Abracadabra salutes Baal Shem Tov, other Jewish magicians

Sure, illusionist David Copperfield once made the Statue of Liberty disappear (not). But can he rid a house of a golem? Can he hold an extended conversation with Satan?

That kind of divine magic was reserved for the founder of Chassidism, Israel Ben Eliezer, better known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, who worked his legendary miracles in the 18th century.

Moshe Idel, a professor of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, is one of the world’s leading experts on the Ba’al Shem Tov. Though Idel is a scholar, he has a love of what could be termed the Jewish magic tradition.

“I attempt to look at him as less Chassidic, and more magical and wild,” says Idel by phone from Israel. “He was the most important magician in Judaism ever.”

And that includes Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz), David Copperfield (born David Seth Kotkin) and David Blaine (born David Blaine White).

Idel will be one of the blithe spirits taking part in “Abracadabra,” a two-month series devoted to Jewish magic and mysticism. The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco will host the program, which was put together collaboratively by the Community Center’s Friend Center for the Arts, Taube Center for Jewish Life and Goldman Center for Adult Living & Learning.

“Abracadabra” kicked off with a lecture Oct. 16 on Jewish adventures with the paranormal, featuring Eddy Portnoy of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Other guest speakers include Chilean novelist and San Rafael resident Isabel Allende and Jewish magicians Ricky Jay, Manny Sperling and Jay Alexander. Events range from seminars on monsters in the Jewish imagination to a magical Shabbat dinner complete with hamotzi and card tricks.

“When you look at all the Jewish magicians, we asked if there was a connection between Judaism, Jewish history and the practice of magic,” says Stephanie Singer, manager of lectures and special events at the Taube Center. “We wanted to bring in Jewish mystical traditions, folklore, literary traditions and the practice of magic.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov introduced an ecstatic form of worship to the Ashkenazi communities of 18th century Eastern Europe. Much of that had a magical element to it, Idel points out.

“He was called Master of the Good Name,” Idel says of his subject, “but it could also be Master of the Magical Name. He was a magician who was able to show people a new mystical outlook. He created a form of connectivity, which included not only magical practice but spiritual guidance.”

Idel says the term “magic” does not refer to parlor tricks or primetime illusion specials. It refers to perceived changes in nature, which seemed quite real to the Ba’al Shem Tov and his contemporaries.

“He was famous for attempting to ban demons from houses,” Idel adds. “He was believed able to draw demons out of bodies of women. He had not only a vision of magic but of a magical world. He believed the entire world is divine.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s brand of Judaism was an outgrowth of the superstitions of the times, according to Idel. He was interested in and influenced by the Kabbalah, but unlike traditional Kabbalists, the Ba’al Shem Tov held a very optimistic view of life.

As a scholar, Idel knows as much or more about the founder of Chassidism as anyone. But that still isn’t saying a lot, as much of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s life is a mystery. Primarily an oral teacher, he did not leave much of a paper trail.

That is why so many legends and anecdotes about the great man live on.

One of Idel’s favorites is the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov encountering Satan, who sat reading a book. He asked the devil what he was reading, and was surprised when the reply came, “Why, your book of course.”

“You see how optimistic [the Ba’al Shem Tov] was,” says Idel. “The idea that Satan was reading his book.”

Moshe Idel talks about Jewish magical and mystical traditions 8 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California, S.F. Tickets: $10-$12. For a complete list of “Abracadabra” events, visit www.jccsf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.