By James Whitlow
Staff writer

Humility can be seen as a through-line in the Torah – a consistent theme throughout – and if I had even a cursory understanding of the book, I might have been better prepared for Kedma’s Jewish-themed escape the room challenge. But on the overcast evening of April 22, I was not.

I am categorically, painfully gentile; my upbringing and infatuation with pork-based products leave no doubt about it. Throwing myself into a puzzle that relies on my knowledge of Judaism’s finer points may have been ill-advised, but I jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate just how little I know to a group of strangers. For some reason, the idea appealed to me, a Catholic-school excommunicate struggling through something I was in no way prepared for.

My crash-course in humility began with finding a group. I tried to be true to ideal of journalistic full-disclosure and started by asking the crowd, “Who wants a non-Jew to drag your group down?” One team assented – possibly out of pity.

Three rooms corresponding to different Jewish holidays had been rigged for escape. Rabbi Ari Neuman led us into the Sukkot room and told us our scenario. We were, in the room’s confines, intrepid historians investigating the work of scholars who had been unraveling some of Judaism’s greatest mysteries.

We were tasked with answering a simple question: why is Sukkot celebrated in the fall instead of the spring? Of course, I did not understand the rabbi’s half-English half-Hebrew explanation. An affable group member, mercifully, translated it for me.

“Communicate and make sure to help each other,” Neuman said. “You have until 10:30.” And with the snick of the closing door, I was adrift.

The room’s walls were covered with painter’s tape – some affixing clues to the walls – and epigrams from famous Jews, including one of Albert Einstein’s, which seemed out of place and obliquely insulting to me. Shelves heaped with books lined the eastern wall, and a cabinet and altar, or bimah, had been slid to the room’s opposite side. With only three places to conceivably hide clues, I figured we would be done in a jiffy.

After a quick name-swap with the team, the group fanned out, looking for anything marked with a blue sticker, identifying it as a pertinent clue. The team quickly found three locked boxes and two color-coded clues, and I unearthed a trove of stale matzah from underneath the pulpit. The team concluded my discovery was not at all important. My usefulness was somewhere between Comcast customer support and wet paper bag by this point.

Breakthroughs happened too fast to follow; relatively quiet investigation would give way to a slow-building yelling match between two students struggling to draw conclusions at a higher decibel than the other, which in turn attracted more listeners and yellers, making it impossible to hear anything beyond disjointed bits of Hebrew, page numbers from holy books and the aural blur that accompanies 12-plus people all speaking fluently on a subject you know nothing about.

As the clamor approached its crescendo, it would taper off as the crowd got stumped and return to its pre-revelation amplitude. The transition was jarring. I caught myself yelling too – mostly gibberish – along with my peers. If I was not going to be any help, I figured I might as well fake involvement. I tried to ask questions but went unheard or ignored in the storm of “ch” sounds so common to Hebrew.

After 20 or so minutes of aimless poking around, the group managed to open one of the boxes – without the aid of my fine-nibbed ballpoint pen, which I pointed out could have been rammed through the tumbler for a more expedient opening – and out fell another locked container and several books.

Going into the challenge, I thought I would be able to help out somewhat, but after leafing through one single page of the box’s glyphic books, I knew I could not. To me, reading Hebrew was like a penguin taking flight – completely beyond my limitations. I had felt overconfident, and now stupid. Confronting the fact that I did not, in fact, know as much as I thought was humbling. A feeling of mild annoyance hit me, and as I was getting ready to resign myself to a chair and a sweep of my Facebook feed, I heard someone ask for a pen.

It was my time to shine.

I handed my writing implement over to the man in charge of “Atbash-ing” a clue – a process of deciphering coded messages in Hebrew, which was cryptographically beyond me – and sat down, satisfied. For the next 20 minutes I basked in my own utility. I may not have been humble about it, but, again, I have never read the Torah.

The clues and open boxes began to pile up in the middle of the room – my pen hopefully responsible for some of them. I had served my purpose.

By that point, our hour had elapsed. I reclaimed my pen and sat down, waiting for Neuman’s verdict. He eyed our evidence-heap and, though I was too far away to hear, seemed to say our group had missed the mark. The gradual volume increase began again as the crowd around the rabbi began to spin up. I paid it no mind.

I collected my things and, upon closing the door, caught sight of Einstein’s bon mot stuck to the wall: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Albert Einstein quote on wall of Hillel Multi-Purpose room. James Whitlow/Mitzpeh
Albert Einstein quote on wall of Hillel Multi-Purpose room. James Whitlow/Mitzpeh

At least I understood one thing that happened in my unsuccessful escape from the Sukkot room.


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