I grew up in a Reform Jewish household, so of course we celebrated Halloween. My sister and I wore bad costumes and roamed our upper middle class West LA neighborhood with the gentile kids next door, asking our polite gentile neighbors for more candy than my vegetarian, organic eating, Whole Foods shopping, progressive Jewish mother would EVER let us eat. Even though almost everyone celebrates Halloween, it’s interesting that Jews do too. It’s basically a Christian holiday; so why do Jewish people so readily observe this strange holiday when we would never think of touching Easter or Christmas? It’s probably because it doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus…right? Yeah, probably.
It turns out though that it’s actually the least Jewish holiday possible. I mean both religiously and culturally. So what is Halloween all about besides early onset diabetes? October 31 is the night before All Saints Day, which is on November 1st, so it’s sort of an Erev All Saints Day, if you will. And All Saints is a feast day to honor the saints—-you know, martyrs, champions of the faith, etc. Not only is this holiday part of the Church’s liturgical calendar, it is about venerating the dead, which we Jews don’t do; honoring saints, which we Jews don’t have—we have more of a rabbinical hall of fame; and it originates from customs as far from us as possible—-those of medieval Irish pagan farming culture. In fact, most of the things we associate with Halloween—-trick or treating, costumes, ghouls, jack-o-lanterns, etc., derive from medieval Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain. So it’s essentially a “Christianized” version of what was basically a pagan festival right out of “The Lord of the Rings.”
The idea of Jewish kids all over the country going around dressed like Spiderman and Elsa asking for candy is kind of strange when you think that the tradition was started by little Gaelic kids in the Middle Ages. It makes me wonder what Halloween would look like if we’d come up with it? I mean if somehow Judaism instead of Christianity had spread throughout Europe and all of our culturally normative holidays here in America, centuries later, were derived from Jewish customs and culture. Would blond, blue-eyed Midwestern kids named Chet and Sally dress up once a year as revered historical Jewish figures like Sandy Koufax and Woody Allen, going door-to-door getting chocolate covered matzah and halvah from their gentile neighbors? How bizarre!
What is really bizarre, though, is that it’s already true in a sense, that gentiles celebrate Jewish people, culture, and customs. Because every Sunday most American gentiles go to a building with their families and sing songs to and about a Jewish man who lived in Israel during Roman times. They also read our Torah and our prophets, they take lines from King David’s psalms and crochet them into decorative pillows, and they even see themselves as being part of the people of Israel (Romans 11)!
Interestingly, one of the original reasons for dressing up on Halloween was to use humor to ridicule and confront the power of death. Modern Judaism doesn’t really offer a lot of insight about the afterlife, however, which leaves our great thinkers (and comedians) to grapple with this daunting issue. So, as we think about those who grapple with the big questions of life, death, and life after death, maybe we should include Jesus on our list of greatest figures in Jewish history, too. He taught about love and forgiveness, he broke social barriers, argued with rabbis (proof he’s Jewish), ate with the poor and sick, gave hope to all—-rich or poor, strong or weak, and brought Jews and gentiles together. What a mensch! Ultimately, though, he brought the Torah and faith of the Jewish people to the rest of the world because he wrestled with the power of death in order to bring hope and life to all!
We should all consider Jesus to be one of the great Jews of history, but we should also consider the things he said about life and death, because we all have to wrestle with it someday. By the way, dressing up like Jesus would make a great costume for Jewish kids—-and if Nana freaks out, just say you’re a Maccabee.