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I went running one day while I was in the US recently and saw a house getting set up for Halloween. It was one of those super involved, crazy-intricate set-ups that take over the entire front yard and even the structure of the house itself. I have no idea if it was a Jewish house, probably not I guess, but it made me wonder why it’s so common to expend so much effort on Halloween but not on Jewish holidays? Then I thought to myself, that’s obvious: because Halloween is fun but religion is dumb and boring. Or Halloween is something everyone actually does but, for example, a succah is some weird Jewy thing that nobody does except ultra-religious weirdos. Or because Halloween is fun but religion is a moralizing authoritarian buzzkill.
Then I thought, but why does it have to be that way for so many people?
And it’s not that I have a problem with Halloween – we’ve always done it with the kids; it’s fun and harmless enough. The thing is that our own Jewish holidays theoretically are and should be the same thing. Its a difference I’ve noticed in Israel. The American view of Jewish holidays in Israel seems to be that in Israel everyone does the Jewish holidays because everyone there is Jewish. So they all do those weird Jewy things. And perhaps because more people are doing it (or less people aren’t) it doesn’t seem so weird, so there’s not all this negative social peer pressure to conform by not doing obviously strange, abnormal things (like weird Jewish holidays that no one else does). But it occurred to me seeing Halloween here in the US, that in a place where the civic culture happened to coincide with Judaism, like in Israel, there’s no reason that the Jewish holidays couldn’t have the same degree of fun-ness that Halloween does in the US, and therefore no reason why parents wouldn’t want to put in huge amounts of effort to celebrate the holiday, and as they amped up their celebrations for their kids even get in on a little of the action themselves, exactly as occurs with Halloween. In other words, it occurred to me that people in Israel don’t celebrate Jewish holidays because they’re Jewish and that’s what Jews have to do because of their religious commandments, so much as they do because that’s just what the civic culture there is.
Halloween in the US, after all, is no longer just about taking your kids on a walk to get some candy. There are whole neighborhoods where the parents set up tables outside, put on music and hang out drinking beers with their buddies while they hand out candy to passers-by and let their kids walk around with whomever is the designated “rounder” for that year who takes the whole group of kids around the block. It has become a fun holiday celebration for the whole family. As I recall from years past walking by those houses with all those street parties, the whole block exuded a sort of native celebratory joyousness, celebrating kids and cuteness and candy and just good times with friends. It’s become a random indigenous celebration. Which is awesome.
Interestingly, there actually happens to be a real Jewish holiday occurring right now, Sukkot, and the other biblical name for Sukkot is Zman Simchateinu – The Time of our Joy or Happiness. I mean its not even like Hanukah or Purim, which are about specific historical events where we won or were saved and therefore are happy – Sukkot is definitionally called “Joyous” without even a specific reason. It’s literally just about pure happiness. Yes, there’s the succah we build, and we remember being protected as we wandered through the desert in temporarily dwellings, and yes we are happy about the fall harvest, but these things are not what secondarily causes us to be happy. No, the happiness is actually built in to the holiday itself totally independent of its historical underpinnings. And yet, many more Jews in the US get their fall happiness from Halloween than from Sukkot.
Its clearly not that people don’t like to celebrate things. And its clearly not that people don’t have the time or money or are unable to exert the effort to stage a robust celebration – Halloween proves that. Its just that, at least for Jews in the US, you’d have to swim upstream pretty hard if you wanted to achieve the same degree of celebratory coolness with Sukkot (or with any of the Jewish holidays.) In the US most of the Jewish holidays have devolved into, at least from a parent’s perspective, little more than a mind-numbing complaint-fest about why do I have to miss whatever my non-Jewish friends are doing, and why do I have to be stuck in synagogue for so long. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
But then I thought, is it so bad if kids (and adults for that matter,) get their fall dose of happiness from Halloween rather than Sukkot? Maybe not, but because Sukkot exists as part of a larger cultural-religious framework whereas Halloween does not, there is another, vulnerable side to Halloween.
When we were shopping for Halloween costumes with our kids in those pop-up seasonal halloween stores, we started in the young toddlers section with the fairies, happy ghosts (remember Casper the friendly ghost?), cute pumpkins, etc. As time went on we graduated to big kid costumes, superheroes, Avengers, etc. And then just a year or two away were the scary monster costumes – scary ghosts, demons, witches, goblins, etc – all scary but with a fantasy touch that made them not exactly real.
But I always had my eye on the large section of the store that I wouldn’t let my kids into – I don’t even know what to call it; maybe the “bigger kid super realistic death and killing” section. The one with costumes that featured hyper-lifelike renderings of people in the midst of being brutally hacked to death, with knives stuck in their bodies, blood and entrails dripping down their torsos, brains splilling out of their cleaved skulls, etc. So sure, Halloween is fun, possibly harmless, and has the potential to be a family-and-friends-oriented celebration of the joy of having kids; but because it is culturally-historically disconnected without any overarching thematic boundaries and not part of any particular value system, as opposed to, say, Sukkot, there are no limits and no telling where it will end up.
Now you may say there’s no connection between the violence that is popular in Halloween costumes, the violence in, say, video games, and the violence of American society in general. And I get that its a bit of a chicken-or-egg conundrum – do gory Halloween costumes cause the violent culture, or are they simply mirroring what’s going on in the culture at large. But does it really matter which is which? Isn’t it a problem either way? Because when you don’t have religious holidays which are infused with a native value system that at a minimum has some cultural rails to keep the themes within a certain broad framework of goodness – and when the only forces acting on the civic holidays are random commercial shock-value lowest common denominator populism, then the whole thing is liable to literally fly off the rails.
Now lest you think that since moving to Israel I’ve just soured completely on America, let me point out that A) I like Halloween and have celebrated Halloween every single year that I’ve been in the US, and B) there does exist another civic holiday which like Halloween is fun and harmless, but which actually does come with good civic values – Thanksgiving. And I have nothing bad to say about Thanksgiving (except to notice that in recent years even that has morphed into something almost unrecognizable in certain quarters, a racist defamatory gathering in need of compete historical revision.) Its just that running by all the Halloween houses this week made me relish the country of Israel, where it really is more than just a lot of Jews who do religious Jewy things. It’s actually an indigenous celebration combined with our own native value system that is celebrated naturally, as it should be.