Chaya and Chani Went: The New Jewish Entertainment and Combining Timeless with Time Limit
At last! The long awaited email arrived, “Launching Softly”. The title alerted me to its exciting contents. One Before Escape, a Jewish Escape Room in the heart of Brooklyn, had opened. Escape rooms have been spreading rapidly across the globe, growing in the thousands. Now it has finally crossed over into the Jewish sector too. An escape room is an interactive physical game. A group of players get locked in a room with a theme, a guiding story, and have to solve a series of puzzles and riddles in order to escape. The players have a time limit, usually 60 minutes, to escape.
I had only gone to one escape room before and I really enjoyed it, although we only escaped in time due to the overflowing hints the escape master had generously graced us with. So I had some idea of what I was getting into when I arranged with my friend to try the Shpola escape room at OneBefore Escape. The day of the game arrived and I came there first. Mr. Beyderman, founder and owner of OneBefore, directed me to stroll through the premises to the art gallery. Paintings escorted me on both sides through the hallway to the party room where even more beauty hung in wait. The paintings were practically jumping out of their frames, each one eagerly telling its story of the Tzaddik.
Once my friend arrived and we were all ready, Mr. Beyderman lead us into the first part of the Shpola Room, and explained to us its story. It is based on the genealogical journey of Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull. In his quest to discover his family tree, he found an incredibly rich history of ancestors made of leading Torah scholars, tzaddikim, and even royalty. One of the noble ancestors he found in his ancestry line is the Shpoler Zeide, who is featured in the Shpola Room. The Shpoler Zeide was an early Chassidic master, renowned for his love of his fellow Jews. He would rush to defend them from bitter enemies, and stand up for them before Heavenly judgment. Mr. Beyderman finished off with telling us what our objectives were in the first room of the game.
Our game began and we got cracking. The 60 minute countdown quietly appeared on a screen placed high on the wall. My friend and I took in our surroundings; ancient suitcases piled haphazardly one atop the other, a desk resting snug in the far corner, a cupboard stocked with venerable books. These items, as well as others, had been pointed out to us and we rushed to start. We scrambled to make sense on the clues and puzzles, and slowly but surely made some headway. At one point we sat stuck at a loss and begrudgingly asked for a hint. The hint charmingly appeared typed out on the screen with the countdown timer. Yikes! Less than half of our allotted time was left. We redoubled our efforts and soon enough finished up the last puzzle. The door unlocked with a squeak.
Vaiter - Onward!
Not to our escape as our shrinking egos were hoping for. We were ecstatic though, and sped around trying to figure what to do next. The second room felt like stepping into another dimension with antique looking items and prominent wooden furniture, combined with puzzles made of modern technology. Try hard as we could, (and with more hints, shhh!), the time ran out before we could escape. Mr. Beyderman joined us in the room and explained to us the puzzles we hadn't finished.
The style of the puzzles, although an unusual characteristic to mention, had been brewing in my mind. It really stood out as Mr. Beyderman was filling us in on what had remained unsolved. In the first escape room I had gone to, the puzzles, although mentally stimulating, were not especially creative. They were what you would expect in a mystery, such as fitting books in a bookcase to unlock a door. In the Shpoler Room, the type and style of puzzles were a refreshing splash of creativity that got our minds tingling.
In fact, the entire idea of creating escape rooms around stories of Tzaddikim is an exciting new development in authentic Jewish entertainment. I say authentic because there exists ample Jewish entertainment that has been or is wildly popular, from the Yiddish Theatre on Broadway to modern Israeli singer Netta Barzilai, winner of the 2018 Eurovision Contest. Yet this category of entertainment is Jewish only when under the label of culture, or at least performed or composed by Jews.
Entertainment that is authentically Jewish, communicating timeless Jewish values and eternal Torah values, is not quite as abundant. In fact, we are left lacking, apart from the occasional Jewish concert and high school production. An escape room that imparts Jewish stories and virtues is hopefully just the beginning of a new era in Jewish entertainment!
There is a saying from the Baal Shem Tov, “Bemakom shemachshavto shel adam, sham hu nimtza.” - “Where a person's thoughts are, that's where he is.” What better place is there to be than in the life of a Tzaddik? In the Shpola Room our minds became completely immersed in trying to put together Dr. Paull’s lineage, leading us into the life of his ancestor, the well-known Tzaddik, the Shpoler Zeide. We were led into the world of a favored childhood story and into the origins of a popular lively Niggun - song.
My friend and I walked out of there charged and excited and didn’t want to part ways just yet. However, with the dreary whether, chatting on a bench was not too appealing. We were pumped that One Before Escape is in the heart of a thriving Jewish community, so we had no issue finding a place to pop in for a drink or a bite. We took refuge in the Ice Cream House just a block away, enjoying the last few daylight hours. It is not very hard to guess that we plan on coming back for their next room!
