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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In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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How we treat others matters. Today, banks and schools and government organizations are shut down for Columbus Day—a national holiday that has grown controversial. After all, Christopher Columbus was an important figure in history, but did not treat others well. Today, many are instead encouraging the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day.
Whether you are observing Indigenous Peoples Day, Columbus Day, a day off, or another Monday, today is different. We mark this day in the middle of an Ebola scare here in the United States, and an Ebola epidemic in Africa.
Ebola is testing our country. It is testing our medical capabilities and the confidence we have in our healthcare system to contain the spread of a deadly and contagious disease. But, it is also testing our values—our compassion and our concern for the dignity of all. It is testing how we treat others.
Dallas, Texas, is where this country’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, was hospitalized. Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins was determined to respect the dignity and well-being of Mr. Duncan’s family, when Mr. Duncan was diagnosed, when he was treated, and when he died.
While many of us watched with concern and fear for what Mr. Duncan’s diagnosis meant for the health of all Americans, Judge Jenkins made it a priority to show Mr. Duncan’s family that their dignity mattered. On NBC last week, he said that he intends to see to it that Mr. Duncan’s family is treated just like he would want his family to be treated if he were the one in the hospital. He made it clear that he is not throwing caution to the wind, but acknowledging that even while a family is sequestered, they should be treated well and with humanity.
Judge Jenkins is a mensch. He is striving to do right by the public but is finding every possible way to ensure that it doesn’t come at the expense of others.
When I consider how I would react in a situation where in order to address the needs of many I may have to cut the liberties of few, I can’t say that I would be as determined to consider the dignity of a few. I could only hope that I would, because though it took us some time to get there and though the process is ongoing, ultimately that is what our country was founded upon: the belief that everyone’s rights are important and that the rights of a few need to be protected from being trampled over by the majority.
It is also a Jewish value—recognizing that even when it is difficult, it is important to treat everyone the way we would seek to be treated. Perhaps it is these values that have led me to imagine immigration officials taking the temperatures of any person from Africa and being subjected to an intense screening process before entering our country. As I picture this, I remember the many stories of Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island during the time of a Cholera scare. After traveling hundreds of miles in a crowded steamship, they had to have a “clean bill of health” before being allowed into this country. They could be scrutinized by one doctor after another, subjected to police intimidation, and unfairly treated. As the MyJewishLearning.com article states: “Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant,” until in 1902, when “a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding ‘kindness and consideration’.”
Now, at JFK we are incorporating Ebola screenings for passengers arriving from West Africa. There is the risk of ostracizing and marginalizing people. While I continue to hope for the safety of everyone in our country, and the world who is faced with the threat of this awful disease, I also hope for dignity. I admire the efforts of people like Judge Jenkins. I hope that screenings and examinations that take place are done in a way that honors the dignity of all people and reflects the highest standards of “kindness and consideration.”
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