Harry Houdini: The Skeptical Son of a Rabbi

The famed escape artist, illusionist, and séance buster, was also intensely proud of his Judaism.

“It is surprising how many sons of Jewish clergyman there are on the stage,” Harry Houdini said in 1918, speaking about the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, which he founded along with Al Jolson and Irving Berlin (among others), as a philanthropic endeavor.

“Sons of Rabbis Organize for War Aid”, appearing in The Sentinel, 2 August 1918. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

By 1918, Houdini was brushing shoulders with the cinema and theatre bigwigs, having established himself as a conjuring magician way back in the 1890s, and working his way up in show business. The Jewish magician’s ascent would eventually lead to a common perception that Jews had a natural affinity for this “supernatural” trade…


“Leading American Magicians Are Jews”, appearing in The Forward, 9 September 1928. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Houdini knew from an early age how reality and truth could be manipulated, due in great part to the fact that his father imparted rabbinical and Talmudic studies on the young Erik Weisz (Houdini’s original name).

The Houdinis, c. 1895. From the collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook

Harry’s skepticism of anything mystical developed while watching his father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz, perform his sermons when Harry was a boy. It made sense to Houdini that Jews would be pulled to the art of magic. After all, Jews had been performing since biblical times, when Moses and Aaron captivated large audiences with their mystical acts.

Houdini Being Lowered upside down into the Water Torture Cell, c. 1913 (Library of Congress)

Harry Houdini’s anger at miracle workers, spiritualists and mediums that preyed on vulnerable people directly influenced the illusions he performed in front of audiences. He often unveiled the tricks and lies of those mediums as part of his show. Houdini’s mission to expose the charlatans caused antisemitic ire to come his way, as the spiritualists and mediums he exposed used his Judaism against him. His adversaries called him names and claimed his Jewish roots made him un-American, yet Houdini was proudly Jewish throughout his entire life and made it clear that he was the son of a rabbi.

Houdini shows how charlatans made floating “spirit hands” out of wax, ca. 1926 (The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center_

Not even death could stop Harry Houdini. Through his wife, Bess Houdini, he continued debunking mediums even after he died on October 31st, 1926. On the 10th anniversary of his death in 1936, a séance was performed, with its aim being to bring Harry back so Bess could speak to him. Equally skeptical, she remarked: “The message has never been received.”

Bess never attended any more séances.

“Telling it in Gath”, appearing in The Sentinel, 11 December 1936. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection


Information for this article was gathered from the book Houdini: Art and Magic by Brooke Kamin Rapaport.


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The Jewish Woman Who Gave Life to Lady Liberty

In 1883 Lazarus wrote the poem that greets new immigrants to America till this very day.

The 1880s were years of pogroms in Tsarist Russia, giving cause for hundreds of Jews to flee Eastern Europe to the shores of America. With the arrival of the refugees, Emma Lazarus, the Jewish-American poet, felt the call to action and to aid her fellow Jews.

​Emma Lazarus’ poetry was encouraged early on by her father, Moses Lazarus, who recognized her immense talent as a teenager. Moses Lazarus even published Emma’s first book privately, “Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen,” in 1867. This was the beginning of Emma’s illustrious writing career.

She was recognized in her time for her poetry, mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson from the late 1860s, who encouraged her great potential. This recognition and recommendation propelled her to fame and she was soon running in the elite literary and artistic circles of New York.

Suffice to say the majority of her friends in the art world were Christian. As such, her Judaism was often referenced and remarked upon by her gentile peers. It marked her difference among them.

The undercurrent of anti-Semitism among the wealthy elite was always there, but it became more pronounced with the arrival of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1880s.


Emma Lazarus' famous portrait, from the Archives of the National Library
Emma Lazarus’ famous portrait, from the Archives of the National Library

In 1881 when the vicious pogroms struck the Jewish communities of Russia, causing them to flee to America, the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic backlash did not leave Emma untouched.

The Jewish themes she had never dealt with before erupted in her work. She published “Songs of a Semite” in 1882. In this collection she wrote of Maccabees calling for Jews to rally together in Jerusalem. She also translated poems from the Golden Age of Spain, celebrating her Sephardic roots. She wrote a play “The Dance to Death,” which she dedicated to George Eliot. It is a tragedy in which the raw ideas of Jewish Nationalism are fostered, written well over a decade before Herzl published his vision of Zionism.

