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!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • 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?
  • 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.