But there is also a general assumption that Mrs. Weiss spoke Yiddish. Her husband was a rabbi after all. This information appears again and again in articles (including this 2010 piece on Houdini and assimilation), and in the 1998 TNT biopic, Houdini, Mama (played by Grace Zabriskie) is shown speaking Yiddish to her Ehrich.
But in a lengthy and revealing letter Bess Houdini wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after Houdini's death (reproduced in full in Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning), she adds a P.S. that corrects this very assumption and reveals exactly what languages Mrs. Weiss spoke:
P.S. One exception to your article enclosed. Houdini's mother never spoke Yiddish, not even Hebrew,--German, French, Italian, Spanish and her own Hungarian only.
Bessie's own family were also German speakers. I've often thought one of the things Bess and Harry instantly had in common was that they both came from large immigrant families whose first language was German. This must have certainly made Bessie's assimilation into the Weiss family easier.
Recordings of Houdini speaking German with his sister, Gladys, exist on the famous Houdini voice cylinders in the collection of David Copperfield. Unfortunately, these recordings have not been made public.
So it looks like the old-world Yiddish speaking Mama is another Houdini myth. In fact, Cecelia Weiss seems quite cosmopolitan with her mastery of five languages. It's surprising that she never learned English.
|Grace Zabriskie as the old-world Mrs. Weiss in Houdini (1998).