But her most famous poem would be published a year later, in 1883.

“The New Colossus”, the poem emblazoned upon Lady Liberty herself, was published for an art auction aimed at constructing the Statue of Liberty. The statue was a gift from France to the United States, as a monument to the shared values between the two republics, chief among them, freedom and equality.


In 1886 the Statue of Liberty was unveiled with much pomp and circumstance. Emma Lazarus was not invited, as women were excluded from the ceremony by the organizers who thought women would be hurt by the celebrating crowds.
In 1886 the Statue of Liberty was unveiled with much pomp and circumstance. Emma Lazarus was not invited, as women were excluded from the ceremony by the organizers who thought women would be hurt by the celebrating crowds. (Picture from I Lift My Lamp)


Emma Lazarus, seeing the suffering of her fellow Jews fleeing the Old World, conceived of a monument welcoming her people to the new world. She envisioned their suffering and their stifled existence. She wanted Lady Liberty to watch over the ships coming into a safe harbor, protecting those escaping the dangers that chased them out Europe.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

With those words, the Statue of Liberty was given life and purpose beyond that of a monument to liberal ideals, becoming a beacon of hope for the refugees seeking freedom from the terror of persecution.

The poem was placed on the Statue of Liberty in 1903.


"The New Colossus" plate on the Statue of Liberty
“The New Colossus” plate on the Statue of Liberty


The First Contact with the Jews of Sana’a

During Hermann Burchardt's travels to Yemen in 1901, he came upon one of the most isolated and forgotten communities of the Jewish people. The photographs he sent home caused a sensation throughout the whole of European Jewry.

At the age of 30, Hermann Burchardt decided to leave home and travel around the world to document the most remote communities in existence. During his travels to Yemen in 1901, he came upon one of the most isolated and forgotten communities of the Jewish people. The photographs he sent home caused a sensation throughout the whole of European Jewry.

The search for the “authentic Jew” was a common pursuit among Jewish communities in the 19th century. Many asked themselves the question in one form or another: “Am I really living according to the ways of my ancestors?”

And so, this young German-Jew who had just turned thirty, decided to leave the family business and set off on a journey around the world that would incorporate two of his great passions: photography and the study of ancient and exotic peoples. Hermann Burchadt decided to use his substantial inheritance to rent an apartment in Damascus that would serve as the base for his research expeditions and adventures. He had already studied Arabic and Turkish which he hoped to use to his advantage.



Even before he set off, Burchardt, whose archives are preserved at the National Library of Israel, saw himself as a citizen of the world, a man without limits, able to reach places no European had ever set foot before. On one of his journeys, in 1901, he encountered just such a place. In the middle of the harsh and barren desert he reached the city of Sana’a. On his wanderings around the hilly capital city he was stunned by a group of people he encountered—members of the Sana’a Jewish community, whose ties to other Jewish communities in the world had been almost completely severed for generations.

Together with his large entourage, Burchardt spent almost a year with the community. He got to know them personally, to study and document their customs, listen to their unique life stories, transcribing almost every word in his diary, and for the first time in history, he photographed them.

The article he published in the journal Ost und West included the spectacularly beautiful first-ever photographs of the Yemenite Jewish community. The images were nothing short of a revelation for European Jewry. After a break of thousands of years there was at last a tangible sign of the existence of the Yemenite Jewish community. To some, it seemed as if the world’s most authentic Jews, who had lived completely isolated from any foreign influence, had finally been found. The article so excited the journal’s readership that the photographs were turned into postcards which were sold and circulated by the thousands.

Was this how Jews looked before the Exile? Were these the Jews of the Second Temple? For those who had been overwhelmed by encounters with the Jews living in Ottoman Palestine, the West’s encounter with the isolated and remote community of Sana’a was even more astonishing. They wanted to examine authentic Yemenite siddurs, to analyze the differences between the biblical traditions, and essentially, every tiny scrap of information about their unique customs.

In 1909, while Burchardt was escorting the Italian consul on his way from Sana’a, the adventurous and learned ethnographer convinced the consul to take a route that had never before been traveled by a European. The grand convoy was ambushed and the robbery ended with tragic consequnces: Hermann Burchardt and the Italian consul were killed.

At his funeral, Burchardt was eulogized by an Italian merchant who had befriended him on his last visit to Sana’a. He told of how the Jews of Sana’a now mourned the passing of the famous adventurer, who had placed them in his heart.


