It was my monthly turn on the Rabbis Without Borders blog today. Here is my contribution, reflecting on a recent incident. Talking about The Twilight Zone, neighbors, our ancestor Abraham, Halloween and my chickens…
“Does a zombie rabbi say Kaddish for itself?”
This was the tongue-in-cheek observation from my son, fresh from his bar mitzvah, as we discussed Halloween. Would an undead rabbi recite the prayer for the dead for himself? Building on the trend that seems to have taken over public entertainment, I was musing about combining popular culture and Jewish life and going as a zombie rabbi. I will admit, it was a clever response.
I didn’t make any movement towards the zombie rabbi costume. I’m hemming and hawing over my costume, and will probably end up doing what I usually do—pulling something out of our costume box, either a robot head or a pair of butterfly wings and antennae.
One thing I don’t hesitate about, though, is whether or not to celebrate Halloween.
It is a constant refrain—and probably has been for a long time—as to whether or not Jews should even celebrate Halloween. I remember it was discussed when I was growing up, and it continues to be discussed today. Mostly this has to do with the holiday’s pagan origins and Christian associations—All Saint’s Day is the following day.
[It is because of the pagan origins that it seems some churches have a harder time with Halloween than some Jews do as many churches sponsor alternative events on Halloween night, inviting people to come into the church rather than walk the streets.]
While the holiday for some retains some of its pagan and Christian associations, for me the holiday has transcended those origins has become a general observance.
One of the reasons I like Halloween is how social and neighborhood oriented it is. At a time when we stay holed up in our homes and prefer our socializing to be through a Facebook page (and I admit I am guilty of this as well), Halloween takes us outside, walking the streets and visiting our neighbors. The exchange is pleasant–“please” and “thank you”–and gifts of sweetness are exchanged.
Halloween has also become a time for seasonal parties and gatherings in a way that the home- and family-based Thanksgiving does not lend itself, and a way that Christmas parties—even with the moniker of “Holiday party”—are still exclusive. And with costuming, decorating and pumpkin-carving, the holiday also has an inherent creative and playful quality to it.
Decorating it seems is on the rise—more and more housed in my neighborhood are decorating for Halloween. We have already done several tours of the neighborhood, including on the ride to school, to check out the decorations. The nervous excitement of my kids (especially the 6-year-old) to go out and check out the decorations, as well as the excitement around the annual trip to the pop-up Halloween store, has brought to mind another aspect of the holiday which I hadn’t thought of before. The fact is, one of the prevailing emotions and themes of Halloween is fear.
Fear is something we deal with on a continual basis, but don’t address that often. And the ability to confront and overcome fear—to accept it and move on with courage—is a developmental skill and sign of maturity. Now that I see my second child go through the same reactions and nervous dance around Halloween I saw my older child go through, I see that it is a natural path we take. We want to be scared, we need to be scared, in order to test ourselves and be able to recognize that fear is a part of life.
Halloween allows us to confront fear in a “safe” way, tempered with candy and celebration. But at the heart of the contemporary observance is the pushing of boundaries and the confrontation with that which haunts us. And perhaps its no surprise that just as we light lights at the darkest time of the year, we confront fear and death at a time the world around us is going through its natural seasonal cycle of death.
Halloween is a good time to remember that Judaism has its own folkloric tradition around supernaturalism—think of the classic figure of the Golem, or the dream scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.” And answering the question of the zombie rabbi and Kaddish allows for an interesting discussion of Jewish values and practices. And whether coincidental or not, wearing a costume to celebrate a holiday of fear reminds me of the custom of one who is gravely ill changing his or her name to “trick” the angel of death.
But more than anything, on Halloween we join with people of all backgrounds to confront that which scares us—the macabre—and celebrate that which sustains us—our neighbors.