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The mitzvah of Halloween: The Jewish case for trick-or-treat

The dress-up day has become a true American holiday, offering Jewish kids a chance to put 'love thy neighbor' into practice
Halloween (iStock)
Halloween (iStock)

“Do your kids do Halloween?” Is the question that, as a rabbi, I seem to get asked every October.

When we lived in LA, in a very Jewish neighborhood, nobody went trick-or-treating and so the question never came up. The community had decided: Jews do not do Halloween; it’s pagan. Then we moved to Austin when my daughter was in kindergarten. We kept Shabbat in a traditional way, and so my kid was already the only child in her fairly secular Jewish day school class who wasn’t allowed to go to the mall or a movie on Saturday afternoon. We pick our battles as parents, and I decided that telling her she couldn’t get dressed up and go trick-or-treating with her friends was not a position I was interested in defending.

But my stance on Halloween isn’t just about keeping peace with my children. It’s about community.

When I was a kid living on Arlington Drive, Halloween was the only kid-oriented holiday that Christina, Sudwiti and I had in common: Christian, Hindu and Jewish neighbors and beloved childhood friends created elaborate homemade costumes together and went from door to door, enjoying neighborhood comradery. There was no pagan or religious intent. It was creative, engaging and secularly celebratory. Other times of the year, we observed one another’s celebrations from the sidelines, emerging as more thoughtful friends in a multicultural society – Christina’s Christmas tree bursting with presents, Sudwiti’s small prayer room filled with figures of her gods, my latkes and colorful candles on the windowsill on Chanukah. On Halloween, however, we all came together as equal participants.

Although Halloween may have begun as a Celtic pagan holiday that was then embraced by Catholicism, it is not pagan or Catholic today. While some in the past used it as an excuse for antisemitism and violence, that is also not the Halloween of today. Rather, Halloween is experienced as a joyful and universal American tradition – a chance for kids from all different religious backgrounds to engage together in something silly and creative. A chance for neighbors to open doors to one another. An opportunity for people to enjoy one another’s company, and for people who inhabit the same block to talk with one another. There are so many things that we think and overthink in our Jewish American existence – I don’t believe Halloween has to be one of them.

I know some Jewish parents have their kids give out candy at the door, rather than fully participating in the festivities. They say that Purim is our holiday to dress up. I get that. But I also think this response misses a modern benefit of Halloween. Halloween is actually a chance for us to step away from the world of “us and them,” “our holidays and your holidays,” and simply enjoy being a diverse community of Americans sharing an evening of friendly fun.

And so rather than stepping away and disassociating ourselves, I wonder what it would mean to step in and truly engage. To ask bigger questions, not about the history of Halloween, but about how it is lived today. What would it mean for us to create safe neighborhoods, where all kids feel comfortable trick or treating? What would it mean to engage inner city communities in fostering spaces for kids to enjoy this secular ritual without fearing for their safety? What would it mean to be radically welcoming when “car loads of kids” from poorer neighborhoods arrive in affluent neighborhoods, because every child is worthy of safety and good candy? What would it mean if we all refrained from judging negatively, but instead put ourselves in their parents’ shoes and welcomed these children with kindness? How could Halloween prompt us to act on behalf of others, if we view this holiday as a nationwide community childhood festivity, to which everyone is invited?

V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. Halloween is a great opportunity to practice this key mitzvah.

While choosing to let my religious, Jewish kids embrace Halloween felt a bit weird at first, I am so glad I did it. I appreciate that Jewish religious observance often invites us to live differently, observing unique rituals and adhering to specific priorities. I also appreciate what it means to live in a multicultural American society, in which we are blessed to know many people who engage in all sorts of different celebrations, most of which have religious meaning that excludes us Jews. But for me, Halloween doesn’t fall in either of these categories. It is neither uniquely mine, nor uniquely somebody else’s. We can give meaning to Halloween – and the holiday I see around me means community gathering, welcoming, sharing and safety.

I hope that my kids will have memories of trick-or-treating that are as warm and joyful as my memories with the girls of Arlington Drive, and I’m confident that these experiences will not have threatened or weakened their Jewish identity and practice – if anything, they will have made their identities as observant American Jews stronger.

About the Author
Rachel Kobrin is the rabbi of Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver, Colorado.
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