Educator brings a magic touch to event on faith and spirituality
Harry Houdini may have been a rabbi’s son, but many would agree that there’s nothing particularly Jewish about stage magic.
And yet to Arthur Kurzweil, that’s just, well, an illusion.
The author and Jewish educator thinks both magic and Judaism require a faith in the unknown and an inquisitive and open mind. (And that’s not even to mention the Jewish prestidigitators who left their mark on the craft.)
“When I perform magic, the theme is always concerning questions of how the mind works, how do we perceive the world, what does it mean to truly see,” said Kurzweil. “What if our first step in learning how to see, to really see, is to know that we don’t see everything?”
Kurzweil demonstrated his innovative exploration of “eternal Jewish spiritual ideas” at a Jan. 7 program, “Searching for God in a Magic Shop,” at the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County in Edison.
As Kurzweil performed tricks with a deck of cards, numbers, and postage stamps, he tied each into a discussion about a concept in Torah, Talmud, or Jewish history.
He also presented the audience with an overview of the Jewish influence on stage magic. While Jewish tradition frowns on magic and wizardry, rabbinic law permits sleight of hand as long as the entertainers make no claims about having special powers.
Even the most famous phrase in stage magic “abracadabra” has Jewish roots. Kurzweil said the incantation is a corruption of the Aramaic phrase avra k’dabra, meaning “I will create as I speak” and was probably a reference to God’s great “trick” of creating the universe.
And of course there was Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss, the son of a Hungarian rabbi who brought his family to Appleton, Wis. The famed escape artist is “buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens,” said Kurzweil.
A member of the Society of American Magicians founded by Houdini and the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Kurzweil has written for the journal Genii: The Conjurers’ Magazine.
He said he has been interested in magic since his father took him to a store to purchase a costume for his third-grade play and he spotted some magic tricks on the counter.
As a Jewish educator, Kurzweil is the author or editor of 30 books, including The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy, Kabbalah for Dummies, and the recently published On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz, about his friendship with renowned talmudist Adin Steinsaltz.
Kurzweil’s Jewish and magical sides combined as he discussed one of his favorite books, Steinsaltz’s The Thirteen Petalled Rose. As he explained Steinsaltz’s thoughts on the different levels of angels in the four kabalistic worlds and how the mitzvot we do create and energize them, Kurzweil called up Jennine Shpigel, the JCC’s director of Jewish and family programming.
While a copy of the Steinsaltz book sealed in a plastic bag “to prevent fingerprint smudges” was being circulated through the audience, Kurzweil asked Shpigel to select a card from a deck he was shuffling. She chose the four of hearts, which Kurzweil held up for the audience to see. He then asked the audience member who had the bag to unseal it and remove the book and shake it. Out dropped the four of hearts.
Eleven-year-old Jacob Siegel of East Brunswick was impressed. “It’s really cool and interesting to find out how magicians do things,” he said. “It’s tempting to try and figure out how they do it.”
For Kurzweil, however, knowing the secret behind a trick or illusion would strip it of its magical properties, just as fully understanding the workings of God would eliminate the need for faith.
“We are told if we study Torah and Talmud everything is in there,” said Kurzweil. “It’s a thoughtful idea. Everything is for the best, but we don’t see everything.”
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