Adrien Brody performs tricks, shticks of the Great Harry Houdini


Erik Weisz, son of an unsuccessful immigrant rabbi from Hungary, settled in Appleton, Wis., became a world-famous magician and escape artist and changed his name to Harry Houdini.

He always liked to live on the edge. In one spat with his wife, Bess, he told her, “I’d rather escape death than dry the dishes.” Furiously, she replied, “And I’m just a dumb girl who married a Jew.”

The lives of Houdini, his wife, his mother and others around him get a thorough exposure in “Houdini,” airing at 9 p.m. on Sept. 1 and 2 on the History Channel in two two-hour segments.

The source book for the script is “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait,” by Bernard C. Meyer, so it’s no surprise that the four-hour show leans heavily toward psychological interpretations.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of body action. Although the title character makes it a point to explain the tricks underlying his death-defying shticks, there was real physical danger in his acts.

In his Chinese Water Torture Cell act, he was lowered, hog-tied and chained head-first into a water-filled tank, and had to free himself before he ran out of breath, which he could hold for minutes on end.

As audiences demanded more and riskier stunts, and were diverted by the invention of silent movies, Houdini had to keep upping the ante.

One of his more spectacular performances, shown twice in the film, has him, chained and padlocked, leaping from the top of Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Mo., into the frozen river below through a hole chopped into the ice.

But all of this wasn’t enough of a challenge for the man. With World War I looming, Houdini happily became a spy for the British Secret Service. Using the fluent German of his parental home and the entrée granted in performing before the crowned heads of Germany and Russia, Houdini made off with some of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s most cherished war plans.

After the war, he set his sights on the raw new Hollywood, and for a short time, newspapers debated who would become the greater star — Houdini or Charlie Chaplin?

The first evening’s segment digs energetically into these exploits, making for an exciting, fun-filled show.

As Houdini, the lean, hawk-nosed Adrien Brody (himself the son of a Czech-Jewish mother) knows how to get the most out of these moments, as well as out of passionate clinches with Bess (Kristen Connolly).

Always in the background or at his side is his loyal assistant and ingenious inventor of escape equipment, Jim Collins (Evan Jones).

Being a nice Jewish boy, Houdini adores his doting Hungarian mother (Eszter Onodi), who speaks a mix of Yiddish and German, but not one word of English.

It’s the mother’s death that suffuses the second part of the film with a more somber tone, as the heartbroken son turns to clairvoyants and séances to contact his mother beyond the grave.

The veteran Houdini easily sees through the tricks of the spiritualists and, enraged, starts a lifelong battle to expose their tricks.

That quest earns him many enemies, especially his former friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Doyle’s wife, both convinced believers in communing with their deceased loved ones.

Houdini died in 1926 at 52, after he insisted on performing with both a broken ankle and a ruptured infected appendix.

His funeral was attended by 2,000 people, and he was mourned by millions more, who validated Houdini’s saying, “Everyone wants to escape death — I do it for them.” 

The Mensch List: A magical ability to conjure up fun


California “Super Lawyer”/magician Stephen M. Levine likes to joke that he can make legal troubles disappear. Ditto for rabbits and quarters.

Unfortunately, he can’t make the same promise about the troubles facing all of the people he meets through his volunteer performances — sick kids at a children’s hospital, aging amputees at a Veterans Administration (VA) campus.

“It tugs at you,” Levine, a father of two, said. “You wonder, are they going to be around next year?”

But the Agoura Hills resident — also known as Stephen the Spectacular — does what he can to at least bring a smile to their faces. Despite working full time as a real estate and business trial lawyer, he regularly trades in his briefcase for a magic wand.

“I do it because I love performing for the kids,” Levine said. “I enjoy it — to make people feel good, to give them that sense of wonderment.”

Sometimes he is paid when he performs, but Levine believes it’s important to give back, too. A member of the Magic Castle’s outreach committee, he was among those who strolled through a group of 4,000 veterans, active-duty personnel and their families, doing magic for nearly five hours during a recent holiday event — only to leave for another charity event. 

Adept at stage, parlor and close-up magic, Levine has opened his bag of tricks for schools, synagogues, senior living facilities, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the VA, an autism support group and other places. Sometimes he’s there to help with fundraising, other times he just wants to spread a little fun.

Don’t assume Levine’s work is only about catering to kids. These days, parents and grandparents may need to believe in a little magic, too.

“Adults, I think, want to believe more, especially in these times. They want to be able to suspend reality,” he said.

