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“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.