The Great Es­capes Of Harry Hou­dini

Forward Magazine - - REVIEWS - By Michael Kaminer

A thrilling new ex­hi­bi­tion about Harry Hou­dini pulls off an elab­o­rate trick of its own.

“In­escapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Hou­dini,” at the Jewish Mu­seum of Mary­land through Jan­uary €‚ƒ„, man­ages to make the myth­i­cal ma­gi­cian’s story feel fresh — an achieve­ment that’s al­most as hard as mak­ing an ele­phant dis­ap­pear, which Hou­dini did.

By fo­cus­ing on Ehrich Weiss — the im­mi­grant rabbi’s son who be­came a global su­per­star — the JMOM brings a new di­men­sion to Hou­dini’s in­escapable story. “Hou­dini lived to be ‹€, which turned out to be €Œ years of strug­gle and €Œ of for­tune and fame,” said David Lon­don, the Bal­ti­more ma­gi­cian who was tapped to cu­rate the ex­hi­bi­tion af­ter mu­seum di­rec­tor Marvin Pinkert saw him per­form. “Most bios fo­cus on the sec­ond half of his life, which is the part we all know. I de­cided I wanted to treat this story more like his life, and the ex­hi­bi­tion is pretty much split in half that way.”

More than „‚ years af­ter his death, Hou­dini re­mains a pop cul­ture touch­stone. His name is still short­hand for leg­erde­main and es­capes, and raz­zle-daz­zle. More than ƒ‹‚ bi­ogra­phies have pur­ported to cover his life. Very few ad­dress his Jewish back­story.

Hou­dini was born in Bu­dapest to Rabbi Mayer Sa­muel Weiss and Ce­cilia Steiner Weiss; the fam­ily em­i­grated to Ap­ple­ton, Wis­con­sin, when young Ehrich was four. Rabbi Weiss led Ap­ple­ton’s Ger­man-Jewish Zion Con­gre­ga­tion; Ehrich grew up hear­ing Yid­dish, Hun­gar­ian, and Ger­man at home, but very lit­tle English. Af­ter run­ning away from home at age ƒ€ — hop­ing to find work to sup­port his im­pov­er­ished fam­ily — Ehrich re­joined his par­ents a year later in New York City, where they’d moved. Some Hou­dini his­to­ri­ans trace young Ehrich’s in­ter­est in magic to his fa­ther’s ser­mons; af­ter see­ing the rabbi hold a con­gre­ga­tion rapt, the power of per­for­mance be­came clear.

And while the show doesn’t draw a straight line be­tween Weiss’s Jewish­ness and Hou­dini’s world con­quest, it evokes mov­ing and in­trigu­ing par­al­lels with the mod­ern im­mip56

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