On October 27, 2013, I attended the annual Broken Wand Ceremony[1] at Harry Houdini’s grave in Machpelah Cemetery, Queens, NY. Houdini famously died on October 31, 1826, but the ritual is led by a Rabbi-magician on the Hebrew anniversary of his death (23 Chesvan). Upon arriving at Machpelah it became apparent to me that Houdini has some unexpected neighbors: much of my maternal line, 4 generations worth to be exact, is buried in Old Mount Carmel Cemetery, the cemetery across the street. I made the trip to Houdini’s grave because I was developing my dissertation on 19th-century spiritualist movement and Houdini is a key player in that history since he amassed an enormous collection of materials on the subject, and yet, was one of its preeminent debunkers. I could not have known how close, literally, this project would become to me. Since that experience I have found old Jewish cemeteries fascinating in both the energy of ancestral haunting they exude, and in the mystical beauty of the Hebraic iconography that is contained within them.

Inspired by my experience at the Houdini ceremony, I completed the photo series Bess Houdini, in which I channel the ghost of Houdini’s wife in a number of self-portraits. I have presented this work at the American Studies Association and the Association of Jewish Studies as I visually grapple with the dual absence and presence of Bess, whose headstone sits next to Houdini and yet she was never buried there because she was not Jewish. The photographs reanimate her through 120mm film via my Bess persona, which evoke a feeling of a spirit channeled in motion.  I used multiple exposures to communicate a the feeling of ghostly channeling.

[1] The Broken Wand Ceremony is traditionally performed upon the death of a magician and involves the breaking of a wand to signify the retreat of magic from the world that magician’s passing. At this ceremony, the Mourner’s Kaddish (an Aramaic incantation of sorts to remember the dead) is recited in memory of Houdini.