What’s a Nice Jewish Girl to do about Halloween?
My birthday falls in late October. I will not disclose my age, and those of you who know me know what that number is. Unless a birthday is one that ends in a 0 or a 5, birthdays at this stage of life are no big deal.
But think back to when you were a kid. Those were the days when one counted down the days to their birthday party. And if you were lucky enough to be born on the cusp of the Scorpio sign, birthday parties were all about Halloween. Late October babies have a built-in costumed, candy-corn flavored theme that is perfectly gift wrapped with a giant fake spiderweb and grooves to the music of a Monster Mash soundtrack.
Each year, even up through high school, I celebrated my birthday with a costume party. On my seventh or eighth birthday, my grandmother transformed herself into a gypsy storyteller to the delight of all my costumed friends. My parents and grandparents even staged special effects, complete with a charmed stuffed snake to rise out of a wicker basket with the help of an invisible fishing wire.
All through childhood, my mother and grandmother were the master costume makers. My mom said that when she was growing up in her Bensonhurst, Brooklyn apartment, my grandmother would dress up as a witch and concoct costumes for every kid in the building.
And when it was my turn to dress up, mom and grandma could make me into anything I wanted because they both knew their way around a sewing machine. Pity my own children this time of year. I cook, I bake, I garden, I teach, I read Torah, but I cannot even decently hem a pair of pants.
I wanted to be a sunflower one year: mom made me a sunflower. And then scarecrow, and Indian Princess, and even a hairdryer. And my final Halloween birthday party, I made a really convincing Boy George.
Halloween birthday parties, trick-or-treating and getting candy went on happily and innocently until the seventh grade. That year, Halloween fell out on a Tuesday which was afternoon Hebrew School.
Hebrew School started at 4:30 and let out around 6 p.m. Through Chumash (bible) lessons, you could feel the tension in the class start to bubble like a witch’s cauldron: we were missing out on prime trick-or-treating time! We realized that by the time we got home, scarfed down some dinner and put on our costumes, maybe we could collect half a pillowcase worth of candy if we were lucky. But we had a plan.
“Rabbi,” one of our classmates sweetly inquired, “Can we get out of Hebrew School early today so we can go trick-or-treating?”
“Yeladim!” He shouted, saying the Hebrew word for children. “Jewish children should not celebrate Halloween. It is NOT a Jewish Holiday! If you want to dress up and have fun, we can do that later in the year, on Purim.”
In unison, the entire class gasped in disbelief. Up till this point, we were all completely unaware that Halloween could have other meanings besides dressing up, running around the neighborhood and getting candy. And, in the streets of Staten Island, we didn’t exactly live in a part of the world where Purim, a costume-filled Jewish holiday in the spring, was universally celebrated.
We were not deterred that night, or any year after, from our right as American kids to trick-or-treat. Okay, Halloween is not a Jewish holiday. In fact, I knew even back then that Halloween must have some Christian implications, because all the parochial school kids I knew in my neighborhood had off Nov. 1 for All Saint’s Day.
Halloween must be okay because my grandmother, the most Jewish lady I knew, still loved Halloween. One year, my grandparents went to Greenwich Village to see the famous Halloween parade. My grandmother had a blast and made friends with everyone, including “all the nice young men dressed up in the most elaborate costumes” who offered her a chair along the parade route.
My Yiddishe grandma, the one who made gifilte fish from scratch and sang me Jewish songs, found delight in hanging out in the Village with the drag queens on Halloween!
I always wanted to go into the Village for Halloween, but it wasn’t until my grandparents raved about it did I got the nerve to go to one of the best places in the country to celebrate on Oct. 31.
I spent two Halloweens in the Village in my 20’s, although I didn’t wear a costume. Then, out in San Francisco’s Castro district, I dressed as Mona Lisa in a frame and my beloved dressed as the Mad Hatter. People sang “Mona Lisa” to me. A few people even got the Elton John reference and sang a few bars of that song with us. The streets got crowded, and my frame did get entangled with other costumes, but it was all in good fun.
Those were some of the most memorable nights of my life. More than the candy, as young adult I saw Halloween as a time when people can express themselves and become someone else for just one night. Halloween costumes break down barriers between strangers. But beneath the costumes and candy, the darker messages that lurk below are just plain not Jewish.
I still love Halloween and my heart is tied to the Halloween memories of my childhood. But Halloween has shifted lower on my priority list.
After a month of putting energies into the Jewish fall holidays I mentioned in a recent blog post, I have little desire to turn my front lawn into a graveyard or put together a costume with a hot glue gun.
But we still carve our pumpkin. And I still let my kids go trick-or-treating. But they well understand and love that come spring, we will be busy making hamantashen cookies and baskets of food for friends and neighbors for the Jewish holiday of Purim. In that way, they learn that Purim, when you walk around the neighborhood giving treats, is in essence the exact opposite of Halloween’s tradition of going around the neighborhood begging for treats.
Am I sending my Jewish children mixed messages? Maybe. Will I someday, because of Jewish observance, let go of Halloween go altogether? Perhaps.
But in the meantime, it’s still fun to walk the neighborhood’s darkened streets, check out the glow in the dark decorations, and maybe get a little scared.