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Jewish Journal

Aaron Sorkin heads to the stage with the ultimate Jewish escape artist: Houdini

by Danielle Berrin

January 4, 2012 | 3:23 pm

Aaron Sorkin, who is somewhat of a Houdini himself, will pen a Broadway play set to star Hugh Jackman about the Jewish disappearing act, magician Harry Houdini.

Houdini was born Erik Weisz in the late 19th century in Budapest, Hungary. His father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, was a rabbi, and after the family emigrated to America in 1878 became head of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin. When his father lost his position with the shul, Mayer and son moved to New York City, where Houdini began performing tricks.

According to Wikipedia, “Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public debut as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself ‘Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.’ He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth. [When] Weiss became a professional magician [he] began calling himself ‘Harry Houdini’ because he was heavily influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.”

Houdini started off performing card tricks at the circus, then performed at Coney Island, but he soon gravitated toward something Jews do best—escape acts:

From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street audiences. Because of imitators, on January 25, 1908, Houdini put his “handcuff act” behind him and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences.

Centuries of persecution have made many Jews expert escape artists. As my editor Rob Eshman once wrote, Jews created Israel to escape the world; they created Hollywood so the world could escape reality. Houdini’s life and work became a literal vehicle for escape, not only for himself, but for his fans. But although he enjoyed the illusions of magic, he despised dishonesty. As he matured, he took to debunking the so-called Spiritualists who claimed to commune with the dead. For awhile, he devoted himself almost entirely to exposing fraudulent Spiritualism, some say, an interest sparked by the death of his mother, by attending seances with a police officer and a reporter in order to reveal the victimization mediums inflicted upon the bereaved.

The difference between illusion and untruth is the part that most interests Sorkin. He told Deadline Hollywood’s Mike Fleming that the play will focus on the conflict between Houdini, an entertaining magician, and the Spiritualists, who claimed to have supernatural powers: “Rather than being a biography, Houdini, told in a contemporary tone, tells the story of an epic battle that took place between the world’s greatest illusionist and a trio of women, known as ‘Spiritualists,’ who convinced millions of people, including the editors of Scientific American and The New York Times, that they could communicate with the dead,” Sorkin said.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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