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Most of the magicians I spoke to were born to liberal Jewish parents who encouraged an interest in magic. None came from magician dynasties, but for some, performance is in their blood.
Coin magician David Roth is the son of Yiddish actress Flora Freiman and the grandson of Yiddish playwright Louis Freiman, both of whom worked in Jewish theater on the Lower East Side.
Tanya Solomon, a zany magician right out of New Vaudeville, credits her cantor father for unwittingly teaching her the joy of performance and how to connect with an audience. “There was immediacy to his communication and no fourth wall,” she said. “It was like living with an actor. I had no formal stage experience, but my father always put me up on the bimah with the choir. Performing was part of my life. Many performers are the children of cantors, like the character in ‘The Jazz Singer.’”
One of the more striking performers I’ve met is Harrison Greenbaum who acknowledges his father and especially his grandfather’s brand of humor in forging his persona. But he also pays tribute to the borscht belt. Occasionally, his commentary appeals to stereotypes, but it can also boast a contemporary edge. “My girlfriend wants me to be more like Jesus,” he quips in his act. “I’m a slightly effeminate Jew who does magic. How much closer can I get?”
Jewish self-consciousness is “part of my cultural DNA,” he said.
Back at the coffee shop the lunchtime crowd is thinning as Samelson gazes into that proverbial crystal ball, wondering about the future of magic. He says ageism exists in the industry and the title of elder statesman does not carry the cachet it once did.
In addition, the Internet has replaced the brick-and-mortar magic stores where magicians traditionally met to buy props, work out and share trade secrets. The magician’s life has become an increasingly isolated one, and experienced performers face no shortage of tech-savvy young competitors.
“My challenge is to keep current and keep my skill at a high level, but not lose that connection between my performance and the audience,” he said. “We have that ‘conversation’ through the performance of magic.”
Simi Horwitz writes frequently about show business for the Forward.