“Magic for Animals”: A Purim Q&A With Liz Toonkel

As we don our costumes and celebrate Purim, we reflect on the impact that one woman’s story and commitment to herself and her values may have. Liz Toonkel is a Jewish performance artist, filmmaker, and magician who is committed to using her role in the world to advocate for a better collective future.

From a young age, Liz was a performer. Her mother even says that when Liz was brought up on the bimah (stage) for her baby naming, she truly came to life. From this early love for performing to her education at NYU and CalArts, Liz’s artistic path has been about creating performance pieces that center animals and offer socio-political commentary.

Liz’s journey into the world of sleight of hand magic began with a unique vision: a hand-only opera. Seeking to delve deeper into the artistic potential of hand performance, Liz studied at LA’s renowned Magic Castle. Finding herself in a realm dominated by “straight white male” culture, Liz challenged conventional norms by authentically showing up as her queer Jewish self.  

JIFA spoke with Liz, who identifies as “an artist first, magician second,” about the creation of her one-woman vegan magic show, “Magic for Animals”. Liz Toonkel invites us to question society’s norms and think about how our choices and actions can create a more caring and just society by practicing compassion for the animals and people around us.

In what ways do you see alignment between your advocacy for animals, your show, and your connection with Judaism?

I was lucky to like grow up with a pretty open form of Judaism. I felt like there was a lot of room for questioning and also acceptance. One of the gifts I got from being raised Jewish is the desire to learn and [that] has pushed me to constantly ask questions. And I feel like when you’re a curious person and you’re asking questions, there’s so much to gain that can cause you to build empathy.

I am vegan because I’m Jewish. It just gave me the tools to grapple with stuff from a really early age and to me, it’s the framework for how I see the world. When you naturally start to think like that and ask questions, it’s a lot easier to empathize and form connections with all beings, not just people who you can talk to.

As I got older, I started to think about my love of animals more, what that meant, and how I wanted to embody it in my actions. I’m a sensitive person and certain kinds of activism that use really violent imagery, there’s a place for it, but it’s never been the most effective for me. What I can offer is something a little bit different, fun, and comedic. And that doesn’t mean that it’s light or superficial. It just means that I’m trying to meet people where they’re at and see them.

The situations in my life where I feel welcomed the more I’m softened to change. And so that’s my real goal with my show–how can I open up to people about my own experiences and wounds and how can I use that as a way to get them to think about their experiences and behavior? 

I don’t think meeting anybody from a place of judgment or creating some kind of hierarchy is helpful. If I can just be a person and recognize you’re a person too maybe we could all be a little bit better. I guess to me that’s my ideal form of Judaism: a community that’s accepting and inquisitive and wants to make the world a better place. 


Could you describe the significance behind your costumes in “Magic For Animals”? How does this connect to the power of wearing costumes on Purim, in your view?

Costume has always been a really important part of my life and also my artwork. I’ve always just been really attracted and inspired by costume and different forms of dress and fashion. My show’s costume is sort of like magician meets magician’s assistant. I feel like it kind of plays with what you expect of a woman coming out and performing. 

I was really inspired both by showgirl, Vegas outfits, and then also classic male magicians, like Siegfried and Roy. For this project, it was really important that I present in a very sophisticated, glamorous way, and then that sort of shifts over time.

I’m not just wearing this outfit because I look cute in it. There are things that are gonna happen with it, both in the way it makes you think about me and also in what I do with it, that are important. If I’m gonna look sexy and glamorous, there’s a reason, it’s not for decoration. 

Coming from more of the production design world there are a lot of things you don’t think about in terms of a costume for magic because there’s a lot of practicality to it. Certain things that might look better won’t work because they get in the way of what you actually have to do in it. So there is sort of like a balance between form and function, I don’t want anything in the show to feel tertiary. Everything, whether the audience knows or not, has a significance.

The power of Purim is to realize that, it’s kind of like drag, we’re all wearing a costume and there’s power to what you wear. So wear something that aligns with who you are, who you want to be, and how you want the world to be.

Is it challenging to make costumes and props that align with your ethics and animal advocacy?

Well, it’s a real challenge and it’s really sad. There are efforts in major fashion labels to start using vegan leathers and things like that. But it’s slow. 

I just think it’s so depressing that the holy grail of fashion is a Birkin bag. So my show I work in talking about crocodiles with this version of a Birkin bag, and it has legs. It’s like, ‘look a fancy designer purse—but also let’s think about the animals that are abused to make this stuff.’

My show also has a fake dove because I don’t want to use real doves, but we had to make it out of recycled feathers that were from a real animal, but discarded. That was a bummer for me. But I was also like, okay, well, we’re reusing these and hopefully the impact outweighs where it came from.

I have to have grace for myself about certain things. I’m not perfect, and I’m a human navigating our world, which is not set up to care about these things. And it’s trying to balance that and not chastise myself for being imperfect because it’s really hard, you know?

How do you hope your work, with “Magic For Animals” and other projects, contributes to conversations within Jewish communities about animal advocacy, and social responsibility?

I was very inspired by Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance and wanted to model the narrative of my show off of that kind of format. I read “On Repentance and Repair” by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg when I was writing my show and I thought there were some really powerful ideas in it, especially in relation to the #MeToo movement and cancel culture and how to move forward from mistakes. These are really old ideas and we often don’t turn to texts like that in our modern day to think about how to deal with conflict resolution.

It’s important to me in this moment in time to be a Jewish person out there doing something good. I’m a real fully embodied 4-D person. That’s reinvigorated my desire to put myself and my show out there because I feel like it is a really hard time to be Jewish and I think that’s made me and many peers just want to be invisible and that is scary and won’t solve the problem. 

The hopes from a Jewish audience are the same from any–someone comes in and maybe when they leave they try to shift something in their behavior. Whether that’s how they talk to their mom on their phone, or reflect on things that have happened in their life, or maybe they’ll choose to not eat a hamburger the next day. I like that critical pause before you do something of, ‘Huh, I can make a different choice here’.

Learn more about Liz in our Instagram Live chat Purim Magic for Animals and discover her other creative projects here
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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