A Halloween Postscript: Why Opposition to Trick-or-Treating Won’t Strengthen Jewish Identity

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.

What Would Esther Think?

Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful and intermarried heroine of Purim.

Over the past month, the intermarriage debate has once again flared. On one side are the longtime advocates of in-marriage who convened a group of Jewish leaders to discuss the future of American Jewry and sound the alarm about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on the community. On the other side are the proponents of outreach who have called for “audacious hospitality” towards intermarrieds and other groups on the fringes of Judaism in order to grow our ranks.

As I have read the back-and-forth between the pro-endogamy and pro-outreach camps, I have found myself wondering, what would Esther think?

Who is Esther and why should we care what she thinks? I am referring to Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful, and intermarried heroine of Purim who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith (at least until the next lunatic tries to destroy us).

The story of her daring actions is told in the Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible in which God is never mentioned. It is an ancient tale that addresses contemporary issues such as bullying, bystander intervention, and anti-Semitism. It speaks to us about courage, standing up for justice and personal responsibility, and because God is absent, it reminds us that heroes can come from anywhere – even interfaith homes.

Esther’s Jewishness and marriage tend to be glossed over in the Purim speils that retell her story, but she was like 44% of Jews today – assimilated and intermarried. She might have even defined herself as a Jew of no religion. She was a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Her husband, King Ahasuerus, had no idea that she was Jewish, and she was content to keep it that way.

But then her uncle Mordecai, who was one of the king’s ministers, refused to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors with whom he had a workplace dispute. Because of the refusal, Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews of Persia. Now, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity was to be tested.

When she learns of the decree, Esther is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. She makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people.

Like many Jews in interfaith relationships, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness only after she intermarries and her Jewish identity is challenged. In the end, she embraces her Jewish-self, but she also stays married to her not Jewish husband.

Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried. We do not judge her choices; we do not say she did the right thing but. We remember her for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship. We find in Esther’s story something good even though we do not define her marriage or choices as ideal.

Esther reminds us of the on-going struggle to balance worldliness and righteousness, and that there are ways for Judaism and intermarriage to co-exist. I think that, if she were alive today, she would write an op-ed piece in the Jewish press making the case for the inclusion and engagement of intermarrieds in Jewish life.

She would ask us to consider the consequences of her marriage being prevented because of a religious norm. She would point out that her story teaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero including interfaith couples.

She might even suggest that intermarrieds who create a Jewish home are modern day Esthers. After all, they are investing in a Jewish future by raising Jewish children. This may not be as spectacular an action as saving an entire people from extinction, but it is no less heroic. When it comes to preserving Jewish continuity, interfaith families can be Jewish heroes too.

Purim, Revealing the Hidden

One of the themes of Purim has to do with the hidden becoming revealed.  Esther hid her identity as a Jew within Achashverosh’s castle.  When the time was right not only did she reveal her true self, but she revealed Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews.  All the coincidences within the story of Esther all come together in the end and reveal a rich and interesting story.  G-d’s name is not mentioned at all in the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, but is hidden within Esther’s name itself, which means Hidden.

My husband and I celebrated Purim with a local Jewish organization.  I dressed up as Time Flies (I had wings and clocks) and my husband dressed up as Father Time.  Father Time was a priest with clock picture on his chest.  We felt this was funny on a few levels, since my husband isn’t Jewish.  I think he appreciated being dressed up as a character that is distinctly not Jewish.  He could be his non-Jewish self openly when all through the year he feels like he has to downplay and maybe hide the fact he isn’t Jewish.

We had agreed that our son would be raised in an entirely Jewish environment and my husband isn’t/wasn’t very religious so it didn’t seem like a big deal.  It does mean though that he gets submerged and swallowed with Jewishness.  Kosher food, Shabbat meals, Jewish holidays… he’s surrounded all the time.

We celebrate Purim by hiding behind masks and pretending to be what we aren’t (or briefly live a fantasy of who we would like to be), just as Esther pretended she wasn’t Jewish.  My husband got to enjoy the party being openly non-Jewish.

I Don’t Like Purim

My first exposure to Purim came when my husband and I brought our then two year old daughter to the synagogue he attended through his childhood.  I had her dressed as a fairy, and she was so stinking cute, waving her little wand and clutching her tiara.  The rabbi jumped out from behind something and roared at her – he was dressed in a giant gorilla costume.  He was delighted and happy, everyone laughed.  My toddler was distinctly not amused, she was terrified.  I was even less amused – I was just furious.

