More Than Meets the Eye

My son, Jonah, was a big Transformers fan. Liza and I bought him his first Optimus Prime. I think his friend, Adam, already had one (Adam always got the cool toys first). With his Transformer in hand, Jonah battled against Megatron and the Decepticons for control of the Creation Matrix.

Ok. Some of you are absolutely on board with me here. These names are familiar. You watched the cartoon. You saw the movie(s). You played with – or purchased – a variety of Transformers. This mega-franchise, valued at over $35 billion, is an example nonpareil, of the sweet intersection of gaming, movies, love of Japanese anime, comic books, and toys.

Undoubtedly there are some of you who are feeling left out of the story. Briefly, Transformers features the battles of sentient, living autonomous robots, often the Autobots and the Decepticons, who can transform into other forms, such as vehicles and animals. The toys could be broken down from a big robot into a car or a truck or a jet or… well, you get the drift.

These Transformer robots had personalities and weak spots. They could be cruel and destructive. They could also be kind and self-sacrificing. It was all about good guys and bad guys and the various humans who intersected with these battling robots.

High entertainment, it wasn’t. The animation was classic Japanese tv cartooning: big splashes of color and not much artistry. The first movie starred Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox. Not exactly art house cinema. But the money poured in and hasn’t stopped.

Despite their mass pop culture appeal (I am a snob and so eschew anything in said category), something about Transformers appealed to me. So much so, that 20 years ago or more, I did a sermon about them. I loved the notion that a simple thing: an old jalopy, could turn into a giant, lethal robot with a sense of humor. Hidden in the form of one thing, it could transform into another.

What was the true identity of Optimus Prime? Was he a robot or was he a fire truck? Of course, he was both, becoming what he needed to be in each particular moment. This notion was so human and so wise.

We are never just one thing. We are comprised of several parts that merge to help us cope with the particular moment in which we find ourselves. It’s a kind of flexibility, an acknowledgment that rigidity and tunnel vision cannot be the way to survive. It’s all about transformation. Or as the theme song of the Transformers cartoon show went: “Transformers: more than meets the eye.” Which is a truth of all humanity.

The creator of Transformers was a Jewish guy named Henry Orenstein. Borne in Hrubieszów, Poland in 1923, he was imprisoned at Budzyn, a German labor camp in Poland in 1944. One day, the Nazis running the camp ordered all scientists and mathematicians to register with the camp administration. Despite not knowing if the scientists and mathematicians would be given better conditions or killed immediately, and even though Orenstein himself was neither a scientist nor mathematician, he signed himself up along with his brothers who were interned there with him. He transformed from a guy with an average knowledge of math into an expert.

The Nazis were organizing a special unit of prisoners to develop a weapon to help the Nazis win the war and the prisoners assigned to the unit were spared execution. Luckily for Orenstein, who was only 16 when the war broke out, the math problems he was required to solve were simple and he, along with two of the three brothers with him, survived the war. His parents, a sister and one brother were killed.

Orenstein ended up creating a toy company after the war. After some good moves – and some really bad ones… he sold his idea of a transforming robot to the CEO of Hasbro. And the rest is history. Orenstein next transformed into a famous and successful poker player… and then into an inventor, creating a poker table with cameras that each player would use to show viewers what cards they were holding without revealing them to the other players. This invention transformed poker into a viewer sport – and made Orenstein even richer. He shared his fortune with many Jewish philanthropies.

Henry Orenstein died this week. His life is a testimony to good luck and a willingness to gamble. He had a deep appreciation for quick thinking and the wisdom to know when to change. He lived a long life as a Transformer. If anyone were to ask me, I’d suggest his epitaph to read: Hinryk Orenstein: More than meets the eye.

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