A beautiful woman steps onto the stage. A tail-coated magician pretends to coax her—maybe through gentle hypnosis—to lie down on a table. Then, in full view of a rapt audience, the magician proceeds to saw the beautiful woman in half. The audience, while they doubtless know that what they’re seeing is an illusion, can’t stop watching: maybe this time the stunt will go wrong, or they’ll finally be able to figure out how it’s done—or perhaps they just like the whole spectacle.
While nobody really knows what makes the sawing-a-woman-in-half illusion so compelling, we do know that the classic trick was premiered in the U.S. in 1921, brought to the stage by Hyman Goldstein, a Jewish immigrant of Polish descent who performed under the name Horace Goldin. Goldin is one of the superstar magicians to be discussed in “Magical Jews,” a presentation by author and magician Allan Kronzek taking place at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor Thursday, May 28, and at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Monday, June 1. The Sag Harbor presentation is free, with a suggested donation of $10, and will start at 8 p.m. The show is appropriate for ages 15 and up.
“Goldin’s sawing-a-woman-in-half trick became a craze,” says Kronzek, a Sag Harbor resident who has written several books about magic and who presents regularly on the history and lore of performance magic. “People couldn’t get enough of it.” According to Kronzek, Goldin’s fellow illusionists devised embellishments and variations on Goldin’s basic formula, and they packed vaudeville theaters across the country. Among the numerous slides Kronzek uses to illustrate Magical Jews is one of a classic poster showing Goldin himself preparing to bisect a woman using a whirling buzz saw.
Magical Jews is an overview of a broad swath of Jewish magicians and illusionists who were active in the mid-19th through the early 20th century. Some of them, like Harry Houdini (who was actually more of an escape artist than a magician), are still household names, while others, like Nate Leipzig, have been all but forgotten. Some of them, like Alexander Herrmann, were born into families of famous magicians, while others, like the aforementioned Horace Goldin, came from non-magical backgrounds. Their Jewishness, according to Kronzek, didn’t necessarily have any direct effect on their acts—there’s nothing in Jewish culture that relates to sawing women in half, for example—but their Jewishness might well have influenced their choice of magic as a career.
“Jews were disproportionately represented in magic mainly because it was open to Jews,” says Kronzek. He likens it to other forms of show business that were emerging as mass entertainment along with magic—popular song, musical comedy and, eventually, film—and in which Jews were also particularly active because they wouldn’t encounter the traditional barriers to entry they found in other fields at the time.
At the same time, it could be argued that Harry Houdini’s famous escape act, which featured Houdini triumphing over ever more perilous circumstances, served as a metaphor for an experience shared by most Jews—the experience of being an immigrant.
“Houdini was the little guy, the self-liberator,” Kronzek says. “He characterizes conflict and struggle, and huge forces set up against the individual.” It’s not hard to see in Houdini’s act the struggles of Jewish immigrants—not only their escape from oppression and poverty in Europe, but also the continuing struggle against adversity in America. It’s one reason Houdini became the highest-paid performer in the world.
As part of Magical Jews, Kronzek will engage in a little magic on the spot, reenacting a card trick made famous by Nate Leipzig. He also will recreate a bit of card magic dating back to Abramo Colorni, a Jewish-Italian magician of the Late Renaissance. It’s reasonably certain he won’t be sawing anyone in half.
Thursday, May 28, 8 p.m. Temple Adas Israel, 30 Atlantic Avenue, Sag Harbor. Suggested donation $10. templeadasisrael.org; June 1, noon. The 92nd St. Y, Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, New York. Tickets start at $24. 92y.org