Here’s a challenge: Describe the word “trayf” without using the terms “not kosher,” “food,” “eat,” “unclean,” or “meat.” “Cheeseburger,” you yell. “Shellfish!” “Pork!” You’re playing the new Jewish Edition of the popular game Taboo, released earlier this spring.
The original Taboo, a word-guessing game much like TV’s $25,000 Pyramid, except that each word to be guessed is accompanied by a list of four that cannot be given as hints, was introduced by Hasbro in 1989. Like many best-selling games, it has spawned several spin-offs, like Taboo for Kids and Christmas Taboo.
Jewish Taboo began to take shape when Seth Burstein and Ian Framson, friends and business partners (they founded Trade Show Internet) living in San Francisco, were playing Taboo one night in 2008. In the middle of the game, they realized they were giving each other clues that had some sort of Jewish connotation—and that they were communicating effectively. What better way to win at a classically cryptic game than to rely on religious-based clues equally cryptic to outsiders?
“Dude,” Burstein recalled his friend saying, “we should make a game called ‘Ta-Jew.’”
Burstein was on-board. He grew up in a game-playing family of four kids where Risk and Monopoly matches would rage for days. Video games, he explained, are no match for the deep pleasures of board games. The young tech entrepreneurs decided to go old-school.
They turned to the 25-year-old gaming company Jewish Educational Toys for assistance with a prototype. It turned out that Jewish Educational Toys had always wanted to develop a Jewish version of Taboo. The biggest challenges, company president Abe Blumberger said, had been securing a license from Hasbro and finding someone to write the clue cards. Fortuitously, Taboo’s original developer, Brian Hersch, contacted Jewish Education Toys around the same time to suggest the same thing. He agreed to pave the way with Hasbro, Burstein and Framson would provide the manpower, and the game was on its way.
It took three years, but eventually Burstein, now 29, and Framson, 28, reached their goal of creating 1,008 words—the same number as in a standard Taboo game—canonizing centuries of Jewish history and consciousness into small colorful cards. “Anything and everything I know about Judaism is in there,” Burstein told me. Grandmothers were consulted (“schmuck” was deemed inappropriate for mass distribution), the New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia was procured, and Burstein’s older brother, a Reform rabbi in New Jersey, was called upon for his expertise.
Blumberger and his team at Jewish Educational Toys worried that too many of the clues drew on secular knowledge. “Adam Sandler,” for example, got vetoed. Burstein and Framson, meanwhile, nixed items they felt were too religious. “You have to appeal to people who are culturally Jewish or religious Jewish, people who know culture and liturgy but not everything from the Torah or Bible or Talmud,” Rabbi Burstein, the New Jersey rabbi, explained. A compromise was to put different kinds of clues on each side of a card: The blue side gets an easier word (like “pastrami”) and the green side a harder one (“Orthodox Union”).
Taking the game for a test-play reveals an unsurprising Zionist streak, as you try to get your teammates to guess terms like “promised land,” “Diaspora,” and “aliyah.” “Birthright,” “JCC,” and “Hillel” (also, not unrelated, “dues”) appear, too. People whose names appear include usual suspects, like Spielberg, Wiesel, and Mel Brooks, along with younger-skewing ones like Marc Cuban and Matisyahu. Barbra Streisand shares a card with Dustin Hoffman, though the Rain Man actor is on the green side, for harder words.
And then there’s the card that seeks “gentile” or “goy.” You’re not allowed to use “Muslim,” “Christian,” or “other,” which seems like a recipe for ethnocentric disaster.