Portrait of Harry Houdini
This is a portrait of Harry Houdini that is part of the Abraham Schwadron portrait collection at the National Library of Israel. The portrait is a reprint of the original that was printed in 1934 in a book called The Jews in Magic Art, Jewish Magic Artists: A Biographies Collection by Günther Dammann, himself a Jewish magician. On the back of the portrait there is a note from Dammann to Abraham Schwadron. The note is written in German and appears to include a dedication to the Jewish National and University Library (the previous name of the National Library of Israel). The words beneath the portrait are: “Harry Houdini (Erich Weiss) the greatest magician of all time.” In the portrait, Houdini looks quite conservative, wearing a suit and tie and a serious expression.
Harry Houdini was born as Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary in 1874 and moved to the United States at the age of four. His father was a Reform rabbi and served as the rabbi of Appleton, Wisconsin, before moving to New York. Houdini became an illusionist and stunt performer, particularly famous for his remarkable escape stunts. His most famous tricks included escaping from a straitjacket, handcuffs, and a locked water-filled milk can.
Houdini died of appendicitis in Michigan on Halloween of 1924 but is still seen as a great source of inspiration by magicians all over the world. There is a museum dedicated to him in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and in Budapest, his hometown, there is a museum and theatre called The House of Houdini located in Buda Castle, which displays artifacts and props from films made about him.
Jewish History and General History teachers can use this resource when teaching about American Jewish History and the European Jewish community. Harry Houdini’s life can be seen as an example of Jewish migration from Europe to the United States in the nineteenth century.
Jewish Studies teachers can use this portrait to discuss the concept of magic in Jewish law and lore.
What is this?
Describe this man’s appearance.
How is he dressed?
What languages are used on the reverse of the portrait?
Reading Between the Lines
Based on his dress and expression, what do you think this man’s occupation was?
This is a portrait of Harry Houdini.
Where was he born?
When did he arrive in the United States?
What was he famous for?
While the man in the portrait called himself Harry Houdini, he was born as Erich Weiss. Why do you think he changed his name?
Harry Houdini’s family history is typical of many Jews from Europe who immigrated to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century.
Research the topic and answer the following questions.
Why did they leave their home countries?
Why did they go to the United States?
How were they received there?
Gunther Dammann sent this portrait of Houdini to Abraham Schwadron at the National Library of Israel.
Who was Dammann? Why do you think he sent the photograph?
Look at this video that shows Houdini’s stunts.
What do you think of these stunts?
Houdini is an example of an immigrant who became very successful in his adopted country.
Think of another example of such a person, either someone famous or someone you know personally.
Houdini called himself an escape artist, but many people also called him a magician. What are some Jewish views on magic?
Search the internet for information about Houdini’s stunts and create a short advertisement – either a poster or a short video – promoting one of his shows.