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Magic Man

Rokhl’s Golden City: Remembering mentalist Max Maven

Rokhl Kafrissen
November 11, 2022
Max Maven in 1984
Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty ImagesMax Maven in 1984
Max Maven in 1984
Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty ImagesMax Maven in 1984

There’s a lot of talk right now about the future of Twitter. It seems obvious to me that social media, especially Twitter, has been a major vector for anti-democratic, anti-science disinformation across the globe. Even worse, the people who profit from the major platforms seem to have no interest in getting rid of bad actors and the garbage they push. Not to mention how psychologically damaging and even addictive social media can be at the individual level.

And yet, despite the very, very bad, social media has also been a powerful tool of genuine social connection, delivering on so much of what makes life good. In my own experience, that meant making amazing friends and professional connections through Twitter, none of which would have happened offline.

Social media has also become the place where I get reader feedback and Yiddish questions. In early 2019, for example, I started getting the occasional Twitter tag from a user with the curious name of “Max Maven.” I eventually learned that Max Maven (born Philip Goldstein) was a very highly regarded and beloved member of the international mentalist (mind reading) and stage magic community. And he was a regular reader of my column!

In 2005, Maven published a very limited-edition book called The Protocols of the Elders of Magic, a play on the title of the notorious antisemitic hoax. The fact that hardly anyone even knows what’s in the book, and it’s almost impossible to find, hints at Maven’s smartly sardonic sense of humor.

For the last few years, Maven had been researching Jewish magicians, while also being treated for glioblastoma, a form of aggressive brain cancer. In a Twitter direct message, he told me that he was interested in writing a book on the subject—“but that will take time.” To my great sadness, Max Maven wasn’t given that time. He died in Los Angeles on Nov. 1, 2022, at the age of 71.

Back in March 2021, I got an invitation from him for a virtual talk he was giving on Jewish magicians, part of his ongoing research. I waffled on attending until the last minute. I still wasn’t quite sure who he was and, as a rule, I’m extremely wary of invitations from strange men on social media. And yet, once I logged onto the talk, a glance at the chat showed that a couple of my Yiddishland friends were already there! And, of course, Maven’s presentation turned out to be fascinating.

When it was over, I realized, too late, that I should have told Shane Baker about it. In addition to being an internationally recognized authority on Yiddish, Baker is also a pretty good stage magician, as well as being well read in the history of magic. Baker had been out of town when I got the invitation and I assumed he was too busy to attend. When he got back, I mentioned it to him. Do you know this guy, Max Maven? Stupid question. Of course he knew Max Maven. Game recognize game; subculture recognize subculture.

It was Baker who told me that Max Maven was avek in der eybikayt, gone. The news had quickly spread through magic and mentalist social media. I asked Baker if he would share a few words about Maven, which he graciously agreed to do:

“Max Maven was endlessly inventive within the field of mentalism: A simple search of the conjuring archive [index to magical literature] produces over 1,300 effects and publications with his credit. But––without offering any spoilers––to be a ‘maven’ in the theft of thoughts, one must be incredibly observant. And although Max Maven’s shtik was specifically mentalism as opposed to magic, he obviously had vast curiosity and knowledge of the entire field and shared deep observations on the various magicians’ fora. We’re going to miss him.”

As I’ve already mentioned, the subcultures of stage magic and Yiddish have some surprising points of contact. My friend Josh Dolgin is largely known by his stage name, Socalled, under which he performs his own brilliant fusion of Yiddish, klezmer, and hip-hop. Most people probably don’t know he has a second performing persona (and maybe even a third and fourth waiting to be revealed …) he uses for stage magic: Dolgini. Of course, Dolgin was one of my fellow Yiddishland habitues I bumped into at Maven’s 2021 virtual talk.

Back in 2019, Max Maven tagged a couple of Yiddishists, including myself, in a highly nerdy Yiddish research question. He was looking for a photo of Frank Seiden. Seiden, according to Max Maven, had recorded over 200 Yiddish songs between 1901 and 1905. Maven was looking for a photo of him. Knowing that there are other folks with a specific research specialty in early Yiddish 78s, my eyes sort of slid over the question. A simple Google search would have told me that not only was Seiden a Yiddish recording artist, but as Professor Seiden he worked as a magician and all-around entertainer. I have to assume that Seiden was one of the characters we would have met in Maven’s planned book about Jewish magicians.