Levine, 50, grew up on Long Island in New York, where he first got into magic as a preteen. He gave it up when he went to college, only to rediscover the skill much later as a means of calming his then-3-year-old daughter.

These days, he’s well practiced. He can make your body levitate and your head disappear. 

Perhaps his best tricks, though, have nothing to do with magic. At The New Shul of the Conejo in Agoura Hills, for example, he founded the Men’s Club and is currently the group’s president. In this capacity, he’s helped initiate things like family hikes and single-malt scotch tastings.

“For a lot of guys, especially ones that work, it gives them a sense of camaraderie and community,” he said.

And as the head of Friends of the Agoura Hills Library, he’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years by assisting with its used-book store, the Book Cellar. That money pays for periodicals, programming and more.

No need to thank Levine for any of this, though. Really. He remembers some veterans in wheelchairs who once tried.

“I said, ‘No. Thank you. I appreciate what you did for this country.’ ”

Oz Pearlman can read your mind, but is he the next great Jewish magician?


The magician and mentalist Oz Pearlman has been running since high school, but back then he was his cross-country team’s worst asset. Years later, not long after he quit Merrill Lynch, he ran the Philadelphia Marathon, intent on qualifying for Boston. But he’d been clueless about training strategies and race tactics, and he exhausted his legs by mile 21. Nonetheless, he was hooked.

Read more at Tablet.

Jewish masters of magic materialize at Skirball


Prestidigitation as a Jewish vocation? Could there be such a thing as Yiddeshe legerdemain? Pulling an answer out of its hat, the Skirball Cultural Center is set to open two shows: a traveling exhibition that originated at the Jewish Museum in New York, “Houdini: Art and Magic,” and a new show organized by the Skirball, “Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age.”

The shows, which will run concurrently from April 28 through Sept. 4, 2011, conjure up a world of mystery and mastery, a little-known world of Jewish magicians.

We find that Harry Houdini, the son of a rabbi, born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, though a great escape artist, did not try to escape his Jewish identity.

“Coming to America, Houdini’s family faced a lot of the same issues that other Jewish immigrants faced, including anti-Semitism,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, guest curator of the Houdini show.

Houdini in chains, 1903, photograph. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections.

“I never was ashamed to acknowledge that I was a Jew, and never will be,” Houdini is quoted as writing to a friend in the show’s sepia-toned and well-documented catalog.

According to the exhibition wall text written by Rapaport, Houdini’s escapes “had particular resonance for those who sought liberation from political, ethnic or religious persecution.”

Houdini, who Rapaport considers “the most famous magician who ever lived,” died Oct. 31, 1926, of peritonitis that resulted from a ruptured appendix.

“He really was involved with the new media of this time. He was a savvy marketer,” Rapaport said. With more than 160 objects, the show includes advertising posters and broadsides that Houdini used to promote his shows.

Houdini’s Straitjacket, c. 1915, canvas, leather, and copper. Collection of Arthur Moses, Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Robert LaPrelle

Also on display will be magic apparatus Houdini made famous: handcuffs, shackles, a straitjacket, his Metamorphosis Trunk and a milk can that Houdini squeezed himself into. Contemporary works by artists influenced by Houdini will be on view as well.

New to the show is a finely crafted reproduction of Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell created by illusion designer John Gaughan; the cell will be on view only at the Skirball stop of the show’s tour.

In addition, with a deftly shuffling sleight of hand, the “Masters of Illusion” show puts on display an entire deck of Jewish magicians — kings, jacks and jokers.

The show skillfully reveals the careers of several influential Jewish magicians, including the Great Leon, who created the Death Ray Gun, as well as several generations of two magical dynasties: the French Herrmanns and the Dutch Bambergs.

According to Richard Hatch, an expert on magic who consulted with the Skirball on the show, the Herrmanns — Carl “Compars” (1816-1887) and brother Alexander (1844-1896) — helped to popularize the “Mephistophelian appearance,” the devilish pointed beard and mustache, as well as the stage wit and charm that influenced generations of magicians.

David Copperfield makes patients’ cares vanish


Trails of balloons lead down the hallway to the buffet at the Centinela Freeman Health System, formerly known as Daniel Freeman Hospital, where attendees — nurses, occupational therapists, patients and the occasional nun — nosh on skewered meat, cheese and fish, before heading into the main room to await David Copperfield’s mini-magic workshop as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of Project Magic.

