February 1st, 2011
Young Erik Weisz was born in Budapest in 1974 to Rabbi Mayer and Cecilia Weisz, the fourth of seven children. At age four, he immigrated to the United States, where his father became Rabbi of a congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin.
This young man was in many ways the “typical” immigrant child: His father’s career stalled in Appleton and the family relocated to the Upper East Side. The family first changed the spelling of his name to the Germanic Erich Weiss and later, as an adult, young “Ehrie” took on the much more Americanized name of “Harry.” And Harry, from an early age, would insist that he was born in the United States and not in a foreign land.
Mr. Houdini’s escapes are legendary; some may even be mythological. We can speak more of them.
Perhaps of near equal interest—at least for this moment—is his legacy as a Jewish immigrant, one whose legacy goes far beyond the performance stage.
I wish not to give too much away, but I very much want to spark your interest in learning more about this fascinating figure in Jewish history. Parts of his story are similar to those we have heard in our own family lore; others go far beyond our imagination. We will see both and learn to discern truth from fiction when, as a congregation, we visit the Jewish Museum’s “Houdini: Art and Magic” Exhibit on Sunday, February 13. Full details are within this Newsletter; please note the RSVP deadline.
I would be remiss, though, were I not to mention the events of the past month. By the time this reaches your homes, nearly a full month will have passed since the tragic shooting in Tucson on January 7 and the death, the next day, of Jewish singer and composer Debbie Friedman.
Of the many concerns raised in the wake of the Arizona shooting, one of the most crucial is the topic of mental illness. While it would be irresponsible to offer an armchair diagnosis, those familiar with the accused shooter describe a downward spiral of dropping out of high school, withdrawal and antisocial behavior, paranoid thoughts, and a tendency to latch on to conspiracy theories. Some of his alleged comments and outbursts were simply nonsensical. These symptoms are not unique to this one individual; it is possible more than a few of us have known, directly or indirectly, a family member, friend, or coworker who exhibited some of them. While we might easily wish to excuse that “odd cousin,” this is likely someone who needs help. Intervention—medical and psychological—can prevent a person from becoming harmful to him- or herself or others and can get that person back on track to a positive and fulfilling life. As mentioned in this column before, resources such as our own PIC partnership can be a good place to start.
And finally, how does one say goodbye to Debbie Friedman? Her 35-year career in Jewish music touched the lives of so many—those who had the privilege to know her personally and those whose Jewish experience was enhanced by the music she married to traditional prayers, as well as the original words she wrote. Debbie’s early work was among the first songs I learned as a child; as I consider her work in retrospect, I think we can see her own development as a Jew and a feeling person over the years.
It is no secret that Debbie lived with chronic illness and poor health for decades. I personally remember one concert at the URJ Biennial in San Diego a few years back: Debbie was to perform a concert, but was not well enough to sing. There were many other musicians in attendance, some who had grown up with her as a role model. Each of these professional Jewish musicians, some in small groups or chorus, performed a concert of Debbie’s music—for Debbie, as well as for all of us. I believe she was as moved by both their spontaneity and generosity as were the thousands of conference participants in attendance that evening.
These are the memories—people at their best selflessly sharing of their talents in a moment or throughout a lifetime—that sustain us through the others.
Shalom Uv’rachah—Peace and Blessing,
Rabbi Sheila B. Goloboy