Oz Pearlman Can Read Your Mind, but Is He the Next Great Jewish Magician?
Marathoner, former Wall Streeter, mentalist, the entertainer builds from Jesus’ initial trick of turning water into wine
The magician and mentalist Oz Pearlman has been running since high school, but back then he was his cross-country team’s worst asset. Years later, not long after he quit Merrill Lynch, he ran the Philadelphia Marathon, intent on qualifying for Boston. But he’d been clueless about training strategies and race tactics, and he exhausted his legs by mile 21. Nonetheless, he was hooked.
Investing in running the same vigor he had invested in magic, he researched aerobic base training and tracked his fitness with a heart-rate monitor. Within two years, he’d won a marathon and, inspired by Ultramarathon Man, a motivational memoir by ultrarunning super brand Dean Karnazes, signed up for a 50-mile race, which he won by 26 minutes. He then took up the triathlon and qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. On the way, he won more regional marathons, setting a personal record of 2:28—a pace of 5:39 per mile—and in 2009 in Chicago he posted the fastest 50-mile race time in the world for that year. To maximize his potential, he undertook unconventional training methods: specialized bike pedals to target neglected hip and leg muscles, a portable electrical muscle stimulator to work on planes and at his desk, a hypoxic mask to simulate the thin air found at high altitude, a nearly all-fruit diet to shed pounds. In preparation for next week’s Badwater ultramarathon, a 135-mile race from Death Valley to the Sierra Nevada—where, to avoid the asphalt bubbling from the 120-degree desert temperatures, runners step on the white road lines—he’s been drastically ramping up his weekly mileage.
On a recent warm and rainy day, Pearlman and I were jogging through Central Park, when we exited into Harlem, ran through Columbia University and along Riverside Drive, sidestepping puddles and dodging delivery trucks, and then retraced our route. Back in the park, I asked Pearlman if spectators ever refused his magic tricks. He said they did.
“Some people just don’t want to feel stupid,” he explained. “That’s kind of not the point of what I’m doing.”
“But you understand why they feel that way,” I said.
“I do, but it’s an insecurity of theirs. Few people have seen enough mentalism to know they hate it. Unless they’re very religious and they think I’m possessed.”
“Do you have those interactions?”
“Some people are like, ‘Is this black magic’? And I’m like, ‘Uh, no, I’m a Jew.’ ”
“Why is it that so many Jews have been great magicians?” I asked him.
“We’re all going after Jesus’ initial trick of turning water into wine,” he deadpanned. Then his tone became pensive. “Why are there so many Jews in finance, in Hollywood? But I guess that’s different than being a magician. If you look at entertainers, there aren’t that many Jewish singers. The most famous magicians have almost all been Jewish, except for maybe Siegfried & Roy.”
“Do you know other Jewish magicians?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. A lot of them.”
“Do you ever talk about this?”
Pearlman was born in 1982 in Israel and lived there until he was 3, when his family moved to the United States for his father’s engineering job. He grew up in Farmington Hills, Mich., a northwest suburb of Detroit, in a Hebrew-speaking, secular Jewish home. He played recreational soccer, swam competitively, read science fiction, and attended summer camp at the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth; at age 12, he scored an 800 on the math portion of the SATs.
The next year, on a Bermuda cruise that was his bar mitzvah present, he discovered magic when an on-board magician asked him to assist with a sponge-balls routine. The magician handed him a ball, multiplied it into another, and then made it disappear. Enthralled and bewildered, Pearlman, with the help of his dad, composed elaborate theories to explain the trick—the heat from his hand had split the ball into two, the balls were made with NASA space-age technology. They stalked the magician to a meet-and-greet, where he showed a Pearlman a few card tricks.
The day after he returned home, Pearlman went to the library and checked out every book on magic. A month later, his parents drove him to a magic store, where a salesman put a deck of cards in his hand and made a card rise out of it. “I just went, whoa,” Pearlman says. He bought the trick and started practicing magic every day. When he learned that his classmate in freshman English, Ryan Hertz, was a magician, he peppered him with technical questions about “really cumbersome sleight-of-hand tricks,” Hertz told me during a recent phone conversation.
A lot of kids get into magic for the camaraderie with fellow magicians, but beyond networking with professionals at magic seminars that Hertz took him to and studying with his mentor, a magic hobbyist named Bruce Kessler who steered him toward the pertinent industry literature (like Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue) and luminaries (Paul Harris, David Williamson), Pearlman says he was a “lone wolf” obsessed with magic’s intellectual properties. He considered magic “an elaborate problem to be solved—the problem of how to fool an audience” and quickly landed a steady job as the in-house magician at an Italian restaurant, where learning how to approach strangers and deal with rejection boosted his confidence. He also picked up other income, even talking his way into a gig for National Tire and Battery, which hired him to perform at store openings for fans waiting for autographs from Detroit Red Wing players. When performing, he had a knack for drawing attention. “I remember the 45-year-old adults clamoring in amazement,” says Bruce Wright, a local businessman who’d hired Pearlman to cruise around the neighborhood with him in a 1966 Maxim “F” fire truck and perform at kids’ birthday parties.
Pearlman graduated high school when he was 16 (he skipped fourth grade) and contemplated moving to Israel, where his mom had returned after a divorce, before ultimately deciding his future lay in the United States. After being rejected from one Ivy League school and wait-listed at another, he enrolled at the University of Michigan to study computer science, since his older sister told him there would be jobs in the field, only to learn he hated coding. He switched his major to electrical engineering and performed magic to pay his tuition.
The versatile artist’s summer exhibit at the Skirball Center welcomes visitors into the lost world of his Holocaust survivor parents