The Great Escapes Of Harry Houdini
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 , 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 years of struggle and 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 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 — 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