The Secular Turn and Jewish Studies, Houdini, and Liberation Narratives

I had my first meeting with Fred Moten about my prelims this Friday, 4.13.2012 and Oh boy! is my brain thinking after this one. Of the various things that came up during the meeting was secularism in the history of Jewish Studies. I expressed my uneasy feelings about having been brought up in an orthodox Jewish home and that because of my background I will never be “secular” even if I choose to redefine my religious practise. We talked about the history of detachment and distance to orthodox Jewry in Jewish Studies–from Trilling to Mailer to Bloom or even Woody Allen–as if to say, “Oh no, of course, I’m not like those backwards believers.” This whole tradition really unsettles me and continues to inform the field of Jewish Studies. In order to think through these ideas more fully, I’ll absolutely have to include reading on secularism for my Jewish Studies list. Fred also gave me some great incite about how all of my three lists seem to be informing each other, which wasn’t so clear to me before. My interest in the intersections between spiritualism and science and the 19th-century align with my interest in Jewish studies because the Jew becomes this intermediary figure that represents the supernatural and the scientific. Think of the magical Jew. Houdini would be a great example of this: he markets the mysticism of the Jew alongside the heritage of talmudic reason by debunking of supernatural aspect of the magic he performs, mixing both cultural spheres. The Jew and magic seems to become an important figure at the turn of the century, which might be siginificant as I track the intermingling of magic, science, and the supernatural from the early American period to the present. In terms of the secular turn and the occlusion of the orthodox Jewish culture as a serious formative and enduring influence, I think it might be interesting for me to think about figures like Houdini and Yezierska, who are raised in orthodox Jewish homes. How might we re-think the story of liberation from the shackles of orthodoxy to secularism? Might it be more nuanced than this construction? I think it is. This ubiquitous image of Houdini takes on new meanings when thinking about freeing oneself from orthodoxy:

There is so much we can do with this image. For one, the shackling here recalls images of enslaved peoples from Africa. Additionally, Houdini’s scantilly clad physique is suggestive of the “the savages” which served as curiosities at the World Fairs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The shackling might also connote the burden of the Jew–particularly interesting to me is the placement of Houdini’s hands in this pose, which seem to underscore the male  Jewish netheregions. All of these readings are valid, I think, and are entangled with one anohter. The shackling here aligns the Jew with the enslaved African, the savage, and the Jewish curiosity that Erich Weiss (Houdini’s Jewish alter-ego) becomes.

I also really enjoy this image and for reasons that aren’t necessarily obvious. Now I know Houdini wore the tuxedo as part of his costume and bear with my anachronisms but I can’t help but see a visual relationship between Houdini’s tuxedo garb and the “black-hatters” of the yeshivish community. The image takes on new meanings then when we read Houdini as the product of an orthodox home, who is dressed in what will become the “signature” white shirt-black pants of the twentieth century, and whose performances are so interested in the “escape” and opening those shackles. Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay interestingly draws on Houdini as the ultimate Jewish hero in the 20th century at the point when European Jews could not escape. Houdini as a figure is Jewish literature is of general interest to me–he seems to crop up all over the place. E.L. Doctorow especially enjoyed Houdini.

Also, I smell a research grant proposal at the LoC in the not-so-distant future:

Harry Houdini Collection, Library of Congress

Publications, scrapbooks, and other material relating to spiritualism and magic

Harry Houdini (1874-1926), master magician and escape artist, wrote in A Magician Among the Sprits, (1924) that he had “accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc., some of the material going back as far as 1489.” In 1927, through Houdini’s bequest, the Library received 3,988 volumes from his collection. While strongest in nineteenth and twentieth century publications on spiritualism- Houdini doubted “if any one in the world has so complete a library on modern Spiritualism: – the Houdini Collection contains a number of magic books inscribed or annotated by well-known magicians. Leonard N. Beck. discusses significant items in “Things Magical in the Collections of the Rare Book Division,” QJLC, v. 31, October 1974, p. 208-234. Also in the collection are prints, playbills, printed ephemera, periodicals, and many volumes of pamphlets on such topics as card tricks, mediums, hypnotism, handcuff escape methods, and chalk-talking. Of special note are over one hundred unannotated scrapbooks containing theatre notices and news clippings on subjects of personal interest.  Houdini’s theatrical collection was sold after his death to Messmore Kendall and later donated to the University of Texas


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