Meet the New Generation of Jewish Magicians

For Centuries, Jews Have Been Masters of Grand Illusions

The Escape Artist: Magician Peter Samelson’s parents fled Europe in 1941.
David Linsell
The Escape Artist: Magician Peter Samelson’s parents fled Europe in 1941.

By Simi Horwitz

Published July 10, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

“It wasn’t my goal in life to teach people to enjoy being fooled,” he commented. “I wanted people to understand more about the world, not less. The government was doing a good enough job of it. Magic needed another role.”

For his part, Max Maven, an iconic mentalist and an authority on Jews in magic, maintains that Jews celebrate intellectual achievement and as such have been traditionally drawn to magic along with stand-up comedy.

“And mentalism is even more intellectual,” he said, noting that here too Jews are major players. Noted Jewish mentalists include Marc Salem and the Israeli-born Uri Geller, an alleged master of telekinetic spoon-bending.

But the primary reason for the large number of Jews in magic (at least historically) was plain old opportunity, which did not exist for Jews in other fields, Maven says. Well-known Jewish magicians existed as far back as the 1700s, but didn’t really come into their own until the mid-to-late-19th century. Aside from Houdini, prominent Jewish magicians of the past included Horace Goldin (a stage illusionist who worked at lightening speed); Alexander Herrmann (who perfected the comic satanic look on stage); Nate Leipzig (a vaudevillian and pioneer in minimalist magic); Emil Jarrow (a headliner in vaudeville whose signature piece involved dollar bills disappearing into lemons), and Tobias Bamberg (who created the much-copied Japanese persona “Okito” as his onstage alter ego).

Despite the variety, Jewish magicians have been unified by their sense of themselves as outsiders, which is not unlike the sensibility they brought to comedy and literature, says Maven. “They admired verbal skills and incorporated wit and an arch sense of humor into their magic and that still exists. They made speaking throughout their acts commonplace among all magicians,” he said.

To what extent Jews feel like outsiders today is debatable and largely depends on their upbringing, past experiences and where they live. Still, most of the magicians I’ve spoken with see themselves as the cultural heirs of earlier Jewish magicians — including even Houdini, whose ability to escape unspeakable restraints is not the exclusive delight of Jews.

“Did it play well to Jews?” Maven asked. “Sure. Did it appeal even more to Jews because he himself was Jewish? No doubt. But I don’t think there’s an aesthetic connection between Houdini and Jewish magicians today. Still, he showed that Jews could be physical, visceral and take off their clothes in front of an audience. In some ways he was the Sandy Koufax of magic.”

He was also a rationalist and a skeptic, and he disbelieved in paranormal phenomena in general and séances in particular, which were popular in his time. For the brainy sleight-of-hand star Jamy Ian Swiss, that intellectualism makes Houdini a defining figure for Jewish magicians whose performance does not extol fakery and instead promotes a world view rooted in science. Swiss, a founding member of the National Capital Area Skeptics and The New York City Skeptics, contends that Jews are “raised to be the best atheists.”

Michael Chaut, a founding producer of Monday Night Magic, a club in the West Village, says he is only in part a Houdini heir. “Houdini was all about ‘Look at me, Look how great I am!’ When my act is good, it’s not about me at all. It’s about them, the audience.” And, indeed, when Chaut played emcee the night I attended Monday Night Magic, he was every bit the suave and ingratiating host with just a touch of the self-acknowledged con artist, making all of us feel we were in on an “in” joke.


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!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • 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.