Many of the most celebrated magicians have been Jewish, including Ricky Jay, Max Maven, David Blaine, David Copperfield, Raymond Teller, and Uri Geller. Harry Houdini was more famous than them all.
His birth name was Erik Weisz. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was a rabbi who knew no English and struggled financially but nevertheless brought his family from Hungary to Appleton, Wisconsin in the 1870s in order to serve a small but prosperous Jewish community. Houdini would later claim that he had been born in Appleton, but he had actually been born in Budapest in 1874. This was one of the many fibs he told about himself.
Houdini never denied that he was a Jew, but despite his Orthodox upbringing, there was virtually no positive Jewish content in his life. He intermarried, rarely attended religious services, was not involved in Jewish cultural activities, and did not contribute to any Jewish institutions. He celebrated Christmas and sent out Christmas cards, ignored traditional Jewish practices when it came to burying his own mother, and instructed that his own remains be embalmed. Strangely enough, there was a provision in Houdini’s will that forbade any bequest from going to his brother Dash if he did not formally provide his children a Jewish identity at birth.
Although he had a lengthy and presumably happy marriage, Houdini had no children. His sole focus was on his career, and his incredible success came not from traditional magic, at which he did not excel, but from his extraordinary ability to escape from jails, sealed boxes, milk cans, handcuffs, and anything else sceptics proposed. And these escapes often occurred while he was suspended upside down over streets or rivers, or imprisoned under water. Begley suggests, but does not elaborate, that Houdini’s escapology, along with his lies regarding his biography, was part of an effort to overcome his marginality and to forge a new identity as a true-blue American. In this regard he resembled other popular Jewish performers of the time such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Irving Berlin as well as the Jewish moguls of Hollywood who helped propagate new forms of mass entertainment for America’s burgeoning cities.
Houdini craved not money but public adulation, and he continually risked his life by doing the most difficult and dangerous escapist tricks in order to remain in the spotlight. He was a masterful self-promoter, and his daredevil feats attracted a huge following, both in the United States and Europe. At the time of his death in 1926 he was one the world’s most popular entertainers.
Begley believes that all efforts to foist a symbolic meaning on Houdini are misguided. Houdini was not a spokesman for those seeking to defy authority or destroy the economic and societal restraints imprisoning the individual. Rather, he was simply “a spellbinding performer who carved out for himself a niche in show business history by escaping from every conceivable constraint.” The only liberation that concerned him was his own.