Help! I've Assimilated And I Can't Get Up!
11/01/2010 - 15:47

Perhaps at no time more than Halloween am I struck by the huge chasm between Orthodox/traditional Conservative Jews and the rest of us.

Among most of my Jewish family and friends, there has never been even a question of whether or not to join other Americans in dressing up in costume, carving a jack-o-lantern and trick-or-treating. Halloween is a fun holiday and of course we partake.

Even as a child growing up Pittsburgh’s famously Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood, I never encountered a Jewish classmate who avoided Halloween. At our public schools, boycotting Halloween, Valentine’s Day and birthday parties was the sole provenance of the one Jehovah’s Witness in the class.

Does Halloween have pagan and Christian origins? Sure, and Thanksgiving, celebrated a few weeks later, was created by a relatively intolerant sect of Christianity (and was arguably the kickoff event in the exploitation/genocide of the American Indian). But today both are secular American holidays that celebrate the autumn harvest.

So while I was doing my usual rounds last week through the Jewish blogosphere, I was surprised to see that Halloween was a source of soul searching for my Orthodox colleague Adam Dickter, who was for the first time allowing his son to dress up in costume and attend the Halloween celebration at his public school (where, lest we worry about the temptations of paganism and Christianity, there is still a fairly strict separation of church and state).
While Adam feels mostly comfortable with the decision, he writes: "There are always slippery slope questions. Does every assimilation begin with a small concession … Is there a Chanukah bush in our future?"

Sure enough, a judgmental commenter responded, “There may not be a chanuka bush in his future, maybe just the bush. If not in his future, then his kid’s future.

Please. Jews have been assimilating, in varying degrees, throughout the history of the diaspora. That’s why we eat Eastern European foods like latkes and kugel, and Arab foods like falafel and hummus. (Not to mention Japanese food, Chinese food etc.) That’s why we speak languages other than Aramaic and Hebrew (after all, even Yiddish and Ladino, with their merging of Hebrew and the vernacular, are forms of assimilation). Judaism has always struggled with boundaries and figuring out how to balance the particular with the universal. Yes, participating in the broader culture around us and celebrating holidays, even when they’re not Jewish ones, could put one on a “slippery slope” toward losing one’s distinct identity, but there’s a slippery slope in the other direction as well, one that leads toward becoming completely insular (and not necessarily any more faithful to Jewish “tradition”).

Yes, as an intermarried Reform Jew, I am, to many traditional Jews, the ultimate symbol of that assimilatory slippery slope and thus have no credibility.
But I somehow feel compelled to offer a counterbalance, a voice on behalf of the vast majority of American Jews who do indeed (and guiltlessly I might add) partake of Halloween.

Yes, Purim, with its costumes and goodie baskets, is a wonderful holiday and can serve as a “substitute” for Halloween, if one feels it’s necessary, just as Chanukah morphed into a Christmas substitute for many American Jews.

But Halloween is not Christmas. And even Christmas is not “Christmas,” by which I mean the ultimate threat to Jewish culture that many people think it is. In my family we avoid Christmas because it feels too confusing and complicated to deal with, and because my lapsed Catholic husband is just as happy without it. However, I know many families manage to participate in aspects of the yuletide jolliness without forsaking All Things Jewish.

And frankly, one thing that is so refreshing and pleasurable about both Halloween and Thanksgiving (particularly for those of us who are intermarried and thus, according to many traditional Jews, the culmination of assimilation) is that they are secular, that they are familiar to and enjoyed by most Americans regardless of religion or ethnicity, that we can celebrate them without the baggage of it being My Holiday or Your Holiday.

I'm not trying to pick a fight with Orthodox Judaism or engage in so-called "Ortho-bashing." And I’m certainly not saying I think everyone should be required to celebrate Halloween. But I do wonder if there are (just maybe?) bigger things to judge each other about.

So, yes, my kids dressed up for Halloween (in fairy costumes made by their Jewish grandma), went to a Halloween party (hosted by two in-married Jews) marched in our neighborhood’s Halloween parade with their friends (many of them Jewish) and ate way too much candy. I even allowed them to skip religious school for the day so they wouldn’t have to miss the parade.

Perhaps I’m like that poor woman in that iconic, campy LifeCall commercial: I’ve assimilated and I can’t get up!

But I’ve got a nice stash of Reese’s peanut-butter cups on the kitchen counter. And Chanukah and Passover are still my 7-year-old daughter’s favorite holidays.

