Of Halloween, Horror & History — Reflections from the Upper West Side

Let me start by making clear that Halloween was NOT a holiday celebrated in our home as I was raising my children. As a very communally involved Jewish parent raising children in suburban Cleveland in the wake of the 1990 Jewish Population Study, I very consciously prohibited my children from observing Halloween.  Instead of dressing up and trick or treating like most of their friends from their day school, we would go to dinner and a movie with the few other families who also abhorred Halloween’s pagan roots and legacy of pogroms.  Besides, we had Purim as our masquerade holiday.

Many years later, I find myself as a “stepmom” to a Japanese Jewish American 9-year-old and as part of a pre-war apartment community here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  To say I have embraced Halloween would be an overstatement; however, I no longer avoid any contact with the celebration and have actually come to appreciate the communal nature of the “holiday.”  This evening, in the wake of the news of the terror attack in Lower Manhattan, I forced myself to take my dog Sammy out for a walk down Broadway, knowing that we would pass kids in costume, going in and out of the stores, trick or treating the City way.  Life continuing on as normal, just like in Israel after a terror attack.  When I came back upstairs, I turned off the television and put on the just released CD of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir at the Metropolitan Opera House.  It is no coincidence that I write these words to the music that has soothed my soul since I was a very little girl.  I am sure there are many little girls in lower Manhattan who need a lot of soothing tonight.  Just as there have been so many children in Israel who have had to be comforted in the wake of terror attack after terror attack.

My first reaction to the news of terror attack this afternoon was remembering the horror of the terrorist attack, a suicide bomber, in Tel Aviv at The Dizengoff Center on Purim, March 4, 1996.  As a member of the United Jewish Appeal’s Young Leadership Cabinet I had become very engaged with Israel and was traveling with a UJA group to Jerusalem from the Washington Conference several weeks later, a Capital to Capital Mission, celebrating the 3000th anniversary of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people.  Thinking back, this was the first time that gut sickness that is the anxiety created by the horror of terrorism crept into my physical being.  It was a feeling that I would come to know quite well as I established my Jerusalem home and deepened my connections to the Jewish State, personally, communally and professionally.

Since establishing my New York home, I have become involved in the Jewish community here, primarily through the Zamir Chorale, my synagogue Ansche Chesed (where I get to sing along with my dear friend Cantor Natasha Hirschhorn every Shabbat) and our choir Shirei Chesed and my membership on the Israeli Judaism Committee of the New York UJA-Federation.  An Israeli Judaism Committee meeting at 9 this morning got me out my door much earlier than usual as I joined the “mass of humanity” ( one of my mother Arlene’s favorite expressions, z”l) on the subway, confidently navigating the system but still 10 minutes late.  One of the delights of my New York life is finding a group of activists who are so passionate about the issues that are the core of The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project and being able to participate in the allocation of communal money to support the organizations that are designed to be the beneficiary of SRSS.

After a 2 hour meeting that flew by (the chair runs a great meeting), I decided to journey to Brooklyn to visit my dear friend Naomi and her two-week old daughter Marlo Bree.  I smiled as I sat on the 4 train, reflecting on the connection between my morning and my afternoon – Naomi Less is my dear friend because of our shared passion for a just and fair Israel.  Our Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen Israel music video was released exactly five years ago as part of the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, as my Facebook page has been reminding me.  In those five years, I have had the privilege to get to know her a musician, an activist, a teacher and a music partner.  Now, I have the privilege to get to know her as a mother as I happily assume the role of “Affie”, Aunt Fran.  In a very real way, Naomi, Glenn and Marlo are family to me and being there is truly a joy.  The fact that their friendship circle is wide, deep and fascinating is the icing on the cake, so to speak.  What is special about that circle is that Jewish values are front and center in a most contemporary, progressive and artistic way.  The shared norms of our Jewish community are being refracted through a prism that illuminates the essence of our Jewish tradition.

I also know Naomi through the Ramah Darom circles, as she was part of the original staff and we have mutual close friends.  Ramah Darom is located in Clayton, Georgia, in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains and is designed to serve the Jewish population of the south.  While Cleveland kids generally go to Ramah Canada, because I wanted my children to also spend part of the summer in Israel, I enrolled them in Ramah Darom which started and ended much earlier, allowing our family to travel to Israel for July and August.  My brother Scott’s daughters, (who called me Affie) went to Ramah Darom so the cousins were able to be at camp together and I spent time with my brother during intercession a few times.  Ramah Darom was a special place for Rachel and David, with both of them working there for several years after being campers.  While Sarah was not a happy camper, her experience at Ramah Darom led her directly to one semester at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina.  While there is much criticism thrown at the Conservative movement in the United States, it is clear that there is something special about the Camps Ramah.  The Jewish values that are woven into the experience are enduring, no matter which Ramah was or is a part of one’s life.

Which brings me back to this Halloween night on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  I haven’t put the television back on yet to see if the talking heads remember their history.  Before the sun set over the Hudson, I sat in front of the television and listened as the anchors and analysts reviewed the history of “vehicular terrorism.”  Perhaps something has changed in the past few hours, but I was more than a bit disturbed that attacks in Nice and Barcelona were mentioned but not Israel.  This most recent Intifada, the one that I experienced as a grandmother with young grandchildren in Israel, was distinguished by those types of attacks.  Here is an opportunity to show how so much of what the world knows as “Islamic terrorism” today actually emerged as yet another way to terrorize the Israeli public.  Unfortunately the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been eclipsed by the rise of Islamic terrorism on a more global scale.  But it began in the Holy Land.  Like so many other aspects of civilization.  But not Halloween.

On this Halloween night, I am sad that just as Israeli’s have their “Purim Pigua”, now 21 years later, New Yorkers have their Halloween Horror.  This day, which is a holiday that embraces fear as a core element turned not just fearful but lethal for New Yorkers.  Fear is real but the authorities are confident that this was a lone wolf and so have urged New Yorkers to carry on.  Yet an event of terror creates anxiety, which unlike fear, is relative.  Playing with words, and thinking about my day, I know that there is nothing that helps alleviate anxiety more than being with those relatives, those who hold you and support you throughout life’s journey, who comfort you.  The values that we share as a family, as a community, as a tribe, as a country, those values serve to comfort us on this dark and scary night. Yes, even those values that celebrate the simple fun of dressing up and trick or treating.  Sorry kids.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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