“Esther is freaking out. Her teacher told her that Jews can’t go trick or treating. Now she thinks that if she does, she will be going against Judaism.” This was the phone call I received on the afternoon of October 31, many years ago.
Esther, age 10, attended the local Jewish day school. It was not uncommon for teachers to lack degrees in education, and exist unaware of social-emotional development. This teacher was Israeli and came with the added complication of having no cultural awareness of American Halloween. Esther lived in a kosher home and came to synagogue every Shabbat morning. Judaism was tightly woven into the fabric of her life, inextricable from her whole self.
Now Esther was sobbing. She had plans for trick-or-treating with her friends, but she didn’t want to do the wrong thing. She didn’t want to offend her teacher. She didn’t want to offend God. Even at 10, Esther was a deep thinker and a sensitive person.
When I was ten, I had no idea that there were Jews who did not celebrate Halloween. Forty percent of the students at my public school were Jewish. Everyone celebrated Halloween, the idea that it was forbidden in Jewish life never occurred to me. Halloween, of course, is a child’s dream holiday. Candy and costumes…what more could you ask for? I grew up knowing that Christmas was not for us, and Easter was not for us. I felt like a traitor singing Christmas music in choir and learned at a young age to distinguish secular music (Jingle Bells) from religious music (Silent Night), refusing to sing the latter. I felt guilty participating in neighborhood Easter egg hunts, though to this day I have no idea what bunnies and painted eggs have to do with the birth of Jesus. Halloween, on the other hand, was an equalizer. It belonged to everyone.
Many of my fondest childhood memories involve celebrating holidays. Oftentimes, recalling holidays evokes images at the synagogue – the people and place beloved to me, essential to my life. Dancing with the Torah, hearing the shofar, winning goldfish at the Purim carnival. Other holidays conjure memories of home and family. Reciting the four questions at the Passover seder, salivating in anticipation of sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving. Unsurprisingly, Halloween was among my favorites. In our neighborhood, the streets overflowed with children, carrying pillowcases filled with candy, dressed in costume, laughing and screaming with utter delight. I vividly recall the shrieks and giggles of the children who came to our door and were greeted by my father, holding a plastic brain covered in fake blood. As a parent, I watched my toddler son have his first bite of a candy bar, while wearing a Yoda costume, a joy unmatched.
To be sure, Halloween has pagan roots. So do many current Jewish traditions. The origins and development of Halloween are blurry, highlighting the reality that living traditions evolve. Halloween, as it is known in America, is an amalgam of traditions from a variety of times and places. In old Celtic tradition, the marking of Samhain occurred on October 31 and signified the end of the harvest season. It was seen as the beginning of a darker time when spirits could access the world and were particularly active. The Romans were aware of this tradition, and the influence of Samhain is evident on the evolution of All Souls Day as developed and observed by the Church. To be clear, the only reason that I know the history and origins of Halloween is from researching it as an adult. Halloween in America has evolved to be a wholly secular occasion, and any pagan or Christian influence present in its observance is virtually unrecognizable.
Living in diversity means absorbing, adopting and evolving traditions.
Last week, I took my children to buy Halloween decorations. Our block is going all-out this year, eager to get out and bring joy to our children, who have suffered through this grueling pandemic. We bought rubber bats, giant spiders, and a jar of eyeballs. Both children chose costumes – Spiderman, and Mal from the Descendants series – characters that provide opportunity to discuss power and responsibility. While we were at the store, we came across Hanukkah candles and purchased them as well. Because, like Esther, my family’s identity is a tightly woven tapestry. We can handle the tension, and we revel in the beauty created by its complexity.