November 2, 2006
In the ‘hood, the treat is no trick
Because believe me, they don't trick or treat in the hood.
This is not a polite refusal to partake in something foreign, like, say, some ultra-Orthodox might respectfully abstain from celebrating Thanksgiving. No, this is an assertive, purposeful rejection. Halloween is seen as the crowning achievement of secular emptiness. You celebrate, glorify, trivialize and idolize something as deep and holy as death, and in return, your kids get to gorge on KitKats and day-glow jawbreakers.
In the same way that the hustle and bustle on the day before Shabbat gives you a good sense of what the hood is about, the eerie silence on the night of Halloween tells you just as much. There might be a wild Mardis Gras-type carnival happening a mile up on Santa Monica Boulevard, but in the hood, the only costumes you'll see are on the Chasids coming out of Chabad.
In fact, several of my neighbors use Halloween to get a good deal on Purim costumes. Apparently, Halloween has become, in retail terms, bigger than Christmas. So on the day after Halloween, you can get some real bargains on costumes, even some that you can use a few months later on Purim.
The analogy with Purim is instructive. On the surface, they share a certain symmetry: Lots of silly fun around crazy costumes. But you don't need to dig too deep to see that in many ways, they are polar opposites. While Halloween itself has a religious ancestry -- a day certain Christian groups would celebrate "all the saints" -- today it is devoid of any spirituality, and has evolved (devolved?) into an occasion to celebrate ghosts, goblins, witches, skeletons and other symbols of evil and death.
Because American commerce can mainstream just about anything, by the time it filters down to our children, Halloween becomes a commercial extravaganza where parents can "bond" with their kids while picking out a $49 costume at Kmart, and then go trick or treating for simple carbs on local streets. In America, even the ghoulish can be made to appear wholesome.
Purim is harder to trivialize, because the rituals themselves are so connected to the religious component. The bad guy is not a spooky mystery -- he's got a name (Haman). The religious text that we read on Purim (the Megillah), tells us to turn the tables on our enemies after our victory, so we put on costumes to look like them. We put on great parties because the text also instructs us to partake in "feasting and gladness." And to top it off, even the candy and the munchies (mishloach manot) that we exchange with each other and donate to the poor have a direct connection to the holy texts.
In other words, while Halloween revels in the fear and symbols of death, Purim celebrates the holiness and glory of survival. Is it any wonder, then, that observant Jews would rather wait for Purim to have a costume party with their kids?
My problem is that until I moved to the hood a few months ago, my family and I were living in what could be called the Halloween capital of the world (West Hollywood). So naturally, a few weeks ago the kids started asking about our trick or treating plans for this year. It wasn't easy to give them an answer.
I must admit, though, that I'm conflicted on this subject. As a grown up, I find the Halloween rituals empty and idiotic, not to mention unhealthy. But there's the problem of this little voice that reminds me of how much I loved it when I was a kid -- how my brother and I would spend weeks preparing our Batman and Robin costumes, and how we got such a kick walking with my father (an Orthodox Jew) in the neighborhood instead of doing our homework, and then getting free candy!
So what do I tell the kids? Real Jews don't trick or treat? Wait until Purim? I know you did it last year but now we're in a new neighborhood?
I talked with some perfectly coiffed frum supermoms of the hood, and just as I suspected, they all said pretty much the same thing: Halloween is a non-issue. Nobody tricks or treats around here; it's a vile, dumb holiday. (Hey, who am I to argue?)
A few days before Halloween, though, I got an inkling that my new neighborhood might still, somehow, come to my rescue.
Lately my kids have been spending a lot of time with new friends they have made on our block. On the Shabbat before Halloween, I overheard one of my kids bring up the subject of trick or treating with these new observant friends, and I saw how they got virtually no reaction. I think this might have had an effect, since the subject didn't come up for the next 24 hours -- but I was certainly not out of the woods.
So I conspired with a supermom who is helping me plan a Halloween Seduction Prevention program for the big night. First, a weeknight play date (that's a big deal), not too much fuss on the homework (also a big deal), roasting kosher marshmellows from Pico Glatt in the backyard (memories of summer, a really big deal), and, for the piece de resistance, TV watching on a weeknight! And if things get desperate, maybe we'll do an art project and make some scary masks.
By the time you read this, the big night of ghosts and goblins will have come and gone, and I will know if the kids bought my Halloween hood alternative.
Either way, I can't wait for Purim.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.