Last year, Daniel Carkner (another Yiddishland colleague) published a fascinating article on Seiden. You can even hear him singing a bawdy Yiddish song about ladies who disappear to the tenement rooftop with their boarders.

Somer Bei Nacht Auf Di Decher
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Somer Bei Nacht Auf Di Decher

Frank Seiden arrived in New York City in 1877, a year before Erik Weisz (later known by his stage name, Houdini) arrived in New York from Hungary. Both men were Jews from Eastern Europe—Houdini, the son of a rabbi. The field of modern stage magic was booming and Jews, not surprisingly, were overrepresented. Personally, I don’t think that overrepresentation had anything to do with being Jews, except insofar as Jews exceeded at being Americans, and Americans were having a love affair with stage magic.

It’s interesting to me that at the same moment (1878) a young Erik Weisz was arriving in New York City with his rabbi father, Avrom Goldfaden was publishing one of his most famous Yiddish operettas, The Sorceress. In it, the sorceress of the title, Bobe Yakhne, is well known for her skills in reading Tarot cards, making love potions and casting spells. But through her, Goldfaden articulates what was the Maskilic, Enlightenment attitude toward such magic:

“You are still convinced that I perform magic? You still believe that I stir cauldrons … that I spin a wheel in an oven, that I stick a pair of scissors in the earth and cause something that way? Those tricks I do only to swindle money out of fools who are idiots enough to believe in such things. Really, those things have no worth—what constitutes my magic? In the practical experience I gained in the world. Life experience and wisdom. The expertise to swindle, that is the whole of my magic; outside of that it’s nothing.” (Quoted from Alyssa Quint’s translation in The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater)

It seems to me that at some level, Goldfaden is aligning himself with the sophisticated, pro-science attitudes of the day, but at the same time, he is using the nefarious character of Bobe Yakhne to propose the illusions of the theater (his theater) as an enlightened successor to the illusions of traditional superstition. In that way, he has much in common with modern stage magicians, many of whom (like Houdini) made it their work to discredit fraudulent psychics and mediums as part of the entertainment. …

I messaged Dolgin recently to see if he had any memories of Max Maven’s 2021 presentation on Jewish magicians. He wrote back with immense enthusiasm, saying Maven’s talk was “one of the best Zooms of the pandemic by far.” It had “research, an actual thesis that was explored and proven, incredible details …” Indeed, Dolgin wrote in his message that Maven’s “work on Jewish magicians is super important” and wondered who would take it up now that Maven was gone.

I wondered this, too. And it kills me that if not for the ongoing pandemic, and Maven’s illness, he would have no doubt been pressured by the community of Yiddish oddballs to join us at Yiddish New York or Klezkanada. And I take it as a reminder that despite an ocean’s worth of garbage gyres floating across social media, there’s magic to be found there, too.

ALSO: On Nov. 13 the Klezmer Institute presents a conversation with YIVO’s Eléonore Biezunski in their “Archives in Focus” series. The series features “archivists and scholars who are deeply connected to archives that were wellsprings for the klezmer revival, and which continue to inform new generations of practitioners in Ashkenazic expressive culture.” Register here … Also on Nov. 13, a program called “Underworld Songs (untervelt-lider): Anarchy, Atheism, Crime & Sex,” a song workshop with Jeanette Lewicki. Co-presented by KlezCalifornia and Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco. More information here … On Nov. 29 tune into the “DNA Reunion Project” at the Center for Jewish History, featuring professional genealogists with a niche expertise in Ashkenazi Jewish genetic genealogy. They will discuss prior cases they have solved using DNA, “including identifying the unknown father of a baby born in a concentration camp, tracking down the biological family of a toddler found in a Polish orphanage after the war, and identifying the unknown father of a child survivor of Theresienstadt.” More information here … Montreal’s Black Ox Orkestar is returning for a new album and tour this winter. Catch them at Brooklyn’s Union Pool on Dec. 16 and 17.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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