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What's Up with Jews and Magic? Max Maven Lectures at the Skirball

What's Up with Jews and Magic? Max Maven Lectures at the Skirball
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center.

When we reported on the Skirball's double exhibits "Houdini" and "Masters of Illusion" a few weeks ago, there was one question that we didn't quite get to cover: how come so many magicians are Jewish?

A few possible answers seem to present themselves right off the bat, and were repeated by the informal Panel of Knowledgable Jews We Ran Into While Writing the Article: Judaism has a history of mysticism (Kabbalah, the Golem, Coen Brothers movies); there are just a lot of Jews in show business, period; or, the perennial joking favorite, Jews have always needed a good escape plan.

Luckily for our libel attorneys and the historical knowledge of the general public, living legend Max Maven (born Philip Goldstein) was on hand at the Skirball last night to speak exactly to this question, with no lack of solid statistics and jokes about goyim.

Maven started his talk in a very good place to start: by establishing that yes, it's actually true that there is a higher percentage of Jews in magic than in the general population -- 20% of "notable 20th century American magicians" were and are Jewish, while the Jewish population in the US in the same period has never risen above 3.7%. Happy to start your Friday morning with numbers? Thought so.

So where did these Jews come from that were so overrepresented in magic and show biz, vaudeville and the airwaves, from the 1880's until today? They were mostly part of the second great wave of Jewish migration to the US, the Ashkenazi and Eastern European Jews who bumped up the total of God's chosen in the US from 15,000 in 1840 to 2 million by 1913. And why show business, especially magic? Maven had five answers for that.

5. It Was Available

What can we say -- when systemic racism closes one door, emerging or déclassé industries open another. When WASP America put out their "No Irish Need Apply" signs, the emerald masses became the head-knocking cops that respectable folks didn't want to be, and when Tony Pastor (a goy, btw) developed "clean vaudeville" as a family-friendly hybrid of hoity-toity theatre and crass saloon entertainments, American Jews stepped right up to run the theaters and fill the stages. By 1900, most of the 2,000 vaudeville theatres in the US were owned by Jews, with no shortage of the same in the estimated 15,000 acts touring the country.

4. "Cultural Celebration of Intellectual Pursuit"

So, Jews weren't allowed to own land in Europe (we know, it's a bummer to find out another horrible thing that you didn't know was a thing), and because of that, they avoided the brute labor route for the most part and instead had a history of skilled labor. Combined with a religious tradition heavier on argument and discussion than on adherence to dogma (we're giving Maven this one, because that's what it seemed like when we saw Yentl once), Maven says this leads to a culture where intellectual labor and wit are emphasized, thus, Jews thriving in a field that necessitates inventing elaborate illusions narrated by near-constant patter, or as Maven put it, "Jews did well in part because they wouldn't shut up."

3. Otherness

Maven's idea here was that Jews are the minority's minority, the only immigrant group to America that had already had practice with marginalization for thousands of years upon showing up. The joke is that since they didn't have to deal with the confusion of suddenly becoming a subculture, they were able to just get going with whatever opportunities they found, but the truly excellent point here is that since they were already outside looking in, it was a lot easier for them to see and deliver what mainstream tastes wanted -- call it the "Things Not-Jewish People Like" effect.

2. Assimilation

This point seems like shades of otherness (band name, we called it), and it kind of is. Specifically, Maven pointed out that while Jews were already pretty good at assimilation, they also, well, didn't really mind doing it. Of 50,000 people who changed their names in the US in the 1940's, a whopping 80 percent of them were Jews. So for better or worse, if you're not preoccupied with making Jewishness or Yiddish puns your shtick onstage, your act's gonna fly a whole lot better in Duluth.

1. Networking

In a "duh" worthy of Malcolm Gladwell, Maven simply pointed out that "all of these guys knew each other." There's not a whole lot more to say about that, except for the exceedingly cool note that when post-war America's guilt trip led to an all-time low in anti-Semitism in the '50s and '60s, Jewish performers like Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and Woody Alllen embraced their identity - and sensibility - onstage. Great fact that underlines this change: around 100 Yiddish words entered the mainstream US vocabulary in the same period.

Should we end this post with some semi-related comedy from Marc Maron? Yes, we should.


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