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How Harry Houdini and David Copperfield’s Jewish Heritage Shaped Their Craft

The illusionists join Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Steven Spielberg in the National Museum of American Jewish History’s hall of fame

David Copperfield has sold more tickets than any other solo performer in history. (Photo by Peter Kramer / NBC / NBC Newswire / NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
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This December, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia will induct stage magicians Harry Houdini and David Copperfield into its hall of fame, the Associated Press reports.

The Smithsonian Affiliate’s hall of fame—represented by a display titled “Only in America”—recognizes the achievements of American Jews. Previous honorees include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Emma Lazarus and Irving Berlin.

“The kinds of ‘Only in America’ stories we explore in the museum are in great part about the legacies created for future generations,” says museum trustee and induction gala chair Sharon Tobin Kestenbaum in a statement. “With this event, we are able to celebrate a cross-generational story. From immigrant Harry Houdini to first-generation American David Copperfield, this event clearly demonstrates what’s possible when individuals are simply given the chance to be great.”

Houdini, who was born Erik Weisz in Hungary in 1874, arrived in the United States when he was 4 years old. The son of a rabbi, he got his start as a performer at vaudeville shows in the 1890s, performing magic tricks and escaping from handcuffs and locked trunks.

“His tricks are still amazing,” Houdini expert John Cox told Smithsonian magazine’s Jackson Landers in 2017. “Escaping from jail while stripped naked, that is still an incredible feat. His stories feel electric and contemporary.”

As Rich Tenorio reported for the Times of Israel in 2018, Houdini occasionally downplayed his Jewish heritage. He claimed to have been born in Wisconsin rather than Hungary and sometimes ignored anti-Semitic comments made by those around him. During World War I, however, he and other Jewish stars (including fellow hall of fame member Irving Berlin) formed the Rabbi’s Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association to raise money for military families and the Red Cross.

“He was driven to create a public organization [that showed he was] not only Jewish, he was the son of a rabbi,” magician David London told the Times of Israel. “His attitude was evolving throughout his life.”

Harry Houdini's escapes and illusions continue to fascinate today. (Stuart Rankin via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0)

A letter from Houdini to a friend also reveals that after his mother’s death in 1913, he recited the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer nightly for a year, per Jewish tradition.

In 1926, Houdini died of a ruptured appendix after being sucker-punched by a student. But as the Forward reported in 2013, stage magic remained associated with Jewish performers following his passing. A 1928 headline published in that same Jewish newspaper, for instance, declared that “Leading American Magicians are Jews.”

David Copperfield, born David Kotkin in New Jersey in 1956 to a mother who was from Israel and a father whose parents were from Russia, consciously followed in that tradition.

“Being Jewish is all about picking yourself up by your bootstraps,” he told the Forward in 2013. “When people are beating you down and throwing you out, you just dust yourself off and make the best of it. That’s the Jewish upbringing.”

Copperfield has set 11 Guinness World Records, won 21 Emmy Awards, and sold more tickets than any other solo performer in history. Speaking with the Las Vegas Review Journal’s John Katsilometes about his entry into the museum’s hall of fame, the illusionist says he’s thinking of his parents, who “would be very proud.”

The Philadelphia-based museum will conduct the induction ceremony remotely on December 12. Copperfield will induct Houdini before accepting his own honor from his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. The museum contains the largest collection of Houdini artifacts in the world, including his water torture cell and metamorphosis trunk, as well as the only known recording of the illusionist’s voice, as preserved on Edison wax cylinders.

“I’m always proud to have magic recognized as an art form, as a way of communicating ideas and making people dream of limitless possibilities,” Copperfield tells the Review Journal.

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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