Update: The original article was corrected on June 20, 2019 to correct information regarding Harrison Greenbaum’s hometown, his grandparents and the work of Allan Zola Kronzek.
By Eric Schucht and Toby Tabachnick
Houdini, Copperfield, Uri Geller — the Jewish world has a long line of performers who focused on magic.
This fact isn’t lost on Harrison Greenbaum, a Jewish comedian and magician coming to perform June 21-22 at the Smoke and Mirrors Magic Theater in Huntingdon Valley. The New York native has appeared on America’s Got Talent, Last Comic Standing and Conan, among other programs. His show “Harrison Greenbaum: What Just Happened?” sold out the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and ran off-Broadway for two months.
Greenbaum grew up in Woodmere, New York and is the grandson of two Holocaust survivors on his father’s side. He was 5 when his interest in magic first sparked. After his father showed him a card trick and refused to tell him how it was done, Greenbaum said he became obsessed. At 14, he started attending Tannen’s Magic Camp in New York City, where his passion for the craft grew.
Greenbaum studied psychology at Harvard University and started performing stand-up, veering away from his old tricks. Now he’s reincorporated magic into his act.
“It was a long road, but my unique journey has led to a unique act,” Greenbaum wrote via email. “Each trick in my show plays to a different strength, so I love exercising all my comedy and magic muscles over the course of the show. I built a show that requires 100 percent of me in every capacity. So I’m a sweaty, exhausted mess at the end of it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
When it came to creating a hybrid magic-comedy show, Greenbaum mostly started out with ideas for jokes and worked to connect them to one of his magic tricks in a way that felt organic. If you take away the smoke and mirrors, Greenbaum could still perform the entire show as a typical stand-up routine. So, as he puts it, he’s not a “magician with comedy” but a “comedian with magic.”
The tradition of magic — in Philadelphia and beyond — has been largely dependent on Jews, who not only have been disproportionately represented in the field historically, but also levitated the art to thrilling new heights.
Allan Zola Kronzek, a Jewish magician, author and educator, has given lectures on “Magical Jews: The Life and Times of Great Jewish Magicians” at Jewish Community Centers and other venues. He is the author of several books, his latest titled Grandpa Magic: 116 Easy Tricks, Amazing Brainteasers, and Simple Stunts to Wow the Grandkids. Kronzek said another researcher compiled a list of the top 100 American magicians of the 20th century, of which 20 percent were Jews, despite the fact that Jews comprised only about 2 percent of the total U.S. population at the time.
One of the greatest Jewish magic “superstars,” according to Kronzek, was Erik Weisz, better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini. Born in 1874 in Hungary to a father who was a rabbi, Houdini immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a child, first to Wisconsin, and then to New York. He developed into a top athlete as well as a “pretty good magician,” Kronzek said.
Another renowned Jewish magician in early 20th-century America was Horace Goldin. Born Hymie Goldstein, he became famous for sawing a person in half. Although he did not invent the effect, “he certainly exploited it, and he had wonderful versions of doing it. He was a very colorful character,” Kronzek said.
Many other Jewish magicians took to the vaudeville circuit, which “was often Jewish-owned, so there was networking going on and they could get jobs,” he explained. Why Jewish immigrants were attracted to the field of magic might be explained by some of the same reasons Jews were attracted to other performance genres.
“They did so, I guess, because they couldn’t become doctors or lawyers — or they were just very talented — but certainly the door was open,” Kronzek surmised.
Jack Greenberg of Pittsburgh, a member of the Jewish community who has practiced magic for 80 years, said many Jews’ attraction to the field may be connected to the intellectual curiosity emphasized by their traditions.
“Many of the greats of magic were Jewish,” Greenberg said. “I suspect our faith encourages investigation, curiosity, resolution of puzzles and problems. It goes back to the Talmudic scholars who spent their time interpreting and arguing with one another. This is built into our faith — we’re raised to be curious and ask questions and try to resolve them. And that’s a part of magic. The art of magic relies significantly upon that feature.”
Magic, he added, is an inclusive pursuit, which could help explain why so many Jews are drawn to it.
“Birds of [a] feather flock together,” he said. “There is some grouping involved here. There’s no rejection as you find in other pursuits. There’s encouragement of people of all faiths, of all colors, of all origins to get involved with magic.”
For Greenbaum, his Jewish-identity has influenced his show. As a performer, he strives to present himself as authentically as possible, and being Jewish is a part of that identity. When it comes to the draw of Jews to magic, Greenbaum believes it has to do with living in a world that has historically persecuted them.
“The history of the Jewish people is one of adversity and survival; there have been a lot of moments throughout history when a bigger, larger or more powerful group tried to kick out or exterminate the Jews. As a result, an art form like magic — in which you can at least give the illusion of having power, the illusion of having supernatural abilities that transcends the normal — is very appealing to members of a group like the Jewish people, both in terms of performing magic and enjoying the performance of magic. Add to that how supportive Jewish parents can be and you have a recipe for a lot of Jewish entertainers, including magicians.”
Greenbaum said his goal is to leave audience members laughing hard. And the magic is his unique twist on classic stand-up.
“The show is built to make you laugh so hard you cry, or even pee a little, and astonish you so much your brain hurts,” he said. “So be prepared for fluids to leak from somewhere — towel not included.”
Toby Tabachnick is the senior staff writer of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an Exponent-affiliated publication.
[email protected]; 215-832-0751