Twitter users are calling out this 'antisemitic' escape room
If you enjoy mental puzzles, weird days out and memorable experiences, then a trip to an escape room is the thing for you. They're fantastic, even if I'm not smart enough to break out. For those of you out there who haven't a clue what I'm talking about, allow me to elaborate. Players are usually locked in a room, or a series of rooms, and made to solve a number of puzzles, using clues, hidden keys and contraptions provided under a set time limit.
However, a new escape room which opened up in New York has provoked extreme outrage and accusations of antisemitism, by choosing part of its setting to be a particularly nasty chapter of history. A company called One Before is set to open a game it advertises as a "Jewish escape room" in innocuous-looking premises in the Midwood neighbourhood of Brooklyn.
In their Jewish Escape room, customers are invited to take a purportedly educational tour through history to understand the history and persecution suffered by Jews over the centuries. It starts with the European immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles and Ellis Island in the 20th century and culminates in the climax, where players take on the role of a 19th-century Russian Jew tasked with escaping a pogrom.
A pogrom, in case you were wondering, is an institutionally-sanctioned campaign of violence perpetrated against an ethnic or religious minority, but traditionally targeting Jewish people or communities. Not exactly fun for all the family. But is this a case of One Before actually hoping to educate the masses about the oppression faced by Jewish people throughout history, or a case of a new business insensitively attempting to make a quick buck off the back of racism, bigotry and ignorance?
An image of the Jewish Escape Room under construction was first posted to Twitter, without comment, by a user named Sam on March 13, and a number of Twitter users proceeded to denounce the concept of a pogrom escape room as inherently antisemitic. However, creator Gamliel Beyderman has defended the enterprise, claiming that he designed it as a way for Jewish-Americans to learn more about their own genealogy and that the pogrom chapter is a relatively minor part of the whole experience. Beyderman says that he was inspired to create a Jewish-themed escape room after learning about his teenage son's fascination with them.
Beyderman reportedly believes that an escape room is the perfect immersive experience to hold the attention of youths for long enough to learn. "How could something like this keep a teenager going for so long?" he asked. "Most American Jews who are into genealogy are retirees. It’s a hobby of people who don’t have to work. And people think it’s boring."
Beyderman collaborated with Dr Jeffrey Mark Paull, a genealogical researcher and author, who has traced his own heritage back to the Middle Ages. Beyerman decided to base his Jewish escape room on Paull's own family history, following Paull's descendants from the Davidic period, through to the Medieval times, to his family’s escape from Russia during the pogroms, all the way to America in the present day.
Beyderman himself has defended the premise of his escape room and claims that it has more to do with the entire history of one family, rather than one bloody episode in particular. "The pogrom is not a central part of the plot line," he stated. "Early 20th-century Jewish immigration from the Russian Empire is. The violent history that unfolds around these generations is a background of the room, but does not define the main theme."
However, Beyderman has also stated that he intends to launch a second escape room, which will open in the autumn of this year in the same location, which will begin with "The Warsaw ghetto right after the Holocaust, and moves 20 generations into the past." This will come as scant relief to those who believe that the idea is in poor taste already.
Personally, I believe that we will have to see what the experience of the escape room itself actually is like before we condemn it as offensive. If nothing else, it seems to have been constructed out of a genuine respect and admiration for Jewish culture and intended to inform and educate rather than perpetuate stereotypes or profit from religious persecution.