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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