The nuns are not such a surprise, since Daniel Freeman retains vestiges of its past as a Catholic entity. Nor will they be a surprise to Copperfield, né David Seth Kotkin, a bar mitzvah boy from New Jersey who attended Fordham University, a Catholic school in New York.

What may be a surprise is that Copperfield is making an appearance here at all, in this nondescript room painted institutional white in a not-so-well-known hospital in Inglewood. After all, Copperfield is a larger-than-life figure who picks iconic landmarks around the globe for many of his stunts.

Even if he has not parted the Red Sea, Copperfield has walked through the Great Wall of China, levitated over the Grand Canyon and caused the Statue of Liberty to vanish, to say nothing of presiding over an immaculate conception on stage.

Yet Copperfield also takes pride in Project Magic, which developed a quarter-century ago, when a magician contacted Copperfield, asking to be put on the “Tonight Show.” Only later did Copperfield find out that this man was wheelchair-bound. He then came up with the idea of merging magic with therapy.

The result is a program that is used in more than 1,000 hospitals worldwide, in which occupational therapists aided by magicians teach patients, often victims of strokes, car accidents or brain injuries, not only how to regain usage of their motor skills but also how to master magic tricks that an “able-bodied person can’t do,” said Copperfield, who turned 50 last year and still sports a head of black hair that matches his black T-shirt and open black silk shirt.

He points out that while the program benefits patients physically by improving their dexterity, it also improves their cognitive skills as well. For instance, Project Magic teaches mathematical and memory skills to blind patients.

Through Project Magic, Copperfield has changed the outlook and brought out the talent of patients who feel disempowered and, in some cases, stigmatized. He notes that when family members tell these patients that they look well, the compliments are not always sincere. However, when a patient performs a magic trick, the act elicits what Copperfield calls “a genuine response,” a true display of wonder from family members.

That is the reason why Copperfield got into magic in the first place — to engender little fillips of awe in the audience. He tells a story about how he performed a basic trick in front of then-President Ronald Reagan that “disarmed” the commander-in-chief.

At Copperfield’s prompting, today’s attendees disinter rubber bands, rope and pencils from goody bags, as the magician explains a few tricks, such as flipping a rubber band from the index and middle finger to the other two fingers, and holding a rope at its ends, doing a series of maneuvers through loops and creating a knot.

Squeals of delight fill the room as many of the audience members succeed in these tricks on the first, second or third time.

Not unlike his eponymous literary progenitor, who was born “privileged to see ghosts and spirits,” Copperfield through Project Magic has spiritually and physically enriched multitudes of patients across the globe over the past 25 years. He has enabled them to break out of the poverty of the imagination, if not debtor’s prison, and to enter the world of dreams.

Opening ‘The Box’


Like most of his grad student peers at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer always thought he would eventually become a pulpit rabbi, even taking an assistant rabbi position at a prominent San Fernando Valley synagogue as training for the day he would lead his own congregation.

Then an interesting experience led him to seek another way of communicating his beliefs.

"I was writing a High Holy Day sermon about what we want to do versus what we actually do," he said. "It was all very profound and I was in the middle of writing it when my wife came in and asked me a question. And I yelled at her [for the interruption]."

He pauses momentarily to shake his head. "I wish I could say that was the ‘Eureka!’ moment but that actually came a couple weeks later. I realized the irony of what I was doing: here I was preaching family values while working six days a week and yelling at my wife."

Mayer pulled back from the clergy and tried other routes, including art (his current passion is stained-glass work) and writing. He eventually decided to draw on his background as a magician — he spent 12 summers at Tannen’s Magic Camp in Oakdale, N.Y. — and put together the one-man show that became "Religion Outside the Box."

He chose for his debut the synagogue where he had received his training, Temple Judea’s main campus in Tarzana.

"Religion Outside the Box" is, in a word, revolutionary. In it Mayer weaves a bewitching combination of Borscht Belt-style humor and Eastern Philosophy, gently mocking both himself and the audience while challenging the assumption that faith is a passive thing absorbed through rote prayer and what passes for tradition. (Think a Jewish Ray Romano channeled through Ram Dass). The show takes a few interesting twists, particularly in skits like "God and the 50-minute Hour" in which Mayer acts the part of the Lord Almighty in session with a psychotherapist and in the more "interactive" sections (audience participation is a must to fully absorb Mayer’s philosophy). The audience of about 150 people — not shabby for a Tuesday night in the Valley — took the 90-minute show to heart and appeared not only to have a great time but to have learned something as well.

Mayer’s journey to rabbinic performance artist began in what the 32-year-old, raised in Manhattan, calls a typical Reform Jewish family.

