“So Bubeleh, you wanna know why your Uncle Otto never became rich or famous?
“Sure Dad, I’m all ears.”
“Well son, many said, ‘It was his bad luck.’
While others said, ‘Otto he never had a chance. He was a gefilte fish floating in and ocean filled mit sharks.’
While the last group of commentators said, ‘Otto is like many of our brethren, a dreamer not a businessman. To make a buck in America you gotta be both.’
But some of our relatives had a different opinion: ‘Otto was ahead of his time—full of brilliant ideas but no stick-to-itiveness. He was stuck in a world that wasn’t quite ready for his genius.’
“Dad, were you and Uncle Otto close?”
“Yes son, we were as close as green peas in a Heinz can.
“Where was Uncle Otto originally from?”
“Otto was born and raised in Vitebsk, a shtetl found in the Russian Pale of Settlement.
He attended cheder but he never graduated from gymnasium (high school). He held an advanced degree from the school of hard knocks which he earned on the streets of Russia.
Otto was a street-smart, street-fighter type of a guy. His fists loved the taste of blood.
He was a proud Jewish boy but not a religious man. He literally wore his Judaism on this sleeve by wearing two Magan David shaped cufflinks. He believed in the Almighty but not much else. In his words, ‘Organized religion was for suckers and losers.’
My uncle was a confirmed bachelor, who told astonishing stories about money, adventure and sex but not necessarily in that order. His stories were so astonishing that many people questioned there veracity.”
“Dad, I remember Uncle Otto being a braggart.”
“Yup son, he loved to brag about himself. But his stories were so good nobody complained.
Here’s one he told me about how he got to the States.”
“In Russia, as a young man I was a gambler. One day, I won some serious gelt playing cards.
Knowing what this money could buy me, I walked away from the poker table.
Some of the other gamblers were not happy with my decision.
‘Otto, if you leave this table and don’t give us a chance to win back our money, you’re not leaving this room alive.’
“Son, you know what Otto did?”
“No Dad, what did he do?”
“He called their bluff.
Otto stuck his hand in his pocket as if he held a pistol and he walked away.
“Dad, that’s right out of the movies.”
“Yup, and then he told me, ‘With my winnings I bought passage on a ship sailing to America. My land of opportunity. And by leaving Russia, I avoided serving ten years in their army.’
“Wow, that’s quite a story. Tell me more.”
“So when your uncle was an old man, we spent countless hours:
Sipping tea while holding sugar cubes between our front teeth;
Munching on Almond Joys;
Downing shots of schnapps.
We laughed, we cried, and we kibitzed.”
“What did you two guys talk about?”
Well, we talked about everything and about nothing.
We talked about:
His family in the old country;
His passage across the Atlantic;
His first sighting of the Statue of Liberty;
His confinement on Ellis Island.
But most of all, we talked about his, ‘What ifs.'”
“You know, what if this happened and what if that occurred.
Here’s an example of one of our conversations.”
“Tell me something boychick…have I ever told you my Henry Ford story?”
“No, Uncle Otto.”
“Well, that antisemitten mamzer—may his head roast like a marshmallow on a stick over a campfire— never accepted my idea for a belt attached to the car seat of his Model T?”
I watched as Otto carefully pulled his worn-out brown leather belt out of the loops in his pants.
With two hands, he held the belt aloft and exclaimed, “See this belt, I drew a picture explaining to Mr. Ford how it could be fastened to the interior of the automobile and when a driver secured the belt around his midsection the driver wouldn’t be thrown from the auto in an accident.
A brilliant invention! A life-saver!”
“Wow, Uncle Otto, you came up with the seatbelt?”
“Yup and, believe it or not, Mr. Henry Ford never even responded to my letter. Think about the lives lost. Think about how rich I’d be if Ford put one or more of my seatbelts in every car he manufactured.
“Here’s another story where I came up with the idea but missed the financial boat.
It was 1923, I had a meeting with a team of executives at the H.J. Heinz Company.
“In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?”
“Boychick, yes in Pittsburgh. You know Heinz—the ketchup and baked beans company.
So I stand up in this conference room with a table for 20 people, I’m wearing my best dark blue suit. Me in front of all these big shots holding a can of vegetarian beans.
I asked them, ‘Do you know what’s missing on the label of this can of beans?'”
“No Uncle Otto what’s missing?” they asked.
“My initials. An “O” circling a “U”. My cowboy brand.”
I wrote the letters “O” and “U” on the blackboard, the execs looked at him as if I he were meshugga.
“So I told them, I for a small fee I will become your mashglach.”
Of course these goyim had no idea of what a mashglach is.
But now they’re ready to throw me head-first off of the top of their sky-scraping headquarters.
“Gentleman, relax a bissel.
Let me explain, A mashglach certifies that the your products are kosher. And I as your rabbi, I will give Heinz a certificate of approval, a hechsher,—my symbol— that your food complies with the ritual requirements of Jewish dietary law. That it is kashrut—fit for consumption
When your Jewish customers hold up your beans and ask, ‘Is that Kosher?’ They’ll see my initials. Voila! They are buying your products. You’ll sell millions more cans of your vegetarian beans and bottles of ketchup.”
Silence filled the room.
Then without a word being spoken, one of the Heinz execs politely escorted me to the door and said, “Uncle Otto, we’ll discuss your idea among ourselves and get back to you. Thanks for your presentation.”
“Of course, they never got back to me.
And lo and behold, some group called the “Orthodox Union” ended up stealing my idea. They’ve made millions of bucks getting their initials printed on thousands of food products.”
“Dad, Uncle Otto, what a brilliant guy with simple ideas but he failed.”
“Well remember son, some guys have all the luck—while the others are gefilte fish served up as appetizers for the sharks of the world.”
“Dad, you said it all.”