Jew of the Week: Henry Orenstein

Henry Orenstein with some of his toy inventions (Credit: Shaminder Dulai)

Henryk Orenstein (b. 1923) was born and raised in Poland. He survived five concentration camps during the Holocaust (losing both parents and two of four siblings), and settled in the US afterwards. Orenstein’s first job paid him 85 cents an hour. One day, he saw a doll being sold for a whopping $29.95, and knew he could make a better and cheaper doll. Orenstein pitched his new design – with a $9.99 price tag – mainly to grocery stores instead of department stores. The dolls quickly became a huge hit, and made him $2 million. Orenstein started his own toy company, Deluxe Reading (or Topper Toys, as it was more commonly known). The company went on to produce the famous Suzy Cute and Dawn Doll lines, as well as the hugely successful Johnny Lightning model cars, and many Sesame Street toys. Orenstein’s New Jersey factory soon employed 5000 people, all of whom admired their boss, and once talked of him running for president! By 1972, the company went out of business, but Orenstein was still inventing toys, filing patents, and pitching new ideas to larger toy companies. In the early 80s, Orenstein discovered a new, little-known Japanese toy, a transforming car, and saw the huge potential behind it. He managed to convince American toy giant Hasbro to bring these “Transformers” to the US, and the rest is history. Transformers became a worldwide phenomenon, with comic books, video games, 40 toy collections, multiple TV shows, and a series of blockbuster films (the fifth installment – The Last Knight – hits theatres this week). Year after year, Transformers are Hasbro’s best-selling toy line, and have been credited with keeping the company afloat. Meanwhile, Orenstein fell in love with the game of poker. He once sat down to watch the World Series on TV and was totally bored by it. This led him to his most famous invention: the hole-card camera. Orenstein patented a table which had cameras built in under glass panels to allow TV viewers to see the poker players’ cards. Poker officials rejected his idea, and it would take another seven years until Orenstein successfully convinced one executive to use the hole-card camera. Debuting in 2002, Orenstein’s table revolutionized the game, and much like Transformers, made poker a worldwide phenomenon. One NBC exec admitted that Orenstein is “single-handedly responsible for the success of poker today.” Orenstein has himself won over $200,000 in poker tournaments. He also produced the Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament, and the High Stakes Poker TV show. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2008. All in all, Orenstein holds over 100 patents, has published two books, and is a noted philanthropist. He has donated millions of dollars to various causes, and has built subsidized housing for the poor in New York and in Israel. He has been known to personally pay rent and medical bills for thousands of people in need, including many Holocaust survivors. Now in his 90s, Orenstein still plays poker three times a week with his friends.

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Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.
Golda Meir

Henry Orenstein (with Optimus Prime) on the cover of Newsweek

Jew of the Week: Gal Gadot

Wonder Woman

Gal Greenstein (b. 1985) was born in Petah Tikva, Israel, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and immigrants from Poland, Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. As is common in Israel, her parents Hebraized their last name, choosing Gadot, meaning “river banks”. After graduating from high school, she was spotted by a talent agent and convinced to participate in the Miss Israel beauty pageant. Gadot joined for fun, with no interest to actually win – but she did. When moving on to the Miss Universe pageant, she purposely sabotaged her chances of winning by not wearing the required dresses or putting on makeup. Upon her return, she completed her two year military service with the IDF, then enrolled in college to study law and political science. Meanwhile, her appearance at the Miss Universe pageant brought many modeling agencies to her door. A year later, Gadot was called to audition for the part of a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace. Though she didn’t get that part, she was soon given the part of Gisele in the Fast and the Furious series, going on to appear in three of the films. She starred in a number of other Hollywood and Israeli movies and TV shows. Her big break came in 2015, when she was cast as Wonder Woman in the Dawn of Justice film. She did a great deal of training for the part, and put on 17 pounds of muscle. While the movie itself received mixed reviews, Gadot’s performance was applauded, and she was signed on for two more films, including a stand-alone Wonder Woman movie. That film (described as being “75 years in the making”) was recently released, and broke records for the largest opening weekend for a film directed by, and starring, a woman. It has raked in an impressive $450 million so far. The film has received marvelous reviews – already ranked among the greatest comic book movies of all time – mainly for Gadot’s performance, described as being inspiring and “electric”. Gadot has been credited with saving the DC Universe of films. (Amazingly, she was pregnant with her second daughter while filming Wonder Woman, yet still trained around the clock and did her own stunts.) Gadot has been praised for her unrelenting pro-Israel stance, her unfazed response to ceaseless criticism, anti-Semitism, and sexual harassment (even her role as the UN’s Honourary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls was protested heavily), for being down-to-earth and keeping it simple (she appeared at the LA premiere in $50 flats from Aldo), and sticking to Jewish traditions over the years despite the fame and fortune. Gadot has entranced much of the world, particularly at home in Israel, where she has been called a “national treasure”, and surprisingly in China, where she has been awarded China’s “Most Popular Hollywood Actress.” Gadot will reprise her role as Wonder Woman later this year in the forthcoming Justice League film.

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Words of the Week

In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslav

Gal Gadot lights Shabbat candles with her daughter and stands up for Israel