Houdini Escaped Everything Except His Jewish Heritage
Houdini put on tefilin daily and formed the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association.
When you think of history’s most famous magician and the first international superstar, the Hungarian Jew, Erik Weisz, probably doesn’t spring to mind. But he should. Because this future international superstar, magician, illusionist and stunt performer later changed his name to Harry Houdini. Houdini lived from 1874 to 1926 and is perhaps best known for his amazing escape acts in which he used chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it. You know, the same ways you and I relax on weekends. Oh, all right, I’ll speak for myself.
Yet, while some may know that Houdini was Jewish, most are not aware of the fact that he was a Jewish immigrant son of a rabbi, or familiar with the ways in which Judaism impacted this iconic performer’s life. Let’s see if we can make this vital information reappear.
Erik Weisz was born in Budapest to a Jewish family. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz and Cecília Steiner. The family arrived in the U.S. in 1878 and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Erik’s father served as a rabbi. An interest in magic appeared early, after Erik attended a magic show in Appleton. He took several jobs, making his public début as a nine-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Erik, the Prince of the Air". He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth.
Scrawled on this photo of magician Harry Houdini with his mother Cecilia and wife Bess are the words, ‘My two sweethearts.’ (Library of Congress)
Erik was bar mitzvahed by Orthodox Rabbi Bernard Drachman. At the age of 17, in order to avoid the heavy-labor factory work that was expected of young men his age and social class, Erich started performing magic tricks full time. After he ran away from home to New York, to a Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) in New York City, he performed a show under the handle ‘Erik the Great.’” Still searching for just the right name, Erik became aware of a 19th century French magician named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, known as the father of modern conjuring. Obviously, too many names, so Erik adopted one of them – the “Houdin”, and decided to put an ‘I’ at the end of it. Hence, “Houdini”. Okay, so maybe not the most Jewish of names, but one wonders if he’d have the same reputation today if he went with the more Judaic “Houdiniwitz”.
Performing in Maryland in 1898, Houdini promoted himself as the King of Cards. He was not, however, earning a king’s ransom for his endeavors. A fellow Jewish immigrant friend, Martin Beck, suggested that Houdini would achieve real success if he dropped the King of Cards name and instead started promoting himself as the King of Handcuffs.
Despite Houdini’s embracing of his Jewish heritage, he was soon to find out that the world did not share his love of Judaism. He was shocked by his first exposures to anti-Semitism during his performances in Germany. When he performed in Russia soon after the notorious Kishinev Pogrom (1903), he wrote critically about Russian anti-Semitism.
Still, Houdini’s attachment to his faith was evident throughout his life. In a memorial to his mother, he wrote, “Your devoted son, Harry Houdini”, and in parentheses, “Erik Weisz”. And for a full year after his mother died, he recited the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer nightly.
In one feature story in the Milwaukee Sentinel on November 1, 1926, members of Milwaukee’s Jewish community claim that Houdini was apparently very serious about Jewish tradition. They also note that Houdini came back regularly to weep at his old childhood home and at the graves of his parents.
The article further claims that Houdini’s friends, “know him as a man devoutly religious, who, wherever his performance brought him, carried his tefillin, phylacteries and mezuzahs, Jewish credal symbols, with him. … The mezuzahs, strips of parchment with scriptural passages encased in tin, considered effective in warding off evil, he is said to have nailed to the door of the hotel room wherever he lodged for the night, in the true orthodox Jewish fashion. And the phylacteries, little leathern boxes with scriptural parchment recognized as charms, he bound to his forehead and left arm each morning during his prayers, his friends declare.”
As Saul J. Singer stated in JewishPress.com, “Houdini was particularly important to American Jews, for whom he came to embody the idea that a Jew could achieve success in an anti-Semitic world. For Jews who had a long history of fear and vulnerability, Houdini was the ultimate contemporary symbol of strength, and the renowned escape artist became the paradigm of the Jewish immigrant’s belief that he could escape the metaphorical shackles of Jewish history. Even after achieving great success, Houdini maintained his ties to Judaism and his loyalty to his Jewish family, saying: “I never was ashamed to acknowledge that I was a Jew, and I never will be.”
The more famous Houdini became, the more comfortable he appeared to be with his Judaism. During World War I, he formed the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, which included Jewish-American stars. Its officers included Houdini as president, Al Jolson as vice president and Irving Berlin as secretary. The organization raised funds for Hebrew associations helping military families, as well as for the Red Cross. Houdini was also a major supporter of Zionist institutions. Throughout his life, he performed great acts of charity, but insisted upon anonymity because “the Jewish way is to give charity quietly.”
Houdini is buried at Machpelah Cemetery in New York, a Jewish cemetery established around 1855. Also buried there are his brother, mother, father, grandfather, four older brothers and a sister. Each year on the anniversary of his death, a group of magicians hold a secular memorial service for Houdini and mark his yahrzeit. Rabbi Noach Dally, member of the Magic Fraternity, said, “In 1976, we added el maleh rahahim (a prayer of remembrance) to the service as well as a broken wand service, a ritual performed to symbolize the passing of a fellow magician.”
In many ways, says Jewcy writer Jon Reiss, Houdini “represents an archetype not only of the hardworking immigrant, but of the hard-working immigrant Jew. Houdini, like so many Jews who came after him and rose to fame, embodied the notion of the underdog, and dedicated himself to his craft.” And that’s both magic and a gift to us that won’t disappear.