Hou­di­ni: The Elu­sive American

  • Review
By – December 21, 2020

Many of the most cel­e­brat­ed magi­cians have been Jew­ish, includ­ing Ricky Jay, Max Maven, David Blaine, David Cop­per­field, Ray­mond Teller, and Uri Geller. Har­ry Hou­di­ni was more famous than them all.

His birth name was Erik Weisz. His father, May­er Samuel Weiss, was a rab­bi who knew no Eng­lish and strug­gled finan­cial­ly but nev­er­the­less brought his fam­i­ly from Hun­gary to Apple­ton, Wis­con­sin in the 1870s in order to serve a small but pros­per­ous Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Hou­di­ni would lat­er claim that he had been born in Apple­ton, but he had actu­al­ly been born in Budapest in 1874. This was one of the many fibs he told about himself.

Hou­di­ni nev­er denied that he was a Jew, but despite his Ortho­dox upbring­ing, there was vir­tu­al­ly no pos­i­tive Jew­ish con­tent in his life. He inter­mar­ried, rarely attend­ed reli­gious ser­vices, was not involved in Jew­ish cul­tur­al activ­i­ties, and did not con­tribute to any Jew­ish insti­tu­tions. He cel­e­brat­ed Christ­mas and sent out Christ­mas cards, ignored tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish prac­tices when it came to bury­ing his own moth­er, and instruct­ed that his own remains be embalmed. Strange­ly enough, there was a pro­vi­sion in Houdini’s will that for­bade any bequest from going to his broth­er Dash if he did not for­mal­ly pro­vide his chil­dren a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty at birth.

Although he had a lengthy and pre­sum­ably hap­py mar­riage, Hou­di­ni had no chil­dren. His sole focus was on his career, and his incred­i­ble suc­cess came not from tra­di­tion­al mag­ic, at which he did not excel, but from his extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ty to escape from jails, sealed box­es, milk cans, hand­cuffs, and any­thing else scep­tics pro­posed. And these escapes often occurred while he was sus­pend­ed upside down over streets or rivers, or impris­oned under water. Beg­ley sug­gests, but does not elab­o­rate, that Houdini’s escapol­o­gy, along with his lies regard­ing his biog­ra­phy, was part of an effort to over­come his mar­gin­al­i­ty and to forge a new iden­ti­ty as a true-blue Amer­i­can. In this regard he resem­bled oth­er pop­u­lar Jew­ish per­form­ers of the time such as Al Jol­son, Eddie Can­tor, and Irv­ing Berlin as well as the Jew­ish moguls of Hol­ly­wood who helped prop­a­gate new forms of mass enter­tain­ment for America’s bur­geon­ing cities.

Hou­di­ni craved not mon­ey but pub­lic adu­la­tion, and he con­tin­u­al­ly risked his life by doing the most dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous escapist tricks in order to remain in the spot­light. He was a mas­ter­ful self-pro­mot­er, and his dare­dev­il feats attract­ed a huge fol­low­ing, both in the Unit­ed States and Europe. At the time of his death in 1926 he was one the world’s most pop­u­lar entertainers.

Beg­ley believes that all efforts to foist a sym­bol­ic mean­ing on Hou­di­ni are mis­guid­ed. Hou­di­ni was not a spokesman for those seek­ing to defy author­i­ty or destroy the eco­nom­ic and soci­etal restraints impris­on­ing the indi­vid­ual. Rather, he was sim­ply a spell­bind­ing per­former who carved out for him­self a niche in show busi­ness his­to­ry by escap­ing from every con­ceiv­able con­straint.” The only lib­er­a­tion that con­cerned him was his own.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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