Mila, the adorable Jewish mom heroine Amy Kimlathis first children’s book, “Focus on Hocus Pocus practice”, decides she wants to be a magician after seeing a captivating performance by Greta the Great. Greta teaches Mila that magic tricks aren’t as easy as they seem – and Mila learns that behind every quick magic trick is a lot of practice on the job.
Mila’s experience is one I wish I had as a kid. Growing up, every magic show I ever watched was performed by men, and it made me feel that magic, while thrilling and exciting, just wasn’t for girls. Of course, there were no books like Kimlat’s that showed serious girls practicing magic.
Magic delights children of all ages and genders, and yet I think most of us would struggle to name even one famous female magician. Jewish magicians? There are a ton of them, from Harry Houdini to David Copperfield, who happened to write the foreword to Kimlat’s book – which he says is “a book that every child interested in magic should have and that every girl interested in magic needs.”
Kimlat herself leads quite a magical life – she is married to Kostia Kimlat, a Ukrainian Jewish Ukrainian professional magician, and the two have two young daughters, Estelle and Adelaide. Kimlat started writing this book when she was pregnant with her eldest, and she says her 3-year-old daughter is already incorporating the book’s lessons into her life. Just this week, she heard her daughter say, “It’s okay, I just need more practice,” after struggling to perform a magic trick her father had taught her.
Kveller spoke to Kimlat about the connections between Judaism and magic, what it takes to be a successful magician, and the amazing Jewish female magicians you need to know.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why do you think so many Jews love magic? Why are there so many cool Jewish magicians and illusionists – from Houdini to David Copperfield to Uri Geller?
There are plenty of Jews in magic, just as there are plenty of Jews in all of the performing arts – comedy, acting, theater and singing. Magic is something that thrives on a strong sense of community. Magicians must rely on each other to share information and learn, and this strong sense of community is part of the fabric of being Jewish. Plus, getting good at magic also required intense study of dense books – something that’s practically in our genes.
I think it’s common for people who feel like foreigners to be drawn to magic. It is a skill that requires a significant amount of independent practice to pursue, and the fruit of this labor is the reward of being accepted by many people. I think that is certainly the case with my husband, Kostya Kimlat, who is a professional magician and came to the United States as a Soviet Jewish refugee from Ukraine at the age of 9 and began practicing magic after only a few years.
Why do you think all the famous magicians we know are male?
There are many women who are magicians, but most people can’t name one. I think it’s because magic – the theatrical genre – is inherently secretive and exclusive. Secrets circulate among those who are “in the know”. The result is, very often, that women and people of color have been excluded. And most magic tricks were created by men for men, who wear suit jackets with sleeves and many pockets, and before that, top hats.
There’s a lot of veiled misogyny in some of the most famous classic magic acts, like cutting a woman in half. The thing is, women just haven’t had that many role models, and even today girls interested in magic may have a harder time finding a female role model or mentor in their town. That’s part of the reason I wrote this book – to give girls a chance to see themselves in the role of a magician.
How did you come to magic? Who were your favorite magicians growing up?
My husband is a professional magician, but I joke that I was the first magician in our family. I performed a magic show for my third grade class, and again for my eighth grade class. In eighth grade, I spent the school year researching magic and its history for a presentation to my class, and I remember sharing stories about David Copperfield and Penn & Teller. The fact that these three legendary magicians endorsed my book and have quotes on the back cover would totally blow my mind.
Which female magicians should we know about?
There is a rich history of female magicians. Gloria Dea and Jen Kramer are two professional magicians that more people should know about, and they both happen to be Jewish too. Gloria, who turned 100 in August, is said to be the first magician to perform in Las Vegas, in 1941. Jen Kramer is another talented magician, and she is the only woman to headline a magic number in Vegas today.
Is there a connection between Judaism and magic?
The magical world has a lot in common with Judaism. The focus on books, healthy debate, decentralized authority, sense of community. There’s also a strong history of Jewish magicians, including current names like David Copperfield and David Blaine, as well as big names from a century ago, like Harry Houdini, Max Malini and Alexander Herrmann. There were also many talented Jewish magicians who were murdered during the Holocaust.
What made you decide to write “Hocus Pocus Practice Focus?”
I quit magic after the show I performed for my eighth grade class didn’t go as planned. A secret ball in my cups and balls routine popped up by mistake, and to top it all off, I got an A-minus on the year-long draft. I told myself that magic should not be for me. I wish someone had told me that you have to keep going and that failure is a necessary part of the process of becoming good at magic, or anything else. I also think I subconsciously realized that magic wasn’t for me as I got older, because I didn’t know any female magicians. I wanted to write the book I needed as a child…a book that would normalize seeing girls and women in the role of a magician and teach the need for perseverance.
What do you hope children will take away from this book?
There’s a line in the book that I think sums it up really well: “Magicians work hard, so do dancers and singers.” They don’t get great just by snapping their fingers. I want the kids to know that you weren’t born good at doing magic tricks, singing, dancing or anything. I want kids to know that you can’t just snap your fingers and be awesome. You have to work hard and you have to fail, usually a lot, on your way to success.
And any advice for budding magicians?
If you want to become a magician, my advice would be to seek mentorship and expect failure. But really, it’s advice that applies to any creative endeavor, and it’s advice I try to remember every day as a newbie author.