The Arty Semite

The Greatest Living Magician

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share
Theo Westenberger/Autry Museum

Ricky Jay is a polymath of the dark arts. A master of sleight-of-hand and considered by some to be one of the greatest magician living today, he is also a historian of magic, a collector of rare books, a lecturer, a film and television actor, and a co-creator of the firm Deceptive Practices, which supplies “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” to film, TV and theatrical companies by using magic and illusions to solve production challenges.

Finally, he is the subject of a fascinating new documentary, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” which opened in New York on April 17.

A combination of extraordinary archival performance footage and a series of lengthy interviews with Jay, it reveals a man who was introduced to magic by his grandfather, then left home at 16 and was taken under the wings of some of the greatest magicians of the time.

Jay spoke to The Arty Semite about discovering magic, his mentors and the Jewish influence on magic and magicians.

Curt Schleier: In the film, you mention that you wanted the magician Al Flosso to perform at your bar mitzvah, and your parents arranged that as a surprise. That seems like a big deal, yet you didn’t seem to get along with your parents. You called it “the only kind thing I remember.”

Ricky Jay: It was a big deal. I just don’t talk about my family — I choose not to — though I appreciate your interest.

But you will talk about your grandfather, Max Katz, an amateur magician who introduced you to the art form.

He taught all the grandchildren magic, and we were all interested in it for a short while. But I never stopped. I also had a fairly normal childhood. I was interested in sports, interested in literature, interested in music. So I didn’t only do magic.

Did you have an epiphany at some point, a realization that you and magic were bashert (intended for each other)?

Nothing like that. I’m trying to think back and come up with the right answer. It was more something I always did than something I felt I must do. In fact, people kept urging me not to do it for a living. Like any Jewish kid, I was told: “Go to college. Get a degree.”

As noted in the film, you received help from famous magicians, especially Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, throughout your career. Were these guys paid to teach you?

No, they weren’t paid. It was a remarkable act of generosity, both to me and my grandfather. My grandfather was a generous man, so he may have wound up paying for some of that. But when I moved to Los Angeles, money never changed hands. You presented what you did, and if those people wanted to talk to you they did. You could have offered them a great sum of money, but if they weren’t interested in pursuing it they never would have done it.

An awful lot of the great magicians — like Houdini, for example — were Jewish. Why do you think that is?

I think the reason there were so many Jewish magicians — and some of the greatest magicians of the 20th century were — is the standard thing we say about Jews and entertainment: It was one of the few professions open to them. Max Malini [born Max Katz Breit], Nate Leipzig — great sleight-of-hand artists who died before I was born, but their legacies were incredibly strong.

Has your Jewish background influenced your work?

Certainly I’ve been influenced to some extent by my background. I’ve been particularly intrigued by stories of the golem. I worked for a while on an illusion involving a golem, but couldn’t get it to work.

Who are the magicians working today whom you admire?

Michael Weber [his partner in Deceptive Practices]; David Roth, a sleight-of-hand artist who is particularly good with coins; Juan Tamiriz, one of the most popular entertainers in Spain, and a one-armed Argentinean, Rene Levand.

You’re still active in the field?

Not as much as I used to be. What I do now is these one-man shows, all directed by David Mamet. That’s my primary venue. I used to do corporate shows. I worked on the streets as a busker. I even opened for rock ’n’ roll shows. I worked comedy clubs. Being able to acquire these various experiences was very important. Deceptive Practices is also consulting on a Houdini musical that is going to star Hugh Jackman.

With all this going on, why make the movie?

The movie was absolutely without question to pay homage to the people who were so generous to me and are utterly remarkable. I think it’s kind of wonderful for people to know about them.

Watch the trailer for ‘Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay’:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Ricky Jay, Magic, Interviews, Film, Documentaries, Curt Schleier

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.