Queen Esther and Harry Houdini — together at last

Queen Esther and Harry Houdini — together at last

Rabbi Prouser considers the great escape artist in the context of Purim

The great escape artist Harry Houdini,  chained, jailed, and about to escape.
The great escape artist Harry Houdini, chained, jailed, and about to escape.

Some lives are almost ridiculously rich with symbolism.

Take Harry Houdini.

The iconic magician died on Halloween. And this year his birthday falls on Purim.

The great escape artist escaped from chains, handcuffs, straitjackets, undersea tanks, underground burial, and all sorts of other forms of bondage. He also escaped his birth name — Erik Weisz — and his birthplace — Budapest.

Like Queen Esther, he did not escape his essential Jewishness; like her, he did not want to. Like Esther and Mordechai, he was a gifted illusionist, pretending to be something he was not; his was the basis of his art, and theirs was to save their people.

Like Mordechai, he was a moralist; he went after spiritualists, whom he knew to be charlatans, while Mordechai went after Haman.

Houdini, Esther, and Mordechai all worked at unmasking — Houdini targeting the con artists who preyed on the vulnerable, and Esther and Mordechai targeting Haman, who was about to prey on the Jews.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser knows all this — and much more — and he plans to talk about it as he weaves a celebration of Houdini’s 98th yahrzeit into the megillah reading on erev Purim which is March 23 this year.

And there’s one great local connection too. The president of Temple Emanuel, Bob Goldberg, is “a proud member of the Society of American Magicians, and I have been for 36 years,” he said. “It was founded by Houdini himself, and he was the first president.”

Rabbi Joseph Prouser

“Houdini’s great Jewish story begins when he’s born as the son of a rabbi, Mayer Samuel Weisz,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He came to the United States when he was a kid. His father was the rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin; that’s where Erik — Harry — took bar mitzvah lessons from an Orthodox rabbi.”

Back in Hungary, Rabbi Weisz had been trained in the Neolog movement, “which was parallel to the Conservative movement,” Rabbi Prouser said. “That means that Houdini’s father, and Houdini himself, had experiences with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis and the movements.”

The Weiszes’ stay in Appleton was not very long, though. The rabbi “was dismissed from the pulpit after a couple of years, apparently because his English was so bad, and he wasn’t getting better quickly,” Rabbi Prouser explained. “At that time, a rabbi’s ability to speak English was far more important than his affiliation.”

Soon Erik ran away from home and landed in New York, where he “took a room at the YMHA and started performing magic as Erik the Great,” Rabbi Prouser said. “We don’t know how he learned magic, but people speculate that he must have seen some shows in Appleton.

“By the 1890s, he already was pretty well known.”

Erik made up his new name, Harry Houdini. The last name was in homage to an earlier magician from whom he took inspiration, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, although apparently the i at the end was his own flourish. But his new first name, many people, including Rabbi Prouser, think was based on the Yiddish-accented pronunciation of both names. Erik sounded like Eeehry, and that sounded like a Yiddish speaker was saying Harry. (At least sort of. Especially in a noisy room…)

“He moved to Baltimore, and the Jewish Museum of Maryland “still has his father’s Tanach,” Rabbi Prouser said. “And then he started doing his escapes there. He broke out of the county jail in 1905, the water torture chamber in 1915, and in 1916, in one of his most famous acts, he was suspended upside down, in chains and a straitjacket.”

Needless to say, he escaped.

Houdini’s connection to the Jewish world remained strong. “He was one of the founders of an organization called the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He was the president, Al Jolson was the vice president, and the secretary was Irving Berlin. There was a headline in the Baltimore Sentinel on August 12, 1918, saying ‘Rabbis’ sons organized for war aid.’ The money they raised went to the war effort and to help support military families.”

Harry Houdini in a formal photograph.

On erev Purim, Rabbi Prouser will show clips from a 1953 movie called “Houdini.” It starred Tony Curtis, “another Hungarian Jew who changed his name for the stage.” (Tony Curtis was born to immigrant Hungarian parents in Harlem and was Bernard Schwartz until he decided that his name was unlikely to appear in a Hollywood movie’s opening credits.)

Houdini died after being punched in the stomach by a man who was testing the magician’s assertion that he could withstand any such blows. Witnesses say that the assailant, who got Houdini’s surprised assent, didn’t allow him to prepare himself. Houdini had been nursing a broken ankle and wasn’t able to get up and position himself properly before he was hit.

Rabbi Prouser will also read a poem, published after Houdini was attacked but before he died, “expressing pain and shock that he didn’t escape death somehow. It was a lugubrious poem about Houdini’s death and waiting for him to reappear, written by MacKinlay Kantor.”

Kantor, a journalist who won a Pulitzer for the novel “Andersonville,” was the son of a Protestant mother and a multi-rabbi-descended father who abandoned the family, leaving his son cut off from the Jewish community. Ironies abound.

Rabbi Prouser “will draw a connection between Houdini and Megillat Esther,” he said. “They both have death-defying courage and escapes from danger.” He quoted Esther, who said, the megillah tells us, “If I perish, I perish.”

Yes, one of them is doing it to save her people, and the other for entertainment. So is that a little forced? “Remember, it’s Purim,” Rabbi Prouser said.

The next, more serious question is “how much fun should we be having on Purim this year,” just five months after October 7, he continued. “There are two schools of thought. One — not my school of thought — is that we should tone things down. The other is that I am not going to let enemies of the Jewish people deprive me of Purim.

“The laughter of Purim has always been in the context of darkness and tears.” The Jewish people were almost annihilated; instead, Haman, his sons, and thousands of the enemies of the Jews were slaughtered.

“It’s more like the opera ‘Pagliacci,’ and Pagliacci’s famous aria, ‘Vesti la giubba.’ Put on the costume. The clown laughs, even though he is in terrible pain,” Rabbi Prouser said.

“So yes, these times are dark, and we have never needed the celebration more. It has never been more appropriate or relevant. Temple Emanuel will not be tempering our celebration.”

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser

What: Will celebrate Purim by telling the story of the magician Harry Houdini

Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes

When: On Saturday, March 23, at 8 p.m.

For whom: The whole community

For information: Go to www.tenjfl.org, call
(201) 560-0200, or email office@tenjfl.org

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