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I suppose you'd consider me to be one of the "traditional Conservative Jews" you mention. (Thank you for acknowledging that not only Orthodox Jews are observant). And yes, there is a definite difference between our lives and attitudes. But because I didn't convert until after I married and my children were born, I do sometimes feel insecure about my children's Jewish identity even though they were always brought up in a home with only Judaism and they identify strongly as Jews. I did let my children participate in Halloween when they were younger. They are teenagers now, so they just like to carve pumpkins and hand out the little toys we give out instead of candy. When they were younger, we would sometimes "recycle" their Halloween costumes for Purim use. Since they were all laboriously hand-made, it was nice to get more than a single use out of them. On the other hand, they were proud to be among the few kids who still attended Hebrew school 4-6pm on Halloween night on a year when they overlapped. They understood the family priorities in which Jewish studies certainly trumps Halloween. Besides, they still were able to squeeze in a quick half hour of trick-or-treating which was the typical time my family allotted for it anyway. I have no problem with Thanksgiving and neither do any of our Orthodox friends. I remember an acquaintance who sends his kids to somewhat right-wing Orthodox schools complaining that the schools did not give the day as a holiday because he saw nothing wrong with a Jewish family having a nice Thanksgiving meal (begun with Hamotzi and ended with Birkat Hamazon, of course). However, I do think that when the kids of non-observant Jews participate in Halloween and Christmas, but not Sukkot or Purim or Shavuot, and a maybe a quickie seder, but not much more for Pesach, they are missing out on a valuable heritage of meaningful traditions. My kids have experienced Halloween and also Christmas at their grandparents' home, but if they had to choose between that or the wealth of Jewish celebration from Shabbat every single week to the many Jewish holidays (not just High Holidays and Chanukah), I know with certainty that they'd choose the Jewish holidays without any regrets. So if your children participate in non-Jewish holidays, please let that be in addition to, not instead of Jewish holidays.
Hallo Ms. Julie, If someone has been raised listening to rap, funk and hip-hop, how could he/she possibly appreciate jazz, classical etc.? How can someone raised eating cheeseburgers with bacon get to appreciate french cuisine? How can someone who's been spraying grafitti all his/her life get to appreciate Rembrandt, Monet etc.? It's self-evident that one cannot understand and value something one doesn't know. In the same way, how can a person raised in "Reform" Judaism truly understand what it means to be a Jew? "Reform" has just redefined Judaism as a downsized, filtered, watered-down version of the "real" thing, to such extent that you may ask a "Reform" Jew *what does it mean to be a Jew* and most won't be able to provide a minimally consistent answer. Most of them would say something like: "- it's kinda loving all and pursuing social justice"; "- it's kinda being different, but I don't know exactly why"; "- it's kinda being the heirs of an old tradition, eating gefite fish (or shawarma if your roots are Sephardi)"; Just before you accuse me of being "radical" and other nice words, a short clarification: I was born in a totally secular home, without any access to Judaism. I only "discovered my roots" - to use a beloved cliché - some years ago, but after I learnt some basic Hebrew and searched for some basic information on Torah, I only had the logical option to accept the fact that everything in Torah is true, has Divine origin, and doesn't change with time. It was just a matter to study a little, then adding 2 + 2 and suddenly, there was no more place for Halloween, New Year Eve and many other unimportant things! Just to finish, I declare hereby that I do love all my Jewish brothers and sisters, including those self-called liberals who despise Judaism, who are willing to marry non-Jews and give up Israel to our enemies for nothing, but that doesn't mean I'm going to let them cast themselves into the furnace without trying to open their eyes. Therefore, Dear Julie, just to put into practice what you liberals preach - namely, to "know and understand the other side" - why not, for a change, after Halloweeen is over and your children are back and have their costumes removed, take them to learn real Torah with a real Rabbi for an hour or two? Then, as liberals use to say, you may let them decide whether they want to be Jews, or atheists, or buddhists, or muslims when they grow up... I wish I could share some more ideas with you, but it's time for action now. Shalom & all the best. RH Mechanical Engineer Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Wow... so let me get this straight? Having a musical preference not only takes away one's ability to enjoy other forms of music, but actually subtracts from those experiences? Similarly, enjoying one type of cuisine means that when I am eating another, the first experience is somehow diminished? Your graffiti artist comment assumes that a person who expresses art in this form is incapable of appreciating the masters. Where are these opinions coming from? Nothing you have said here has any root in LOGIC. Who are you to make determination about another person's commitment to Judaism? And who are you to judge who's branch of Judaism is more legitimate than another? Also, who are you to decide which activities in a person's life have value, and which do not? Many Jews, including Julie, have decided for themselves that religious tyranny comes in many forms. She has chosen BALANCE over BIAS and learned with experience that religion and culture are fluid concepts that evolve, not rigid ones that remain stuck in cement. Its that same flexibility that allows a palm tree to sway in a hurricane - while an oak will SNAP. Readjust your thinking. Its stone age and ignorant.
RH, I'm glad you found the kind of Judaism that works for you, but I'm saddened that you feel it necessary to put down Reform Judaism. If you asked me what it means to be a Jew, I wouldn't give you answers like any of those you listed. When Julie's children go to religious school, they are learning about the same, real Torah that all other Jewish children learn about. When I study with Reform rabbi I am learning with a real rabbi. If you think there is a fake Torah or there are fake rabbis, then that is your issue, not Julie's, and there is no action Julie needs to take regarding it.
Halloween has a generally poor message, it is a celebration of the dead where we teach our children to beg for candy door to door. Often, in our modern time, we don't even let our children eat what they come home with. We have to sift through it for safety -- teaching distrust of our fellow man. There is no positive message. On the contrary, masked in this "fun" holiday is the direct link to a Christian/ pagan root. These poor messages don't exist with Thanksgiving. The secular is not generally bad. That is why your comparison to language and thanksgiving don't really work. The issue with Halloween is that what it celebrates, although in our time has been diminished to a fun secular holiday, has a poor message with a nasty historical hook. By the way, Purium is not a Halloween substitute. it is a celebration of life, of the fact that we live. It is the opposite of Halloween. Lastly, just because I don't agree with your point on this holiday, I hope you keep writing. I find your blog interesting and well written.
What a remarkably intelligent and "connected" column. Vigorous prose as well. Bravo
"Yes, as an intermarried Reform Jew" and "I'm not trying to pick a fight with Orthodox Judaism or engage in so-called "Ortho-bashing." And I’m certainly not saying I think everyone should be required to celebrate Halloween. But I do wonder if there are (just maybe?) bigger things to judge each other about." Who wrote the article? "intermarried Reform Jew" What was the article about? Judging the Orthodox desire not to assimilate. It's kind of like the guy taking your wallet out of your pocket while stating he isn't taking your wallet out of your pocket. What better proof than 'an intermarried Reform Jew' bitterly complaining that the Orthodox have their own views on the matter, to prove the Orthodox are right on the matter? Next, a terminally ill cancer patient writes an article about how the American Cancer Society is immoral to conclude smokers are more prone to getting cancer.