Thursday, March 24, 2011

Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874)

Houdini was born in Hungary as Erik Weisz; his father was a Rabbi. He remade himself into a magician, escape artist, and famous daredevil.  His Jewish identity is sometimes forgotten, but here is a summary:
"Houdini has attracted many explainers, but few have grappled well with what can be seen as the two sides of the escape artist’s Jewish identity. The first is well-known: his popular death-defying theatrical acts, which represented freedom from his father’s financial failure as well as a more general liberation from the limitations immigrant Jewish life. But there is also Houdini’s less-known second act as a debunker of a mystical group known as the Spiritualists, a crusade that shared much with Emma Goldman’s fiery political tirades and that proved the boundaries of Jewish entertainers in the face of American anti-Semitism." -- From Tablet Magazine
Houdini’s death on October 31, 1926, started a lot of odd and superstitious nonsense – especially in view of his campaign against spiritualism. Maybe one of the strangest things I know about this concerns one of his last meals. This odd bit of trivia appeared in a narrative of an elderly woman, the widow of Dr. Daniel Cohn, who treated Houdini in a Detroit hospital during his last illness. Years after the event she wrote about Houdini's deathbed conversations with her husband:
"One evening while talking about his favorite foods, he said, 'I have a yen for Farmer's Chop Suey.' Farmer's Chop Suey, a dish familiar to most Jewish families, is made of chopped raw vegetables combined with sour cream. Daniel walked to a nearby delicatessen, returned with two portions and while they were eating, Houdini reminisced about his life. 'If I die, ' he said, 'don't be surprised if phony spiritualists declare a national holiday!' His disagreements with spiritualists had taken the form of many public battles." -- From Houdini and my Husband

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