Meet the New Generation of Jewish Magicians

For Centuries, Jews Have Been Masters of Grand Illusions

By Simi Horwitz

Published July 10, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page
Video footage recorded live at the Players Theatre.


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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.