Letter from Walter Rathenau to Stefan Zweig

Rathenau was a classic example of a German Jew who tried to become integrated into society-at-large, and even contributed to the strengthening of nationalist views

Walter Rathenau (1867-1922) was born in Berlin to a prominent Jewish family. His father was the well-known industrialist Emil Rathenau, the founder of AEG. Walter studied physics, chemistry, philosophy and engineering, and after completing his studies he was integrated into the management of his family’s business affairs. In 1912, Rathenau was appointed Chairman of the Board of AEG, and was on many other boards of leading industrial companies. Due to AEG’s specialization in electrical appliances and technical equipment, Rathenau played an important role in logistical planning, supply of raw material, and industrial contributions to the German war effort. Rathenau was officially appointed by the German War Ministry to be responsible for supplying raw materials to the country’s military industry.

During the war, Rathenau’s open support of Germany grew stronger, and he even demanded that harsh actions be taken against Germany’s enemies. After the war, Rathenau was appointed Minister of Reconstruction and then, in the end of January 1922, he was appointed Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic. To this day, this is the highest position that a Jew has ever filled in a German government. Just six months later, while on his way to the office, Rathenau was assassinated by extremist right-wing activists.

The earliest documentation of the relationship between Rathenau and the Austrian author Stefan Zweig held in the National Library’s collections is from 1907. Rathenau greatly appreciated literature and art, and even tried his hand at writing. The two men were known to have met a number of times and exchanged views about art and politics.

Therefore, the background to the letter presented here from October 24, 1914 is not surprising. The French author Romain Rolland, a pacifist and activist against the war and supporter of aid projects for prisoners of war, had approached Zweig a number of days earlier with the idea of assembling a forum of European public figures from all fields and disciplines in order to work together against the “war madness”. Rolland asked Zweig to recruit additional people from among his acquaintances.

Zweig approached Walther Rathenau, among others, but in October 1914 the latter was no longer interested in preserving the peace, as illustrated in Rathenau’s reply. Rathenau was fully invested in his new post at the German War Ministry and did not want to relate to efforts to stop the war or discuss the activities of the German army in Belgium (the bombing of the city of Louvain) or in France (the bombing of the city of Reims), which had already horrified the world in the first months of the war.

Zweig’s and Rathenau’s positions aptly illustrate a few of the possibilities from which German Jews, in their outstanding position, could choose. Zweig was never enamored of war, and certainly not of the nationalist phenomena that were very common in almost every country that fought in World War I. He saw himself as a citizen of the world, and fervently believed in the capabilities of European culture.

In contrast, Rathenau was a classic example of a German Jew who tried to become integrated into society-at-large, and even contributed to the strengthening of nationalist views. Like his father, as well as the tradesman and collector James Simon and the shipping magnate Albert Ballin (all Jews), Walter Rathenau was friendly with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Like the others, Rathenau even served as an informal advisor to the Kaiser. Nonetheless, this role as well as his political positions during the first years of the Weimar Republic did not ultimately protect him from extremists and anti-Semitism. Herein lies the tragedy of Walter Rathenau and other figures from this period, who, in the eyes of Germany’s extreme right, would always remain first and foremost Jews and as such, the enemy of the German people.


War Ministry, Berlin. 24 October 1914
Leipziger Strasse 5

To the Honorable Mr. Zweig,
Unfortunately, I am unable to fulfill your request. I am able to convey an idea only to the extent that I identify with it, and this is not the case regarding Rolland’s matter. I therefore request that you absolve me of the burden of carrying out your endearing request.

Together with the letter, I received a letter from Von Aiden*, to which I have replied, as you will see in the attached. In it, you will see my arguments.

In this war, people speak and write too much. Be the reasons as they may: now the nations need to speak, and until they become silent – the individual has no word. In my view, what is written and spoken now of Louvain , Rheims and other matters is not important. The bill will be submitted when the war is over, and this bill will be objective.
I would not be able to live had I not created for myself a job that enables me [to wage] an independent battle – a battle that relates to resources. To stand behind the front and to give speeches, this is a matter for clergy and professors – I am unable to act thus.

Rolland’s activity on behalf of military and civilian prisoners is not tainted by these considerations. It is respectable but I am unable to join it, since my day is full of work that extends halfway into the night.

I hope to see you soon and bless you.