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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Fully capturing the essence of Jewish life across the South can be tricky, especially in towns without a formal congregation. That’s why we appreciate when people reach out to us with their stories and contributions. Recently, a very interesting inquiry led to a rich research experience – and a fun road trip to Lake Providence, Louisiana.
Louisiana native Spike Herzog wanted to make some donations to our museum collection. His father owned a store, Galanty’s, which had been in business since 1896, and he was left with an array of artifacts. We just needed to come get them.
Museum coordinator Rachel Myers and I thought it would be interesting to do an oral history with Spike and his two sisters while we visited the store in Lake Providence.
After Spike’s father, Alex Herzog, bought Galanty’s, he turned it into a high-end men and boy’s clothing store. The store was famous for its fine suits, and people like comedian Jerry Clower would come in to buy his apparel. Galanty’s worked in tandem with the Stockners, who sold women’s clothing right next door.
Spike recalled that the store served as a gathering place for coffee and conversation. According to Spike and his sisters, a main reason for the store’s success was Alex’s dedication to treating everyone with respect, regardless of their race. After Alex’s death, Spike received a call from a retired African American teacher who told Spike that Alex was the first white person to treat him with respect and dignity.
Alex Herzog married a Methodist woman named Marian, who worked in nearby Transylvania as a social worker for the Farm Security Project. She then went on to become a teacher and eventually was elected town Alderman. Turns out, Marian’s stepmother was Dr. Grace Bordelon. After I did some digging, I found out that Grace’s brother, James Bordelon, was my great-grandfather! I was thrilled to find this connection, and it reminded me how interconnected these small Southern communities can be.
Although Spike and his sisters were raised in the Methodist church, they had strong Jewish role models in their family. They remembered their grandfather, Will, reading through his prayer book every Sunday. As children, they were exposed to Jewish cuisine and traditions at family dinners at their Grandmother Sallie’s house.
My first oral history experience since moving to Mississippi was fascinating. Not only did we learn about the captivating story of the Herzog family (incidentally, Spike’s real name is Walter—his sister Billie Hart nicknamed him “Spike” because she adored Spike Jones, the drummer!), but also we also learned about other Jews in the area.
After a trip to the local library, I was able to confirm that several Jewish families lived in Lake Providence, and most of them ran businesses. Lake Providence in the early to mid-1900s included Rosenzweig’s Grocery, the Good Luck Store, Fisher hotel, Coleman’s Clothing, Stafford’s Café, Pure Food, Kaufmans’s Haberdashery, Sol Stockner’s Ready to Wear; The Fashion Shop, Nevin’s Jewelry, Herzog’s, Leach’s Hardware Store, Smilow Hardware, Minsky’s Drug Store, Levy’s, Goodstein’s Furniture Store and Charles Perry’s. Leon Minsky and his son, Reynold started a pecan picking business in the 1950s that is still in operation today.
From their position as merchants, Jews became a part of the social fabric and dedicated leadership of Lake Providence. Three Jewish men served as mayor: Solomon Dreyfus from 1887-1888; Elias Stockner from 1914-1916; and Elias Leon Minsky from 1970-1974. Although Lake Providence Jews never established a congregation, many faithfully attended services in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi, Greenville, Mississippi, or McGehee, Arkansas.
Although only a few Jews remain in Lake Providence today, the many who once lived there left a strong legacy in the community. I encourage our readers to keep sharing their stories with us so that we can keep providing rich and nuanced accounts of our Southern Jewish heritage. Some of our best stories start with that contact – like a phone call from a man named Spike.