A Jewish Magician at the Egyptian Theatre

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When you do anything creative – from writing stories to hooking rugs – people are likely to ask you where you get your ideas.



A lot of times I haven’t had a good answer; but in the case of my new novel,

Magic Words

, the lightning bolt of creativity hit me in the midst of pursuing one of the most American of all activities.

I was watching TV.

The program was a PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans;” and a nice little show it was, too. All of the Yiddishe luminaries were included: Abraham Cahan and Irving Berlin; Emma Lazarus and Jerry Seinfeld; Jacob Adler and Hank Greenberg and I guess, a coupla doctors and scientists.

Then there was the young man in buckskins. He only appeared for about 10 seconds in the show: short, with curly hair and a droopy moustache, he stood proudly behind four Indian chiefs in a posed studio photograph taken sometime in the 1880’s.

julius meyerThe voiceover said that the kid was one Julius Meyer, a Jewish immigrant who became a famed translator for many Native American tribes: or words to that effect.

I was amazed: a boychik from Europe who somehow gained the confidence of a group of people rightly suspicious of the white man? An Israelite adventurer who once conversed with the free-living masters of the mountains and plains?

As the photograph faded from the screen, I knew I had found the subject of my next novel. All I needed now was a little research.

Not that Julius was easy to track down. He was, to say the least, obscure. There wasn’t very much about him on the Internet (he still has no Wikipedia page); so I had to search for him in more traditional ways. I wrote to Jewish historical societies; I haunted libraries and perused photo collections.

And the more I discovered about Julius, the more fascinating he became.

Born in Bromberg in what is now Poland; immigrated to America after the Civil War to join his brothers who were merchant princes in Nebraska; captured by the Ponca and eventually made their interpreter; named Box-ka-re-sha-hash-ta-ka (“Curly-headed white chief with one tongue”), by the greatest chieftain who ever lived; Indian agent and trader; speaker of seven Siouxan dialects.

Posted on May 2, 2012
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