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What do a disappearing groom, a witch in a milk bottle, a demon that writes Mezzuzot, and a clay giant have in common? They’re all part of Judaism’s rich but rarely discussed centuries old tradition of ghost stories, superstitions, and spooky tales. That’s right; Jews go “Boo!” too.
Ancient rabbis and Jewish thinkers, Kabbalists, and Talmudic scholars all dabbled in demonology, and there was a serious Jewish belief in the supernatural dating back to biblical times. Because Judaism always co-existed with other tribes and races, it was influenced by and incorporated beliefs and practices of the surrounding cultures including speculation about the existence of supernatural beings. In Babylonia, Jews were influenced by the Chaldean and Persian belief in good and evil spirits, and this became a feature of Jewish ideas about supernatural beings. In Europe, Jewish demonology took the form of superstition mirroring Teutonic, Celtic, and Slavic practices. Following are a few examples of Jewish characters fit for Halloween.
Lilith first appears in the Bible in the Book of Isaiah as a dweller in waste places, and the name is often translated as night creature, night monster, night hag, or screech owl. Lilith is known as an ancient witch and Adam’s first wife. According to legend, she is created at the same time as Adam and from the same earth, unlike Eve, who is created from one of Adam’s ribs. Lilith develops her reputation as a fiercely independent woman when she leaves Adam because she refuses to be subservient to him. When God asks Lilith to return to Eden at Adam’s request, she refuses and couples with the “Great Demon,” Samael. She morphs into a kidnapper, murderer of children and seducer of men.
Beginning in the sixth century BC, the first visual depictions of Lilith appear and Jewish magical practices develop bowls and amulets with inscriptions designed to ward off the she-devil that represents unchecked sexuality and an uncontrollable woman. Lilith reminds men of how attraction to another can destroy a marriage and the dangers of marrying an independent female who is wild and sexually liberated.
Today, the Lilith legend is common source material for modern comics and literature, fantasy and horror films where she is often depicted as voluptuous and sexy.
Witch of Endor
Like the Lilith, the Witch of Endor is a biblical character perfect for Halloween. While Lilith is scary, the Witch of Endor is spooky but generally good. The witch can channel the dead in what you might imagine as an ancient séance.
In the First Book of Samuel, King Saul expels, some say kills, all the necromancers, witches, and magicians in the land of Israel. But some remain in the part of Israel called Endor. After the expulsion, Saul is preparing for battle. His trusted prophet Samuel is dead, and he seeks wisdom from God about the upcoming fight with the Philistines. He receives no answer. Desperate for guidance, he looks for another medium to channel the divine. He finds the Witch of Endor, who claims that she can see dead people. She conjures a vision of the prophet Samuel that speaks to Saul. The ghost complains of being disturbed, reminds Saul of his sins, and predicts Saul’s downfall, which happens the next day.
Golems and Dybbuks
Two of the most famous Jewish supernatural creatures are the golem and dybbuk. The golem, like Frankenstein, is a manmade creation. It is made out of clay, and given life and controlled by man. In some stories, the golem develops a mind of its own and does bad things, but Jewish tradition typically describes it as a creature created by a rabbi to serve the Jewish community, often in times of great need. The rabbi forms the creature from earth and brings it to life with his breath and the recitation of words from holy texts. The tale of the Golem of Prague is the most well-known golem story and is often used as the basis for modern depictions of golems and golem-like creatures in literature and culture, especially the fantasy and horror genres.
The dybbuk is an evil spirit from Jewish mythology that attaches itself to a living person’s soul causing mental illness and the creation of a separate and alien personality. Dybbuks are generally considered souls that because of the enormity of their sins are not allowed to transmigrate so instead, seek refuge in the body of a living person. There is even Jewish literature on how to exorcise dybbuks from the possessed and redeem the lost soul or cause it to enter hell. And you thought exorcisms weren’t a Jewish thing! Dybbuks are often found in literature and movies.
Halloween provides the perfect opportunity to share these and many other Jewish stories of ghosts and ghouls, and demons and witches with your family. They allow you to put a uniquely Jewish twist on a non-Jewish celebration. These Jewish tales also provide an opportunity to make Judaism relevant to your children by sharing how Jewish tradition has influenced popular culture. So, give your kids something Jewish to scream about this Halloween. Connect Judaism’s scary stories and characters to modern books and movies and help them make Halloween their own.
