Today’s guest post is from our friend (and one of our favorite scholars!) Dr. Joel M. Hoffman. Last year, we shared a piece from Michele Schipper about why her Jewish family celebrates Halloween. This year, we asked Joel for his scholarly insights on the holiday, its history, and whether or not celebrating Halloween conflicts with Jewish identity. Turns out, he had already written a good deal on the subject on his own blog, and was generous enough to let us share some of it here, too. You can learn more about Joel and his work on his website. Enjoy this not-so-scary Halloween treat!
When I was 11 years old, a grumpy Israeli teacher told me that good Jews don’t dress up for Halloween because it’s a Christian holiday when Christians persecuted Jews.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
First of all, Halloween began as a Pagan holiday, not Christian. The Celtic Pagan year was divided into two halves. The first half, roughly from spring to fall, was for the world of light, and the second half was for the world of darkness. Holidays marked the transitions from each half to the other.
In spring, Beltane celebrated the spiritual beginning of light-filled summer days and the life-giving force of the sun.
By contrast, Samhain (pronounced “sow-an”), the precursor to Halloween, fell on November 1 and represented summer’s end, winter nights, and, in general, darkness. As is typical of gateways and transitions (which are known technically as “liminal” times), Samhain was regarded with suspicion and even reverence. It was seen as a bridge between two opposite worlds: the human world of light and good on one hand, and the netherworld of darkness and evil on the other. Samhain was the time when the inhabitants of the latter might cross over to the former.
The custom of masks and costumes probably comes from the holiday’s general celebratory character. Some people may have dressed up specifically as ghouls to chase away the real evil powers, perhaps hoping that the denizens of the netherworld would try to distribute themselves evenly, and, seeing an abundance in one place, would go elsewhere. Or they may have thought that even the goblins were afraid of other goblins.
The Catholic Church highlighted the theme of the dead on the holiday when it adapted Samhain for its own purposes, merging it into its existing day for saints. All Saints Day, as it was called, was a time for recognizing the power the saints have over the still living. In some traditions, people paid special homage to the newly dead or offered prayers on behalf of the souls stuck in purgatory, hoping to pave a way to heaven rather than hell. Some people carried candles in turnips to represent the souls stuck in purgatory. In America, these would become our jack o’lanterns.
Since Catholic mass was held on the day, All Saints Day was also called All Saints Mass, the Middle English for which is Alholowmesse, and the Modern English for which is Hallowmas. (Christmas similarly gets its name from the mass held for Christ.)
Because the Catholic Church at the time still followed the Jewish tradition of reckoning days from sundown to sundown, Alholowmesse actually began on the evening before November 1, that is, on the evening of October 31, which was called Alholowevening, or more colloquially Alholowe’en. That gave us our Modern English name Halloween.
In addition to offering words of prayer for the dead, some Christians prepared physical food for their departed loves ones. Once food was potentially available, the poor wanted in on the action, and before long, the holiday became, in part, a day for begging (leading to Shakespeare’s image of “a beggar at Hallowmas”).
But the Puritans who largely founded America despised both the Pagan and Catholic aspects of Halloween, and in this country Halloween was never regarded as a sectarian celebration. It wasn’t even on most American calendars until the mid-nineteenth century. When it finally did take root, it was a mixture of pranks, dress up, jack o’lanterns, and candy, none of which is un-Jewish in any way.
So my grumpy Israeli teacher was wrong. He was equally wrong when he told me that Halloween was created to persecute Jews. There were no Jews living among the Celts when Samhain arose, and the Jews had already been exiled from England by the time the Christians turned Samhain into All Saints Day there.
But he was most severely wrong in his general approach. He failed to distinguish the history of the holiday from the holiday itself. If we abandoned everything that had a disagreeable history, we’d have to give up many of our favorite Jewish rituals, too.
Whatever their non-Jewish roots, American holidays such as Thanksgiving and, yes, Halloween are now symbols of pluralism, yearly signposts advertising America’s freedom and tolerance. These holidays are an opportunity for Americans, regardless of background, to come together and share an experience. And they can be an enormous amount of fun.
Pluralism, tolerance, community, and fun are all Jewish ideals. So I’ll continue to look forward to greeting bizarrely dressed children as they come to my door and ask for treats.
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Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.
I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.
Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.
I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.
But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?
The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.
Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.
I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.
Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.
Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.
That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.
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