Harry Houdini: The Skeptical Son of a Rabbi

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

Melody Barron | 04.11.17 |
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​”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, from The Sentinel, February 8th, 1918

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. It is perhaps due to this fact, that the idea of being Jewish and a magician seemed as common as being Jewish and a rabbi.

 

Leading American Magicians Are Jews, from The Forward, September 9th, 1928.

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. Picture: Library of Cognress

Harry Houdini’s anger at miracle workers, spiritualists and mediums that preyed on vulnerable people directly influenced the illusions he performed in front of an audience. He often uncovered the tricks and lies of those mediums as part of his show. Houdini’s mission to expose the charlatans caused anti-Semitic 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.

Houdini shows how charlatans made floating “spirit hands” out of wax, c.1926. Picture: The Harry Random Humanities Research Center

Not even death could stop Harry Houdini. He continued debunking mediums even after he died on October 31st, 1926, through his wife, Bess Houdini. 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, from The Sentinel, December 11th, 1936

 Harry Houdini was proudly Jewish throughout his entire life and made it clear that he was the son of a rabbi, but Samuel Weisz may have played tricks of his own. There was never any record of Samuel Weisz attending a rabbinical college in Budapest or anywhere in the United States.

But as the Man of Mystery said before his death to Bess: “The rest is silence.”

 

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

Melody Barron

Jewish heritage, culture, and history are Melody's bread and butter, and through that lens, she tackles queer and feminist theory, not to mention the worlds of fantasy and superheroines. In her spare time she's probably doing yoga in Yiddish.

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