Fast forward a few years, and Purim didn’t really get any better.  When my second child was born, Purim was a disaster.  He wasn’t a fan of crowds anyway, and taking him to the Megillah reading, with all the noisemakers – he screamed louder than any of them.  I’d pull him out of the service, but we could still hear the loud noisemakers and every time Haman’s name was read, not only would his name be drowned out, the noise of the noisemakers was drowned out as well, by the hysterical sobbing of a terrified boy.

The more I read about the Purim story, the less impressed I was.  Queen Esther seems to be held up as a pinnacle of bravery.  But she really didn’t do much more than be pretty and do as she was told.  On the upside, discussion of it did inspire a lot of conversation around here about the role of women and generations of learned Torah scholars interpreting the story to highlight the qualities that were most conducive to keeping women in a submissive position in society.  Esther was the king’s wife, not because she was smart or brave, but because she was beautiful.  And she saved the Jewish people not because she knew it had to be done, not because she independently made the decision to risk her own safety by appearing before the king without being summoned, but because she listened to the male head of her family and did as she was told.

And I don’t like hamentaschen.  Prune filled cookies are confusing to me, I’d much rather a nice chocolate chip cookie :-)

Joy

In early May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the JCC‘s of North America Biennial Conference in New Orleans.  Most of the conference sessions I attended were about leadership, community and the future of the JCC movement – all very interesting and meaningful to me as a JCC professional.  However, the best workshop I attended was the one presented by David Ackerman of the JCC Association and Karina Zilberman, creator of Shababa at the 92nd Street Y in New York City focused on celebrating Shabbat at JCCs.  If you live in Manhattan and you have small children, my advice is to RUN, not walk, to the 92nd Street Y for Shababa Fridays and Saturdays.  If your kids like music and you like to feel inspired, this is the place.  In a room full of 40 adults, Karina was able to create an atmosphere of joy that I haven’t experienced really since summer camp many moons ago.  Her spirit, creativity and unique enthusiasm had a way of making everyone feel good, and in essence, make everyone feel good about being Jewish.  That’s a pretty big and important task.

This experience really got me thinking about joy and Judaism – are my husband and I making Judaism joyful for our boys?  We try to make it fun by bringing them to the JCC and synagogue Purim carnivals, by taking them to see Mama Doni concerts and by celebrating Passover with their cousins.  We try to make it part of our lives by going to religious school on Sundays and participating in the family service each week.  We try to make it social by setting up playdates with Jewish friends.  But do we make it joyful?  How do we really do that? 

I think I can see and hear joy when our boys are singing Jewish songs in the car and reading books from the PJ library – but how can we take it to the next level?  Overnight camp is one way for sure – Friday night services outside with all of your friends, singing the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) with all of the “campy” traditions – but until they (and we) are ready for that, what can we do now?  How can we ensure that they feel great about being Jewish and that they feel joy when they are doing Jewish things? 

Purim is not a Jewish Halloween

I am sure there must be several blog posts with that title.  When people ask about Purim, it’s a simple answer. It’s kind of Halloween.  The only thing similar to Halloween is the dressing up.  Otherwise there is nothing similar to Halloween (stepping off soap box). 

Purim is about giving.  We give to charity so that others can enjoy a festive meal.  We give food to friends to let them know we care.  Purim is about remembering – remembering how with the help of G-d, Queen Esther saved the Jewish people.  It’s about stepping up – Esther was quiet in the castle.  She didn’t want to be noticed.  But when the time came, she had to come out of her shell and do what was needed. 

And the dressing up – to show that nothing is as it appears.  G-d is not mentioned in the story of Esther, not once – but He is there – behind the scenes.  What appears to be a simple series of coincidences is actually G-d doing what He does best. 

And like most Jewish holidays, Purim is about eating – enjoying the festive meal. 

I pray that one day I can convey the wonder of Purim to my son so that he can enjoy and cherish the holiday.

We don’t have any traditions yet, except the Mishloach Manot.  We do two sets, one through a local organization and then we do a few of our own.  We don’t do anything fancy (tight budget and all).  I haven’t had time to bake, but I am hoping to include some Hamentaschen in the future with our little boy. 

Of course, I am dressing up my little one.  I mean a baby in costume – how cute is that?  I hope by starting some things young, I can get my son into the spirit (and my husband too). 

And hopefully one day, my son won’t feel like he is missing out by not celebrating Halloween and loves his Purim celebrations. 

What do you do?  Do you celebrate Halloween and Purim?  How do you distinguish between the two?