When Sallie Abelson moved to Ames, Iowa, in 1977 so her husband could join the teaching faculty at Iowa State University, she didn’t know what to do with herself. She was asked to teach Sunday school to four Jewish children in Ames, but once she got her hands on the educational materials, she was astonished to see that they were the same as they had been when she was in Sunday school as a child in Pennsylvania. She was determined to innovate, both with updated information, and a more interactive method of reaching students. So she created Aliyah, a board game about Jewish learning.
Abelson was a total novice when it came to games, but she wanted to bring some enjoyment to the subject, so she became an entrepreneur—quickly. “You have to understand, I knew nothing,” she said. “I called the library, and talked to the research librarian and asked, ‘How do I make a game?’”
The library didn’t know either, but they told Abelson that the Parker Brothers toy and game manufacturers had a factory in Des Moines, so she called them, pretending to be a student. She joined a tour of their factory—tagging along with a group of Cub Scouts—and wrote down all the details she observed about the manufacturing process, and then spoke with the factory manager. At first, she thought she’d have to lie about what she was doing, but after the factory manager told Abelson that he worked in Christian education, she shared that she was creating a Jewish board game.
Aside from the content itself, Abelson outsourced almost everything about the production of Aliyah: Her husband was teaching at Iowa State University, so she called the graphic arts department and asked them to draw up the board, and create a design for the box.
While Abelson’s motivation for making the game had something to do with boredom—“I lived in Iowa! It was just something for me to do,” she said—her deeper motivation was to help kids and their families develop a stronger connection to Judaism. “I wanted to explain the traditions so people have a deeper understanding of Judaism,” she said. “I hope they learned not just what we do, but why we do things. We cover the challah, but why do we cover the challah?”
Abelson researched and wrote the playbook entirely herself. The game, modeled after Go to the Head of the Class, is meant for 2-6 players ages 8 and up. Players move around a board that’s divided into geographic zones, beginning in the United States, moving to Australia, South America, England, and Spain in a race to reach Israel; the first to reach Israel is the winner.
Players take turns rolling the dice, and choosing a question from one of 27 categories in the quiz book, such as Jewish Cooking, Yiddish Expressions, Famous Jewish Men/Women, and Name that Holiday. (Despite the goal of “reaching the Promised Land” and the name of the game being Aliyah, only one category, called Zion, is focused on Israel itself.) Some questions and answers are timeless. How many mitzvot are there? Answer: 613. Some are more outdated, as our relationship to Judaism has evolved over the last 40 years: Where does a baby girl traditionally receive her Jewish name? The answer, according to the game, is in a synagogue or temple.
When doubles are thrown, the player draws one of the “mazel cards,” which is where the real kitsch and nostalgia of the game can be found. The mazel cards give instructions such as “Go back 2 spaces for not doing your Hebrew school homework,” or “Go ahead 2 spaces because your B’nai Brith dues are three weeks late.” (People playing the game today will be reminded that the game is over 40 years old when they’re told to “Go ahead 2 spaces for sending a letter to your congressman about the plight of Russian Jews.” But the most noticeable sign of the passage of four decades is on the box and board itself, where Israel’s borders are quite different from what they are today.)
When it came time to sell the final product, Abelson’s chutzpah kicked in again. “I made 1,000 games in my initial run,” she said, “so it was time to sell them, but I didn’t know anything about sales or marketing.” With her 3-year-old son in tow, she went to Iowa State University and begged to get into a marketing class. The teacher liked her game so much that she used it as an assignment for another class she was teaching, asking her students to come up with publicity materials to help Abelson to market her game.
A local newspaper caught word of what Abelson was doing, and published an article about the entrepreneurial spirit behind Aliyah. She realized this was a great publicity tool, and decided to approach other cities’ local papers to see if they’d bite. “I’d call up other papers and stretch the truth a little,” she recalled. “I’d call Baltimore and say, ‘Hi, I’m coming to town, do you want to write a piece on me?’” But she wouldn’t in fact travel to Baltimore; she just told them that so they’d write about her. And it worked: Abelson and her game were featured in numerous local newspapers, helping fuel sales of Aliyah.
I hope they learned not just what we do, but why we do things.
Abelson also used her personal connections to drum up interest in the game. Her cousin was the toy buyer for Macy’s, so she convinced him to buy a gross—144 units. “Then, I was able to go to other stores and say, ‘My game is in Macy’s, you should buy it!’” Abelson sold her game to many Jewish educators, synagogue and museum gift shops, and toy stores located in Jewish neighborhoods. She even remembers receiving some orders from Australia.
Abelson estimates that she sold about 10,000 copies of Aliyah. She’s not sure when sales ended; she simply sold them until she ran out some time around 1997. After the end of its production, the game appeared to vanish—but not entirely. A handful of eBay sellers still have the game listed for sale, and it still shows up at thrift shops and yard sales.
Michelle Anne Schingler, a writer in Traverse City, Michigan, owns the game and enjoys including it in her board game rotation, as it makes her feel nostalgic for a period before our time. “Two of my friends who are dedicated thrifters found the game in the corner of a store and bought it for me as a gift,” she said. “I hate to leave Judaica in thrift stores where they’re mismarked or misunderstood; I tend to ‘rescue’ items, just to ensure that they’re properly used and taken care of. Parts of my house are kind of genizot by accident.”
Long after sales of Aliyah ended, Abelson spent 15 years as the director of development for Hillel at the University of Michigan, where she was thrilled to meet students who had played the game with their grandparents.
Nowadays, Abelson is retired and lives in Virginia near her son, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was 3 when she became a gaming entrepreneur, schlepping him around to meetings and pitches, and now he’s 48.
I bought Aliyah for the first time this fall, after seeing a listing on eBay. (“I found it at an estate sale in New Jersey,” said the vintage game seller who sold me my copy. “I’ve only ever seen one, never any others through my time buying used goods.”) I played the game with my husband; Aliyah was new to both of us. We grew up in the 1980s in different parts of the world—him in Israel, me in America—so quizzing each other on Jewish knowledge was both fun and eye-opening about how different our learning experiences were. He aced the Aleph-Bet, Bible Stories, Zion, and Jewish Calendar sections. One section where we both consider ourselves champions was Yiddish Expressions. Those answers—mitzvah, simcha, l’chaim—are used daily in our house, and will never go out of style.
While none of the questions in the game is factually incorrect, they do represent a time where our relationship with Jewish culture and religion was different. Abelson knows that some of the questions are dated, so she hopes that if someone gets their hands on the game today, they’ll write some of their own.
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.