“We went to synagogue for the High Holy Days, did Passover and Chanukah at home, did the yahrtzeit for our deceased relatives and attended Hebrew School when I was in town,” he recalled. “So when I became a rabbi working with kids, it was the same thing — I had me as a student.”

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Mayer attended Tufts University where he “created” a major in architecture. But in the back of his head was the thought of attending rabbinical college. So he applied for and was accepted at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

“I thought, I’ll go there and find out if there is a God and then serve on His team with a title or I’ll find out there is no God and then go into architecture with a clear conscience,” said Mayer.

Mayer attended HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem. At the Los Angeles campus he was distinguished among his colleagues as the class clown.

"They voted me, ‘Most Likely To Become a Weatherman,’" joked Mayer. "It’s just the way I see things … it’s religion, not tragedy. It doesn’t mean we have to be morose about it."

In addition to his ordination, Mayer scored another milestone during his graduate years when his chevruta (study) partner introduced him to Jane Beuth, who was working toward her degree in social work. The pair married, moved to New York to complete their respective master’s courses and then returned to Los Angeles in 1997 when Mayer was offered the position of assistant rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

Rabbi Donald Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea, said he was impressed with Mayer’s abilities and attitude from the moment they met when Goor was a guest lecturer at HUC-JIR.

"Brian was methodical in that no matter what, he kept his eye on the goal," Goor said. "He did this with determination and tremendous humor. His background as a performer, as a magician, was part of his rabbinate and made him beloved by both youth and adults."

Goor also admires Mayer for his "unique mind-set."

"Many rabbis focus solely on Jewish tradition. Brian focuses on the present and the future. He is willing to ask serious questions and find sometimes quite radical answers in order to meet his goal of helping [people] find holiness in their everyday life."

Mayer said his philosophy is not opposed to organized religion but sees that for many people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, it has its flaws.

"Religion is about defining a goal and defining a path. Organized religion is a prepackaged set of goals and paths to those goals, which works wonderfully for some people. But in this enlightened world we live in, there are people who want to pick and choose their own paths. For them, the package doesn’t work. It’s like when you get the Kellogg’s Variety Pack: you want the Froot Loops and the Cocoa Krispies but then you have to take the Frosted Mini-Wheats, too."

So, what’s the most important lesson he hopes people learn from his show?

"Stop pretending it’s going to happen by not doing anything. Ask yourself, what connects for me? Where do I find God? Is it walking in the woods, is it painting? Find out what it is and start doing it once a week. Make that your spiritual practice."

Up Front


It all started because of the theft of myautomobile. One sunny morning, while waiting for my car pool, Inoticed something in a storefront window across the street, justbehind some citizens standing at a bus stop. It was a monkey. In a diaper.

To my knowledge, I have never had a history ofalcohol or drugs, so I crossed the boulevard to get a better look atthis baby simian picking paint chips off the window sill. And there Iwas, separated only by glass, staring at this ape with the sad eyesand rabbinical beard, mesmerized (in stark contrast to the jadedpedestrians waiting for the bus).

Left, Brian Staples with his friends, Zach the macaw andBeijing the Asian Macaque, also pictured above.

So it’s only fitting that, two months later, myinterview with Brian Staples — the monkey’s owner — takes placehere at the Magic Castle, perched on the hills over-lookingHollywood. For Staples has led — quite literally — a magical life.A veteran magician, Staples is at home at the exclusive club where heis a member — he knows every staffer here, every twist and turn ofthe ornate, secret passage-laden mansion.

Ne’ Eitan Staples-Yosher 26 years ago, Staplestechnically grew up in Spokane, Washington, but, in truth, has beentraveling the world since he was six. Raised by — his words — “veryeccentric parents”, Staples followed their professional lead,performing with, and raising all manner of exotic animals. In fact,his uncle gave him a cougar as a bar mitzvah gift.

Billed as the world’s youngest magician, Staplesspent his teens touring Europe, Asia and South and Central America.He has met the king of Spain; the prince and princess ofLiechtenstein; and the chief rabbi of Israel. And through it all, hehas never lost a sense of his Orthodox Jewish identity, something heattributes to the lifelong influence of Rabbi Benzaquen ofSeattle.

At age 21, while dating a New York actressappearing in “Miss Saigon,” Staples was noticed by a casting agent.Money and a clause honoring Shabbat obligations lured Staples into alucrative side career as a ring-master. Some complications forcedStaples not to renew his contract and, after starting his own magicentertainment company — Landmark Productions — he wound up in LosAngeles, where he intends to finally settle down and establishroots.