Books on Jewish Ghosts, Witches, and Magic:
Ghosts and Golems: Haunting Tales of the Supernatural by Michele Palmer
I didn’t intend to write a post-Hallowen blog. To be honest, Halloween isn’t something that is big in my family. I’m not a costume or candy person, and neither is my husband. While our son Sammy enjoys trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, it isn’t something that he wants to do every year.
This year we weren’t home for the holiday. We took Sammy to Legoland for a belated birthday celebration. As we relaxed at the hotel on Halloween night, I posted on Facebook pictures of the Shabbat set we built from the box of bricks in our room and scrolled through pictures of my friends’ children in costumes.
As I gazed at princesses and zombies, I came across a post by a non-Orthodox rabbi that a friend had commented on. It was a Halloween put-down. It griped about the overly commercialized pagan holiday that encourages children to play tricks on others and eat too much candy. It suggested that costumes be saved for the “truly fun holiday” of Purim.
Some friends of the post’s author shared his distaste for trick-or-treating. They said celebrating Halloween sent a confusing message to Jewish children since it wasn’t a Jewish holiday. That participating in such celebrations blurred the lines of who Jews were and what they stood for and contributed to the increased weakening of Jewish identity.
Really? I’m certain that Sammy has never been confused about his religious identity because we celebrate Halloween. He has never asked if we’re pagans instead of Jews or mistaken Halloween for a Jewish holiday. Like most people, he sees Halloween as an American tradition just like Thanksgiving. The more I read the comments from the Jewish anti-Halloween crusaders, the more I realized how out of touch some of these communal leaders were with the reality of Jewish life in America today.
According to the 2013 Pew report, many non-orthodox Jews now identify as Jews of no religion. They feel a cultural connection to Judaism but have few ties to Jewish organizations. They are Jews of the world–assimilated and cosmopolitan in their thinking and lifestyle. To reach them, they need to be met where they are–in secular life.
Demonizing a holiday that most American Jews view as a harmless, secular observance that enables children to dress up and have fun is not meeting them where they are. Nor is it the way to strengthen the ties of the loosely affiliated or bring Jews with a weak connection back to the faith. Anti-Halloween rhetoric is simply tone deaf.
I state in From Generation to Generation that we need to help all Jews–inmarried and intermarried, affiliated and unaffiliated–answer the question why be Jewish. We can do this by using opportunities presented by the secular and non-Jewish to demonstrate how Judaism is part of this world, not separate from it. Concerning Halloween, we can show families and children how Jewish values and traditions are mirrored in the holiday.
We can highlight the similarities between Halloween and Purim: both are joyous holidays that share a tradition of dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity. We can discuss how collecting for UNICEF or donating Halloween candy to charities that help families in need is an act of tzedakah.
We can encourage people to celebrate their Jewish-Americanness by adding some Halloween fun to their Shabbat celebrations–enjoy challah stuffed with candy or a costume party Shabbat. And we can remind families that greeting their neighbors as their children go house-to-house or as they distribute candy is honoring the Jewish principle of loving thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34).
These kinds of things make Judaism more accessible to modern American Jews because they help them see that they can embrace aspects of Jewish faith and culture regardless of affiliation, marriage partner or belief in God. On the other hand, loud and proud opposition to Halloween focuses on maintaining strict boundaries between Judaism and the secular world.
Jews who view themselves as Jews of the world are not interested in this kind of boundary maintenance. They want to have their candy corns and eat them too. Therefore, the drumbeat of the anti-Halloween crowd will likely do as much to strengthen people’s ties to Judaism as intermarriage prevention efforts have done to increase inmarriage and engagement.
Now that Halloween is over, the debate may have died down, but it will soon be back as the anti-Halloweeners turn their attention toward Hanukkah and Christmas. Their rants about the commercialization and inflation of Hanukkah, the syncretism of Hanukkah bushes and menorah trees, and the participation by Jews in any Christmas tradition is coming to your Twitter and Facebook feed. So, grab a gingerbread latte and read their holiday diatribes while you enjoy a little holiday cheer.