This election year the calendar has dealt the Jewish community an October surprise. The final Friday of the month is Oct. 31, and many families, in addition to choosing a candidate, will now also need to decide the weightier issue of which Friday eve tradition to favor, Shabbat or Halloween?
Some, like me, will try to cast their vote for both.
As the day approaches, a debate between traditions is raging in many Jewish homes: challah vs. candy, the Sabbath Queen vs. the Pumpkin King, blue homes vs. orange. It’s a serious give and take, with the youth vote swinging one way and the Shabbat moms and dads the other.
Who wins? Considering the holiday’s murky Celtic origin and Christian association, wouldn’t it be better to simply abstain?
It’s a cultural battle made in the heavens whenever significant dates on our Jewish-lunar and the secular-solar calendars collide. Regardless of the outcome, the coincidence of Shabbat and Halloween can provide for all ages a useful opening to rekindle and reinforce Jewish ideas and culture.
If assimilation is the real bogeyman, we need to find a way to creatively hold him at bay.
Many already take advantage of the post-Halloween sales to stock up on half-price candy and deeply discounted costumes, saving them for Purim. Can’t Jews also take advantage of the Halloween season to take stock of our own lore, characters and legends?
For every drugstore ghost, goblin and monster, Jewish folklore counters with a demon, giant,and golem. Our tradition goes one better by even providing instructions on how to find them.
The book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Agaddah, which includes folk-oriented selections from the Talmud and Midrash, recommends: “He who wishes to become aware of demons’ existence should take well-sifted ashes and sprinkle them around his bed.”
Who knew? Monsters under the bed — another Jewish innovation.
Jewish literature provides additional creaky openings. In S. Ansky’s dark play “The Dybbuk,” we have a tortured spirit who inhabits the living, refusing to leave.
Bernard Malamud’s story “The Jewbird” introduces a spooky blackbird who flies in the window and warns of pogroms and anti-Semites, creating an ethnic fear factor approaching Edgar Allan Poe’s raven.
As to fantastical creatures, look out Harry Potter. We have as our heritage a biblical menagerie of talking snakes, prophet-swallowing whales, leviathans and behemoths, and rock-eating worms, the shamir. Rabbi Akiva quotes from Psalms when he surmises, “What variety thou hast created, O Lord.”
Jews also have a long association with costume and disguise. Long before there were celebrity masks, Jews in Renaissance Italy had established a masking tradition that incorporated the heroes, heroines and villains of the Book of Esther.
Mask making, I also have discovered, can be used as a positive way to introduce Jewish customs and values to the general public.
Several Octobers ago I participated as a mask maker in the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum’s Parade of the Masks. The parade featured masked groups representing cultures from around the world. Even though the parade was held in a heavily Jewish neighborhood, it was conspicuously lacking in anything representing Jewish culture.
So I created the Purim Punims, or faces, a masked band of marching revelers. The day of the parade there were 30 of us, including babies in strollers, each wearing a colorful, cardboard hamantashen mask — two joined triangles, one eye prune, the other mohn that I designed and printed.
A klezmer band accompanied us with “Chag Purim” as we marched down Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile.
Between starts, stops and sambas, we were able to talk with parade goers along the route, answering questions, exposing a whole new audience to the themes of Purim and giving those already in the know something with which to identify.
So what should you allow your children to do this Halloween night? It is a difficult and personal choice. I try not to think of it as trick or treif; much of the candy handed out is kosher and sortable. The trick here is how to treat the evening Jewishly.
When our three boys were younger, if Halloween fell on Friday we let them go door-to-door in Purim costumes in the late afternoon, telling them to be home in time to light the Shabbat candles. Sure there were complaints when it was time to knock off early, but it worked.
Many Jews live and work in urban neighborhoods where the poor are always near us and our children. Since it is the Jewish tradition on Friday evening to collect tzedakah, why on this night rather than placing coins in a box shouldn’t we stand at the door and hand out candy, fruit drinks and healthy kid’s fare?
(Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer of childrenâ€™s media and toys.)