MIDWOOD – The news of a Jewish-themed escape room opening in Midwood has been met with a good bit of snark lately on social media. That’s not really surprising – for fairly obvious reasons if you know anything about modern Jewish history. And an escape room in Prague called “Escape from Auschwitz” was recently shuttered after a barrage of complaints.
But is a Jewish-themed escape room necessarily an inappropriate idea?
This Friday is the first night of Passover, and Jews all over the world will gather around tables in their homes in common purpose. That purpose?
Like D&D-loving teenagers huddling for hours in their parents’ basements, we engage in a collective imaginative enterprise: to visualize ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to relive our escape from bondage.
(For Jewish children, it’s not that hard to dream of escape when you’re stuck at a table with your family beginning at 5 and dinner doesn’t actually start until 8:30 or 9.)
Whether or not it’s historically accurate, “The Exodus” is seminal in Judaism. Four of the five books of the Torah are dedicated to it. If Judaism were a superhero, it’s our origin story. In fact, the theme of escape – sometimes the inability to escape – continues to play out over and over again in Jewish history.
And our compulsion to confront that history – sometimes strangely – is undeniable.
Back to Midwood.
The upcoming escape room is called One Before Escape. According to their site, the name comes from “a famous line that a great line of illustrious ancestors is a long line of zeros unless one adds his own 1 right before – turning the long line of zeroes into a large number.”
It’s a little heady, but it ties in with what Beyderman is trying to do with the venture.
“I have a passion that I never had time to invest in, which is genealogy. I was interested in Jewish genealogy since I was a teenager, “ he explained when speaking with us recently. After his teenage son visited an escape room in Manhattan and built his own version in their basement, he figured “let me combine this and build kind of a community institution to communicate this hobby that I have in this interactive format.”
He pointed out that escape rooms are increasingly being used by institutions like museums and schools as educational tools. And that’s really what he’s hoping to accomplish with One Before – to use a particular genealogical story to inspire others to explore their own personal history.
The story he’s using is of a real man named Jeff Paul, who discovered he’s related to an important Jewish sage from Poland called the Shpoler Zeide. The room is actually going to be several rooms. The first is a government office in Ellis Island. You’re basically impersonating Paul and “your job is to go back in time and to rediscover that connection.” As you solve the puzzle, you’re taken to another, hidden 18th century room, where you are “ultimately figuring out all the links in that genealogical chain.” There’s another room centering on the story of another of Paull’s ancestors that starts after the Holocaust in the Warsaw Ghetto.
“Different events in Jewish history – burning of the Talmud, pogroms in Europe – all become puzzles. As you go through the escape room, you’re learning about those events. It’s a museum in a sense but in the form of an escape room.”
Beyderman himself comes from the part of the world in which the story takes place. He was raised in the Soviet Union and came here as a teenager. His background is in statistics and he’s now the Director of Analytics for an advertising agency. It makes sense that he’s so fascinated with analyzing personal histories.
As for his own story, Beyderman says he’s been less successful at researching that than Paull was, but he’s still pursuing it. He actually hopes at some point to provide resources through the escape room for people to do their own genealogical research.
In truth, this isn’t the first Jewish escape room. Chabad, an organization connected to the Lubavitch sect, which actively promotes Judaism and tries to bring non-practicing Jews into religiosity, had a Passover-themed one geared for children.
And in Israel, escape rooms are wildly popular. Most are secular, but there is at least one with an Israeli (and educational) theme.
I spoke with my Israeli cousin who loves them. He’s not sure why everyone is crazy about them over there but points out that “Jews and brain games go back a long time. From chess to computer games.”
When I told him about the one in Brooklyn, he did think it was “a little dark.”
One Before is still a little ways from opening. According to Beyderman, they had some permit issues but are now beginning construction. They’ve been working with Immersive Tech, a Canadian general-interest escape room company, to fabricate all the props and design elements that will go into the completed space.
As mockable as the idea of One Before might be, there is definitely context for it. Whether or not it’s actually a good escape room remains to be seen.
In the meantime, we’ll always have Passover.