Monday, November 29, 2010

"My brain is the key that sets me free," said Harry Houdini, the great turn-of-the-century escape artist and magician.

Thousands gathered wherever Houdini performed to get a glimpse of a man who truly believed he had the power to emerge unscathed from nearly any situation, certainly situations far more scary and dangerous than the everyday scenarios regular people face, even in the hardest of times.

At the Jewish Museum exhibit we visited last week, it became clear that what Houdini's daring stunts offered up in spades was hope. His successful escape from handcuffs, ropes, chains or water-filled tanks, was a metaphor that even poor immigrant Jews, like himself, had the ability to free themselves from the shackles that bound.

As the curator of the exhibit offered, "Houdini's metamorphosis was his own, from foreign immigrant to native star..." His story, as well as his performances, provided much-needed relief and inspiration for the crowds of fans who watched his every move with baited breath.

A gold star goes out to Houdini for giving thousands a reason to believe they could do it if they tried.

The spirit of his message, of the power of belief, lives on in so many places we visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. It resides in plays like Neil LaBute's The Break of Noon, which offered up the message of one man's soul-saving belief that he had been spared from a killing spree in order to spread the message from God about goodness. It rests too in more crowd-pleasing shows like Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular, which, beyond the sexy, magically-moving-in-unison legs of the Rockettes, hard hits with the mantra that the holiday season, hell, life itself, will be bright because of the power in all of us to believe in the magic of Santa and the saving grace of Jesus.

As he read R. Crumb's graphic novel version of The Book of Genesis, my son Eli asked why they refer to what he has learned in Hebrew School as the Torah as the Old Testament, why people needed something else. The weekend's lessons loomed large.

"People always need something new to believe in, they always need a story of hope," I said. It is a lesson I will teach, and learn, again and again and again in so many ways.

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