Jews Celebrating Halloween in Small Town 1930s Texas: A Southern Jewish History Treat

Halloween has always been a part of my life. Maybe it’s because I’m a theater person, so the costume element held special significance; maybe it’s because everything autumn has always appealed to me — cider mills, fresh donuts, fall leaves… long before “pumpkin spice” was a thing, I was all about autumn. Either way, as a kid and now as an adult, Halloween has always been a date with a big old circle around it on my annual calendar.

I remember the first time someone expressed surprise that I was going trick-or-treating as a kid.

“You celebrate Halloween?” A neighbor asked, seeming genuinely surprised. “But… aren’t you Jewish?”

(Although I was too young to appreciate the irony at the time, the neighbor in question was Christian… and the “should Christians celebrate Halloween” question is pretty prevalent, too.)

READ: No Trick, All Treat: Halloween Isn’t Bad for the Jews

The notion that Halloween was something maybe Jews shouldn’t celebrate struck me as so odd. I mean, I knew Christmas and Easter were Christian holidays… but the religiosity of Halloween had never occurred to me one way or the other. I asked my parents about it and we talked about pagan rituals and American-civic-celebrations and all sorts of things,  because I was lucky enough to have the sort of parents who really engaged when presented with a question like this one.

READ: Should Jews Trick-or-Treat on Halloween?

On the Southern & Jewish blog, we’ve had posts covering Jews and Halloween the past few years. Michele Schipper wrote about why she always let her Jewish kids go trick-or-treating (AND why she wanted to be “the house with the good candy!”). The reasons she discusses align pretty strongly with my family’s practices. We also shared a post from scholar Dr. Joel Hoffman, offering some historical perspective on the issue. He, too, felt Halloween was not bad for the Jews.

Most of the time, reasons of community and engaging in a now pretty universally seen as all-American-celebration seemed to be where these modern musings landed.

And then, while perusing the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities recently, I came upon this small tidbit buried in the entry about Bay City, Texas, about a prominent Jewish-owned store positioned in the center of the small town in the 1930s. The store was called Rosenzweig’s, and here’s the interesting little mention:

Leon Guzick left a job in Houston to join the Rosenzweig’s staff, eventually working his way up to purchasing shoes and men’s and boys’ wear.  Each year that he worked at the store, Guzick put on a Halloween party for all Bay City children at Rosenzweig’s.

In a community with just 80 Jewish people, one of the most prominent businesses made a point to have a Halloween party for ALL of its children… hosted at a Jewish-owned, Jewish-run store. Though it’s just a quick mention, it reinforces what my family, and Michele’s family, and Joel’s scholarship, all seem to point to: Far from eroding Jewish identity, engaging in a community costume celebration is one more way that Jewish children and families become ingrained in our communities.

My favorite part in that small historic note is that the party was for “all Bay City children.” Presumably, children from across the community came– and learned at a young age that their Jewish neighbors wanted to share celebrations and community life with them. It was an opportunity to open doors and just have some fun together– all of the children, all of their families.

Halloween is a holiday that, yes, has religious origins — but has become so divorced from them, and is celebrated by such a diverse collection of Americans today. It’s an excuse to put on costumes and gather together for fun, sweets, and to show off a little creativity.

Even in small-town Texas in the 1930s, the Jewish community dove right into Halloween celebrations. That tidbit makes me feel even better about the multiple parties I’ll be attending this year — where, of course, as a good Jewish guest, in addition to my costume and some candy I’ll always bring along something substantial for everyone to eat. Hey, we shouldn’t go hungry on Halloween.

It’s just what a good Jewish mother would say before sending her kids out to trick-or-treat: You should eat something! And not just candy!

(Happy Halloween.)

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