Hou­di­ni jumps from Har­vard Bridge, Boston, Massachusetts

Pho­to by John H. Thurston, 1908, Library of Congress

The most famous magi­cian of all time is, unques­tion­ably, Har­ry Hou­di­ni. The most famous liv­ing magi­cians are David Cop­per­field and David Blaine. If you asked any magi­cian who the great­est coin” magi­cian is, that’s anoth­er easy one: David Roth. And if you were seek­ing the world’s most cel­e­brat­ed liv­ing mind read­er, most would point you to Max Maven.

Jew­ish peo­ple make up just 2 per­cent of the Amer­i­can pub­lic, and 0.02 per­cent of the world. Nev­er­the­less, an over­whelm­ing num­ber of mag­ic lumi­nar­ies — includ­ing all those men­tioned above — iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish or are of Jew­ish descent. Why?

This ques­tion is one that comes up often as I make my way across the coun­try, lec­tur­ing and per­form­ing mag­ic at Jew­ish insti­tu­tions in sup­port of my new book, How Magi­cians Think. Let me try to answer it in two ways.

First, mag­ic was an acces­si­ble pro­fes­sion at the dawn of magic’s so-called Gold­en Age,” from 1880 to 1930. As vaude­ville emerged, there was a seem­ing­ly end­less need for qual­i­ty acts, and many recent Jew­ish immi­grants saw mag­ic as their shot on the big stages of the world. Many man­agers and the­ater impre­sar­ios were Jew­ish, and much of the mag­ic indus­try was accept­ing of Jews at a time when many oth­er pro­fes­sions were closed off to them. In many of their ances­tral coun­tries, Jew­ish peo­ple weren’t even allowed to own land, let alone be part of trade schools or work forces. Mag­ic pro­vid­ed a refresh­ing alter­na­tive: the only thing that becom­ing a mas­ter magi­cian requires is a prodi­gious amount of prac­tice. Jew­ish fam­i­lies have, his­tor­i­cal­ly, put an empha­sis on learn­ing and hard work, and these are the two ster­ling qual­i­ties that magi­cians require to achieve mastery.

As vaude­ville emerged, there was a seem­ing­ly end­less need for qual­i­ty acts, and many recent Jew­ish immi­grants saw mag­ic as their shot on the big stages of the world.

The close­ness of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty reminds me in many ways of the mag­ic com­mu­ni­ty itself. Magi­cians are known as an insu­lar group — a result of main­tain­ing the secre­cy inte­gral to our field. But among each oth­er, magi­cians are actu­al­ly an extreme­ly warm, wel­com­ing, social com­mu­ni­ty, and one that has embraced Jew­ish per­form­ers with open arms. It’s a self-per­pet­u­at­ing cycle, too. When young Jew­ish chil­dren saw The Great Lafayette, Hou­di­ni, and Horace Goldin in the bright vaude­ville lights, they did what all lit­tle kids do at mag­ic shows: they dreamed of bein­gon­stage them­selves, mak­ing magic.

My sec­ond thought is of a more per­son­al nature. It’s my obser­va­tion that, in addi­tion to appre­ci­at­ing intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits and rig­or­ous dis­cus­sion, many Jew­ish fam­i­lies val­ue enter­tain­ment in a way that not all do. Mag­ic is, to me, the most intel­lec­tu­al of all the per­form­ing arts because it is unsolv­able, and per­haps unknowable.

My par­ents made no ulti­ma­tums about what I ought to do with my life, and they didn’t scoff at my attrac­tion to mag­ic. Rather, they encour­agedme, as an eight-year-old kid, to sharp­en my skills and con­tin­ue prac­tic­ing. I now run a youth mag­ic pro­gram and deal with many par­ents who can’t see the val­ue in it. They would rather their child play base­ball or chess or spend more time prepar­ing for a career in law. My par­ents (and those of the many Jew­ish magi­cians I’ve stud­ied) were more open-mind­ed. Per­haps we should rec­og­nize that the world could use a lit­tle more mag­ic … and a few less lawyers.

Joshua Jay has per­formed on stages in more than 100 coun­tries. He is a head­lin­er at Hol­ly­wood’s Mag­ic Cas­tle and a for­mer World Cham­pi­on in Sleight-of-Hand. He is the author of MAG­IC: The Com­plete Course and, for chil­dren, Big Mag­ic for Lit­tle Hands. He con­sult­ed on illu­sions for Game of Thrones and helped the US Postal Ser­vice with their Art of Mag­ic” postage stamps. Joshua has per­formed on The Tonight Show with Jim­my Fal­lon, The Late Show with James Cor­den, and he fooled Penn & Teller on their hit show, Fool Us, and he starred in his own off-Broad­way mag­ic show, Six Impos­si­ble Things.