IDF Magician Liran Zeligman: I manage to tap into the little kid inside each soldier.There’s nothing magical about army service spent hunkering down on the Lebanese border, checking cars and individuals at a roadblock in the territories, or even spending a few hours peeling potatoes in an army kitchen.
But Liran Zeligman is changing all that, introducing real magic into the Israel Defense Forces.
The IDF is an innovative evolving fighting force with a human face, willing to try new things. Its latest unusual soldier – the first ‘Army Magician’ – both helps raise the morale of the troops and has helped the magician himself recover from a tragic accident that almost killed him.
While fellow soldiers head off to serve in tanks, planes, or behind the wheels of jeeps, Zeligman packs his menagerie of tricks, costumes, and other show gear and heads on the road to wow the soldiers and prove something to both himself and those he entertains.
Once, he was exactly like them, an 18-year-old new recruit heading to an engineering corps outfit. OK, maybe not exactly like them: he had 14 years as a practicing magician under his belt, beginning when he was just a four-year-old boy.
That’s when he saw his first magic act, and fell in love with the tricks and the man who performed them. “He looked so cool with his tuxedo and everything, and he did tricks with fire and doves… at that moment I decided I wanted to be a magician,” Zeligman told ISRAEl21c recently in his Ra’anana home
Enough nagging finally got him a magic kit, and at six, “I already had the touch.”
The problem was that not all the tricks were made for a kid his size, but Zeligman wouldn’t back down. At recess he wowed his friends.
“They’d sit and I’d do magic for them,” he recalls of the hobby that made him increasingly popular at school.
At 10, he entered his first national competition, against fellow wizards up to age 18, and won with ‘The Dancing Cane’, the little kid slipping the device between his arms and legs to fame. “I was a wonder child,” he recalled.
He ending up on talk shows, and took acting lessons to polish his stage presence and refining his art, becoming a regular performer throughout the country before packed auditoriums. But when it came time to go to the army, he decided to trade in his magician’s trunk for a regular army duffle bag.
“I decided: ‘I’m going to forget about magic for three years, take a break, learn some different things.’ I joined an officer’s training unit affiliated with the Engineering Corps… I wanted another direction.”
But fate, and the army, as it turned out, had a different plan in store. On an afternoon off with his buddies, Zeligman brushed up against an electrified pole, and was instantly electrocuted, changing his life forever.
“I was very seriously hurt,” he recalls of the incident he prefers not to discuss in detail. “I was stuck against the pole for a long time, unconscious. At a certain point, I asked God to remain alive, and just at that moment I was able to pull free of the pole. From my point of view, it was simply a miracle.”
He was in the emergency ward for a week, in the hospital for another two weeks, underwent extensive physical and psychological rehabilitation, and still goes to therapy. But the most important therapy of all turned out to be his magic.
“I had time to think things over; it was clear to me that I wanted to stay in the army. I’m the kind of person who finishes what he starts… I thought, what can I do to feel better, to be in a better mood. And it was the magic that helped me find a better place, better times,” he recalls.
He returned to the army, reassigned to the Ground Forces evaluation base and appeared before the placement officer from its educational and cultural events unit “with the thought that I wanted to start getting back into magic.”
“She asked me about myself, and I told her the story. She asked me if I thought about what I wanted to do in the army now. And I told her: ‘Truthfully, I’d like to be a magician.’ Her jaw dropped – she looked at me and said: ‘You’re pulling my leg; be serious.?’
“I said: ‘No, seriously, I’m a magician. I think it would be good.’ She took a minute and said: ‘There isn’t anything like that in the army.’ She promised to ‘think about it.’”
“I came back a few days later and she told me that she thought she managed to pull it off. It turns out that as hardnosed and rigid the army may seem to an outside observer, the truth is that it’s a place where people talk to people; who care, who have a heart. I think they must have spoken to my doctors and that they recommended it as a good way of helping me help myself.”
After a series of auditions and meetings, he got conditional clearance for what he laughingly calls his “ultimate challenge” and became the first-ever IDF Magician.
