October 25, 2013
I am a rabbi, married to another rabbi, and completely committed to giving our kids a childhood built on Judaism and Jewish values.
Having said that, I must confess: I love Halloween.
When my oldest son was not yet one, we dressed him in a pumpkin costume and took him around the neighborhood on Halloween evening. He could not yet say "trick or treat," and he fell asleep on my shoulder halfway around the block, but that didn't stop me. He has experienced Halloween every year since (mostly staying awake, I am glad to report), and so have his younger brother and sister. We choose costumes, we decorate the house, we eat too much candy, we even have Halloween parties. And like most families, we have a blast.
We don't, however, celebrate Halloween just as a family. We celebrate it as a Jewish family.
I know that might sound crazy, but bear with me. While I am well aware of Halloween's origins, I reject the idea that by trick-or-treating and watching It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, my family is somehow partaking in a Christian or pagan festival of the dead. Halloween has morphed into a secular holiday; just as our ancestors adopted some distinctly non-Jewish customs and made them part of Jewish tradition (did you know, for example, that bagels originated in sixteenth-century Poland as a counterpart to a type of bread eaten during Lent?), so have Americans made Halloween a part of childhood.
So my kids celebrate Halloween. But they celebrate it in the context of a year of Jewish holidays: We decorate the house for Halloween, yes, but we also decorate it for Rosh Hashanah, hanging up their drawings of shofars and handmade "Shanah Tovah!" cards from years past. We invite friends over for Halloween parties, yes; but we also invite them over to eat in our sukkah or to enjoy dinner and havdalah on Saturday nights. We dress up for Halloween, but also for Purim. And in an unbelievable occurrence, my oldest son even found at a local party store - amid the bags of skeleton, ghoul, and cowboy costumes - a "High Priest of Israel" costume complete with a headpiece spelling out "Kohen Gadol," "High Priest" in Hebrew. It was even spelled correctly!
And even Halloween can become a little bit Jewish. How? Pumpkin bread can stand in for traditional challah on the Shabbat before Halloween. When your kids are picking out costumes, you can use Jewish values of respect and modesty to steer them away from garb that is too revealing or too over-the-top disgusting. When you're at the grocery store choosing the candy you want to hand out that year, stop in the canned food aisle and choose some nonperishables to donate to your local food bank as well - and remind your kids of Judaism's emphasis on tzedakah and caring for those in need. When you sit down to enjoy your loot, say the appropriate blessing ("Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, she'hakol nihiye bidvaro, Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, by Whose word everything comes into being") before you dive in. And if your dentist is one of the many health care providers offering a "buy-back" program - where you hand in your candy in exchange for some money - consider earmarking the money for tzedakah, and letting your kids decide to which charitable organization they'd like to donate it.
One final thought as this Shabbat before Halloween approaches: Shabbat is a great time to share Jewish stories, traditions, and learning...so on this Shabbat, why not choose a topic with some spooky overtones? David Wisniewski's Caldecott Award-winning children's book Golem and Elie Wiesel and Mark Podwal's King Solomon and His Magic Ring have impeccable Jewish credentials - along with plenty of magic, mystery, and monsters worthy of any Halloween celebration.
Happy Halloween - and Shabbat Shalom!