Twenty-five winters ago, the hottest ticket in New York was to “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” an Off-Broadway magic show at the tiny Second Stage on the Upper West Side. As a starving graduate student, I had no money for a ticket, but I found out that a handful of volunteer ushers were employed every night, and if you ushered, you got to see the show for free. I called the theater multiple times a day, praying for one of those prized slots.
Finally hearing that they had an opening felt like winning the lottery. And seeing Jay (born Richard Jay Potash), a stocky Jewish guy who played shady characters in David Mamet movies, I truly believed that I was in the presence of someone with supernatural powers. When he died last November, we lost one of the great Jewish entertainers of our time.
Twenty percent of American magicians, it has been estimated, are Jewish. Think of David Blaine, the illusionist who has Primo Levi’s prison number tattooed on his forearm. Or Uri Geller, the Israeli mentalist who, breaking with tradition, claims that his powers are real. Or Raymond Joseph Teller, who has performed on Broadway with Penn Jillette as the duo, Penn and Teller.
Nor is this new; famous Jewish magicians of the past, besides Harry Houdini (born Erich Weisz, the son of a Hungarian rabbi), include the 19th-century French sleight-of-hand artist Alexander Herrmann and the 20th-century Polish-American illusionist Max Malini (born Max Katz Breit), who performed for four different presidents at the White House.
In my own city of Baltimore, an exhibit called “Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini,” which included clips from the silent movies of the great conjurer, just ended at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. It opened last June at about the same time as an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, “Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection,” which included such iconic Houdini artifacts as the Metamorphosis Trunk (in which Houdini and his wife Bess changed places) and the Milk Can (which was filled with water before Houdini was chained and submerged into it), both of which are owned by the illusionist whose real name is David Seth Kotkin.
Jews have a long history with magic, going back to Moses, whose staff turned into a snake; an 18th- or 19th-century grimoire (“book of spells”) titled the “Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses,” claimed to be lost books of the Christian Old Testament that revealed how the prophet performed his miracles. (They influenced both Southern and Caribbean African American spirituality.)
For Rebecca Lesses, a professor of Judaic studies at Ithaca College, the distinction between magic and religion has been a fuzzy one throughout Jewish history. For the most part, she told me, “magic was what other people, especially pagans, did — they were the scary powers that people whom you didn’t like were in control of.” Nevertheless, Lesses pointed out, rabbis were described as using sorcery to create incantations out of the tetragrammaton (the four letter name of God in Hebrew) in order to make themselves invisible, soothe a crying baby or burn something up from a distance.
The Shulchan Aruch (the 16th-century code of Jewish law), Lesses said, even contains a prayer to be recited in between the words of the Kohanim when they bless the congregation, to repair a bad dream. Only in the modern era, Lesses noted, did Jewish magic decline in the face of efforts to rationalize Judaism and combat superstition. Yet even into the 21st century, she noted, the white-robed Israeli charedi kabbalist Yitzhak Kaduri was still sought for his blessings and amulets.
Scholar and genealogist Arthur Kurzweil has performed a show for decades called “Searching for God in a Magic Shop,” in which he tells chasidic and Talmudic stories while teaching a lesson embedded in the Hebrew phrase “Gam zu l’tovah” (This, too, is for the good). As Kurzweil told me, “We never know what’s around the corner. We may mourn a tragedy, but then encounter something more glorious than we would ever imagine. We’re just a speck of almost nothing in an inconceivably vast universe — most of the time we think that we know more than we do.”
Kurzweil reflected on the passing of Ricky Jay, who referred to exotic forgotten figures from the history of magic throughout his act, which was filmed for television in 1996 and is available on YouTube; there is also a terrific 2013 documentary, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.”
Like Jay, Kurzweil said, “magicians tend to be an intellectual bunch. We’re interested in philosophical questions about the nature of perception.” He observed that the best audience for magicians are those people who are quite intelligent themselves. “The smarter the person is, the easier it is to fool them,” he said, “because they are trying too hard to figure it out.”
Ted Merwin writes about theater for the paper. His column appears monthly.