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Will the ‘Jewish’ Magic 8 Ball fly off the shelves?

Kickstarter campaign runs through end of September for Wisdom Ball that’s ‘cheaper than therapy, and probably the most perfect gift ever created’

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

A Magic 8 Ball 'brimming with Jewish wisdom.' (Courtesy)
A Magic 8 Ball 'brimming with Jewish wisdom.' (Courtesy)

Think that “Reply hazy, try again” is the “ham on white with mayo” of Magic 8 Ball answers? Rami Genauer does, so he’s founded a Kickstarter campaign to do something about it.

The Seattle-born, 35-year-old father of two isn’t a career toy maker — though his chosen profession of sports-related data analytics and television production might sound just as fun to an adult.

But despite his grown-up job, the idea of the Jewish Wisdom Ball — a Magic 8 Ball whose answers ring authentic to a people accustomed to a healthy dose of guilt alongside advice – has lain close to Genauer’s heart for over a decade.

“The Magic 8 Ball is good for some people,” says Genauer, “but not the chosen people.”

While the project’s Kickstarter page admits that there are other spin-offs (such as the Geek ball, Simpson’s Magic 8 Ball, and the Magic Cat Ball for pet lovers), this is, in fact, the only answer ball that will tell you to put on a sweater.

Another virtue that will be appreciated by the mathematically-inclined: you simply get more.

“The first difference is the symbol on the front: the Hebrew word ‘chai,’ meaning ‘life,’” reads the website. “Why chai? It’s an easily recognizable Jewish symbol and its letters have the numerical value of 18. That gives you 225% the numerical value compared to a standard 8 Ball!”

An instructional t-shirt so everyone can know how to use the Jewish Wisdom Ball. (Courtesy)
An instructional t-shirt so everyone can know how to use the Jewish Wisdom Ball. (Courtesy)

The Kickstarter page also promises more pessimism.

“A standard answer ball has 20 responses: 10 positive, 5 negative, 5 inconclusive. Clearly, this distribution is far too optimistic and far too certain for an object dispensing Jewish wisdom. Instead, the Jewish Wisdom Ball has 6 positive answers, 6 negative, 6 inconclusive, and 2 that can be read either positively or negatively depending on your mood. In addition, fully 40% of the responses are phrased in the form of a question,” it says.

The seeds for the idea were planted in an Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Cracker Barrel — “one of the least Jewish places in the world,” according to Genauer.

“I was working as a sports journalist,” he says, “visiting every major league baseball stadium in the country for a story I was writing, and one of the things you appreciate most when you’re on a road trip is a clean bathroom. And I discovered that, at least in that area, Cracker Barrel has some of the most consistently clean bathrooms around.”

(Despite the non-Jewish locale, “Seinfeld” fans will appreciate the decidedly Jewish meme of being able to locate the cleanest bathrooms in a given area.)

After a visit to the pristine facilities, Genauer visited the “country store” section of the Cracker Barrel, where on a whim he purchased the Magic 8 Ball that would sit on his desk for the next few years, providing his coworker Jim with an endless stream of bad advice.

That was in 2004.

A couple of years later, lightning struck.

“Jim was about as gentile as you can get,” Genauer says. “And he would come in and ask that Magic 8 Ball questions like every day. He loved it. And one day I said to myself, ‘This 8 Ball is perfect for Jim, but where’s my 8 Ball?’ Jim would look at an answer and it would say, ‘Outlook not so good,’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh, OK, well that’s fine.’ And I was like, my grandmother wouldn’t sound like that. She wouldn’t say ‘Outlook not so good,’ or whatever. She would say ‘Feh,’ or ‘You should be so lucky!’”

Some sample answers from the Jewish Wisdom Ball. (Courtesy)
Some sample answers from the Jewish Wisdom Ball. (Courtesy)

Genauer floated the idea by friends and family, and all were encouraging. Unfortunately, the commercial industry was not as enthusiastic.

“I talked to several Jewish toy companies, and they were like, ‘This is an interesting idea, but we’re gonna pass,’” says Genauer.

Apparently, there wasn’t enough anticipated demand to justify the minimum order quantities necessary for companies of that size.

“Circa 2006, that was all there was,” Genauer says. “There was no such thing as crowdfunding, no drop shipping. You’d take an idea to the gatekeepers, and in this case the gatekeepers all said no, so I dropped it.”

'What makes this ball different from all other answer balls?' the website asks. 'Wrong holiday season, but still a valid question.' (Courtesy)
‘What makes this ball different from all other answer balls?’ the website asks. ‘Wrong holiday season, but still a valid question.’ (Courtesy)

“But,” he says, “I had it on the back burner. I always had it in the back of my mind, but at the time there was nothing I could do to make this thing happen short of starting my own toy company.”

Fortunately, over the next decade, the rise in popularity of crowdfunding via the internet democratized the toy-making process — and other creative processes. In fact, thanks to Kickstarter, it could be said that we are living in a golden age of Jewish kitsch.

Earlier this year, the Hello Mazel subscription gift box set records, earning over $45,000 on its first day. And Zach Braff notoriously helped fund his movie “Wish I Was Here” through Kickstarter.

But funding is just one part of the equation.

An approximate timeline detailing the history of the Jewish Wisdom Ball. (Courtesy)
An approximate timeline detailing the history of the Jewish Wisdom Ball. (Courtesy)

These days, Genauer won’t have to quit his job to make his dream a reality — due to the rise of direct small-scale manufacturing, drop-shipping and direct order fulfillment, the rules have changed. The goyish-meets-Jewish mashup can now be produced, shipped, and at your door by the first night of Hanukkah — which coincidentally falls out on Christmas this year — all without him having to touch it.

The project is being implemented via Unusual Accomplishments, an LLC Genauer established for his creative dalliances. The name is an homage to Coral Castle, a limestone palace built entirely by hand in the early 1920s by a five-foot-tall Latvian immigrant who wished to woo back his estranged fiance in Latvia.

“On the outside of the Coral Castle, there is an inscription that he made, saying ‘You will be seeing unusual accomplishments.’ So, I was inspired by that,” Genauer says. “Here’s a guy who had a dream, and he recognized that this was unusual, not something that normal people would do. But it didn’t deter him. He devoted everything he had to it, and by the time he was finished, he had something really special.”

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