Chaya and Chani Went: 7 Torah Insights Escape Room Teaches
Recently I went out of my way to get locked in a room. Yep locked, and handcuffed too. This wasn't the case of Stockholm Syndrome, or a bout of lunacy. For the first time in my life I went to experience an escape room. This was not the Jewish Escape Room we are all waiting for - as you will see from the distinctly goyishe props. An escape room is a team-based physical adventure game in which the players get locked in a room, and have to solve a series of puzzles and riddles to escape using clues and hints. The players must escape before the set time limit is up.
My experience was delightfully entertaining from a player's perspective, and quite thought-provoking from a Jewish one. “Our teacher the Ba’al Shem Tov said: Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-D. This is the idea of Avoda, service, to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.” Hayom Yom, Iyar 9
It all started by walking up the narrow staircase to the lobby of Epic Escape Rooms Brooklyn with my lovely sister Chani, where we were warmly greeted by the game master. He sat us down and told us about the game. We were to be separated into two adjoining rooms and handcuffed, with walkie-talkies to communicate, and our goal was to work together to escape. He took us one at a time and set us up.
I walked into the room I was to start in and took in the details; the rusty tub awash with blood, tufts of dust smothering the toilet in the far corner, messages scrawled across the walls made ever-more grizzly in the dim lighting. I could have spent at least half the allotted time exploring all the gory details of the room. Fortunately, I was aware of my goal and knew that in order to achieve it I had to focus on what will help me. This turned out to be my first lesson. In the words of Shakespeare, “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (Well in this case, all the worlds an escape room.) Each of us are in this world for a reason, to achieve personal and collective goals. Yet surrounding us are the most elaborate, entrancing diversions that can seriously distract us, unless we know what our goals are and focus on achieving them.
After being all set in the room and officially starting, I began to familiarize myself with every nook and cranny. I realized that everything there had a purpose. Some things were there to help solve puzzles, and others were there to create the perfect background and ambiance. If this was the case in human designed escape room, how much more so in the world designed by G-D is everything for a reason!
Our first job was to unlock the handcuffs. I had the keypad and Chani had the code. Communicating through our walkie talkies and after many failed attempts we finally figured out the code. Once I punched it into the keypad the keys to the handcuffs flew out of the ceiling, eliciting a very high-pitched shriek (from one of us). Chani and I started off in two separate rooms, but we were each dependent on the other to solve the puzzles in our individual rooms and to eventually completely escape. This idea is mirrored in our lives. We are all responsible to do our job in this world so that we can bring the Geula, Redemption. We must do our part, and yet we are also dependent on everyone else to do theirs. It is by acting in unity and helping each other that we can achieve our goal.
Chani and I were not the only ones with walkie talkies, the game master had one too. From the very beginning to the very end of the game, the game master gave us our hints this way. If not for those hints, we would still be there now, but with dead walkie talkies not knowing where to turn. Isn’t this similar to Torah in our lives? The Torah is our game master, hinting to us what to do and where to go. Without the Torah’s directives we would be stumbling around and lost in the big wide world, not knowing how to get to where we need to be.
At last breaking out of our original rooms, we had to get through a third room. Desperately searching high and low for clues, we were acutely aware that our time was running out. Fortunately the game master had pity on us and told us that we had both left clues in our original rooms. Rushing, or rather crawling back, we found what we needed for the puzzle. When we were in our rooms initially, these clues seemed like innocent props with no other agenda. Only later on did we come to appreciate their true meaning and purpose.
This is something that happens to us all. We see things, experience things that we don't understand the reason for. Only later on, be it days or years, do we come to understand the reason for what we saw, heard, or experienced. In essence, this is an experience of Divine Providence. G-D directs every detail in our personal lives and in the world at large, so even if we cannot immediately see a reason for everything, we can trust that it is there.
As we neared the end, our last puzzle was to figure out the code that would unlock the door of the escape room. We had the numbers for the code, but the order was concealed among the words of a note. We had to search for the deeper meaning behind those words, for the secret hidden within them, in order to escape. This instantly made me think of a story of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The story was originally written in Ben Porat Yosef, by Rabbi Yaakov of Polonye. In the story the Ba’al Shem Tov’s soul ascends to the chamber of Moshiach, and asks when he will come. Moshiach answers, “... In the time when your teachings will become public and revealed in the world…” The Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings are Chassidus, the secrets of our Holy Torah. It is through delving into Torah secrets that we will escape from our exile.
When we first started, Chani and I were hesitant, as an hour sounded like quite a bit of time. Next thing we knew the game master was calling out, “You guys have twelve minutes left”. We froze awkwardly in our places, then scrambled to make the most out of the last few minutes.That small shock signified something far larger. We are endowed with a certain amount of time to live our lives. It is up to us to make sure we utilize every moment toward fulfilling what G-D put us in this world for.
These are just some thoughts that accompanied my experience. Please share yours!
Unlike the experience of Chani and Chaya, OneBefore offers all the thrill in a truly Torah atmosphere. We worked hard to design the experience to be Jewishly inspiring and educational. Please book to check it out!