Recently, Staples fashioned yet another career forhimself leasing his exotic animals to Hollywood, including hisdiapered monkey, an Asian Macaque named Beijing. The Staplesmenagerie in Washington state presently consists of tigers, lions,leopards, flocks of cockatoos and McCaws, and a brood of Macaqueslike Beijing. Staples is part of a privileged international communityof animal handlers with licenses to own exotic animals and travelfreely with them.

Staples’ primo primate employee is no ordinarydiapered monkey. Beijing has appeared in several major motionpictures and television programs, most recently featured on “MightyMorphin’ Power Rangers”, E! Channel’s “The Pet Shop”, and ESPN’s “TheJohn Force Show”. She has spent Passover seder with Keanu Reeves,picked bugs out of Kenny Rogers’ beard, and wiled away afternoonswith Staples’ buddy, Dustin Diamond (“Saved By The Bell”‘s Screech).Some other facts you should know about Beijing: She loves dogs, has apet rabbit named Harry, and is shomershabbat. Yes, Beijing keeps kosher, eatingalmost anything Staples eats (an aversion to pizza crustsaside).

Ahead for Beijing is more movie and commercialwork, including an upcoming Miramax production. And as for therestless and easily bored Staples, he is tackling a new challenge –acting — all while maintaining his businesses. In fact, he plans tofollow in the footsteps of inspirations like Robert De Niro andDustin Hoffman.

“I’m anxious to put my skills to work.”Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

For more information on Staples’ magicentertainment and exotic animal services, contact Brian at (213)804-5609.

100 Rabbis Online to Help Converts toJudaism

The Conversion to Judaism Home Page(www.convert.org) now has direct e-mail links to more than 100 Rabbisfrom all movements in Judaism. The rabbis are available to answerquestions and help people interested in conversion to Judaism. TheHome Page provides extensive information and advice for those who areexploring the option of joining the Jewish people.

The website was created by Lawrence J. Epstein, anauthor of four books on conversion. The site is part of theConversion to Judaism Resource Center. Those without access to thesite can get a free copy of the Center’s brochures “Should I Convertto Judaism?” and “How to Discuss Conversion to Judaism” by writingto: Resource Center, 74 Hauppauge Road, Room 53, Commack, NY 11725 orcalling (516) 462-5826.

Wishing…

Yes, Jerry Seinfeld, left, actually metMake-A-Wish Foundation recipient Ayal Beer at a taping of one of thefinal episodes of “Seinfeld.”

 

When 13-year old Ayal Beer spent almost all oflast year at an Israeli hospital for treatment of acute leukemia, theordeal was brightened by regularly watching the Jerry Seinfeldshow.

So when the Make-A-Wish Foundation, whichspecializes in fulfilling the requests of children withlife-threatening illnesses, asked Ayal for his biggest wish, theanswer was easy: to meet Seinfeld and watch him tape a show.

Last week, Ayal’s dream came true. Accompanied byhis parents and a sister, he watched in fascination for more thanthree hours as the cast taped one of its last shows on the tightlyguarded set at the CBS-TV studio.

The climax came when Seinfeld himself walked overto the Beer family for a brief chat.

“It was great, I actually got to meet Jerry,” Ayalsaid later. “I told him how much people in Israel liked his show andgave him a T- shirt which said ‘I Met Ayal Beer’ in front and ‘Jerry’on the back.”

Seinfeld, in turn, marveled that Israelis spokesuch accentless English, explained by the fact that the Beer parents,Leo and Nettie, are both native New Yorkers who moved to Israel in1975.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation in Israel, which scoreda coup last summer when it arranged a meeting between young YoniDotan and President Clinton, almost despaired at the even tougherassignment of lining up Seinfeld.

However, with the help of Michael Forman, a LosAngeles entertainment executive, Lori Schaefer Bacher, theorganization’s Israel coordinator, got the green light two daysbefore the taping.

She notified the Beer family, then visitingrelatives in New Jersey, and the following day the Beers were ontheir way to Los Angeles.

They were picked up at the airport by a limousine,were housed in a luxury hotel, and even managed to visit Disneyland,said Leo Beer, a dentist practicing in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv.

Make-A-Wish is an international volunteerorganization, active in 14 countries. The Israel branch, known asMishalat Lev and founded one year ago, has fulfilled the requests of43 children during that period, said Bacher. — Tom Tugend, ContributingEditor

 

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