“At first I had reservations,” recalls Liat Lousky-Moskovich, who was among the officers who interviewed Liran. “But we decided to give it a chance. He prepared flyers and we put out a message on the email that we had a magician available, and recommended people invite him to their units. I went along on one of his first performances and was very impressed, and I sort of became his agent.”
“He appears all week, at least five times a week. Sometimes two shows a day. He’s fantastic, dedicated and gives of himself, with all his heart.”
Lousky-Moskovich is also happy the IDF proved to be the kind of army that could adapt itself to Liran’s needs while meeting its own.
“Whoever is familiar with his personal story has to be moved by the fact that he’s had to endure difficult times, he’s suffered a trauma, and to me it’s very moving and only underscores the belief that we have an army that cares about its soldiers, that cares about people and wants them to be able to express themselves in the areas where they excel individually, an army that’s open to a soldier’s initiative. It warms your heart, and inspires you to continue serving.”
While making the Iranian nuclear program or Hizbullah missiles disappear may not be part of his mandate, raising the morale of weary, sometimes dispirited soldiers is no less of a challenge. That’s when Zeligman is at his best.
While the average serviceman may not be in the mood for the traditional army singing troupes that usually make the rounds, “a magician is a magician,” says Zeligman, “He’s something special. It’s magic, anything can happen. I manage to tap into the little kid inside each soldier, and even if that kid is tired, it works well.”
Calling soldiers up to the stage, he lets them stick pins in a doll, an act that suddenly causes their commander standing on stage to jump. Alongside traditional magic, he weaves in his own army experiences, getting laughs and reducing the audience’s stress level.
He recalls one particular assignment in Kiryat Shmona several months ago, where Katyushas had landed in the area. “I got a call from the Education Corps representative who told me: ‘I know that you need a loudspeaker system and other items for your show, but the truth is we don’t have any.’ She said they really needed some cheering up, and you could hear in her voice that she expected me to say no. But I said yes, that I’d prepare something special. I love a challenge.
“We got there and the soldiers were mainly sleeping, they were on 24-hour alert. They were in a bad mood, really depressed… Until I got them to get up and come see the show, it took some doing. But by the end, these people who had been so apathetic were suddenly smiling. They were happy; they started sharing jokes. The energy was back… They told me: ‘Wow, you gave us the strength to continue, thanks so much and come back whenever you can.’”
“Four months later, the soldiers are still telling me how much they enjoyed it,” says Dana Hananya, a former Education Corps officer who sent Liran to entertain her unit.
Zeligman, who’s a big fan of magician David Copperfield, adjusts his show to the audience, and often has to “smooth things over” when conditions aren’t always absolutely right.
One time he was invited to entertain some soldiers being treated to a boat ride in Eilat. “They forgot to tell me it was an open boat, and there was wind everywhere… The microphone didn’t work well, and then something related to the act blew off the boat into the water. I had to change things around quite a bit!”
Still, despite the logistical challenges of being the ‘IDF Magician’, Zeligman focuses on what he’s giving back to his fellow soldiers while also pursuing a form of personal recovery he’s thankful the army found useful.
“The IDF is an army with a heart, because it helped me help myself, but there’s no doubt they also saw how it could help the army. From every standpoint, I’d say it’s one of those cases where both sides benefit.”
The Russian army, he recounts, recognized the need to give soldiers a break, and employed an army magician, the only other army he’s heard of that’s had one. He hopes to establish a regular position for the job in the IDF, and train those who follow in his magical footsteps.
Hananya agrees. “His job title might seem a little strange, but my personal recommendation would be for the army to try to find other talented people like Liran… it’s a position that’s no less important than many others I know of in the army.”
As for the future, Zeligman wants to study after the army, perhaps psychology, and then see “where the magic takes me – Las Vegas, Atlantic City maybe.”
For now, however, he’s back on the road, conscious of the need to somehow repay the army and providence for his unique path to recovery. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Zeligman as he reviews another magic trick before heading out to yet another performance. “I have a chance to give them something that makes them feel good… I see how it strengthens them, and only then do I understand the meaning of the phrase: ‘Giving is getting back.’”