he said.
The turning point for Samelson came in the 1960s, when he grew increasingly opposed to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. At the same time he was toying with the idea of a career in in show business.
He was becoming disillusioned with the world of magic as well. It is, after all, based on trickery, and Samelson questioned whether he wanted to be just another deceiver in a universe already awash in deception.
Instead, magic became Samelson’s platform to celebrate wonder, delight and endless possibility.