On Halloween night, my kids were in bed, and I was driving home from the supermarket. I drove more slowly than usual, because the normally quiet streets were more alive, with groups of middle school kids in eerie costumes laughing and skipping unawares across the street, and with parents out late with their little ones, shining their flashlights onto houses to see if they are worth a knock. I rolled slowly by, thinking of all the reasons I heard as a child, growing up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community, about why my family doesn’t celebrate Halloween– we have so many other holidays in the fall; we don’t like the idea of “trick or treat” – give me candy or I’ll trick you; we have Purim. I thought of how often my kids had been asked over the past weeks what they’re dressing up as, and their big embarrassed eyes looking up at me, seeking help about how to answer. We don’t celebrate Halloween, I say smiling, and the conversation is killed.
This year, we are sending our youngest child to a non-Jewish preschool. It is walking distance from our house, and it’s open all day long, designed for families like ours, with two working parents. It’s a wonderful place, completely play-based, with a philosophy of positive discipline, inquiry-based learning, and creativity. Our son couldn’t be happier. But it is our first time as parents navigating having our child in a non-Jewish environment. His pre-school has been preparing for Halloween for weeks. He’s been singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider and Little Miss Muffet, has learned to say “Trick or Treat,” and has been carving and decorating pumpkins. We do not celebrate Halloween in our family, and this inundation has taken us by surprise. We developed a party line: your school celebrates Halloween, but we do not celebrate Halloween in our family. My son’s response? I do! I’m going to go around with a bag and say Trick or Treat and get candy! When I told him that he, alas, wouldn’t, he burst into tears, inconsolable.
I was away on business the week before Halloween, and returned home with a pilot’s cap for my son. It just happened that he wore it to school on Halloween, my first day home. He wore it because it was new, and because he loves airplanes. Not because it was Halloween. But when I dropped him off at school, and his classroom was dark, full of cobwebs and spider mats, glow in the dark paint and little pumpkins, and all the kids were in costume, he and I looked at each other. I’m a pilot, he declared, and I nodded, yup, you’re a pilot, and skedaddled out of there.
As I drove home on Halloween night, watching women in witch hats open their doors to the kids who live on their block, watching families and friends coming together in the dark, engaging in face-to-face conversations, creating real human micro-communities, I saw, for the first time, the beauty in this holiday. And I wondered – what value is there in refraining from participation? Is it impossible to be committed to one set of beliefs and practices, while participating in others? Halloween is one of our lines in the sand, a line that we have chosen not to cross, as part of our definition of who we are, and who we are not. The line felt more random to me this year, more arbitrary.
This Halloween, I realized that as much as we are raising our children with positive engaging Jewish experiences, we are also deliberately raising them to refrain from other experiences as a pivotal tactic in helping to form their Jewish identities. Perhaps there is a layer of fear that underlines this choice. But there is also a belief, a philosophical commitment, at the heart of this decision. Part of what we are trying to teach our children in their lack of participation in this experience, is how to not fit in, how to not belong. We are giving them practice in choosing to be an outsider, and trying to give them language to make sense of that decision. We are teaching them that they cannot have it all – that choosing one way of living often means having to let go of other ways of living. Not celebrating Halloween is simply one manifestation of that training.
And yet, I’m glad my son went to school on Halloween in his pilot’s hat. It would have been too strange, too hard, for him to go in his kippah, as he normally does. It occurred to me that as we strive to direct his growth, we are actually putting him in a costume each day, asking him to intentionally wear the mask of being Jewish, so that eventually that mask becomes his identity. And I couldn’t help but feel how refreshing it must have been for him, even at his young age, to take off that mask, and put on a mask, briefly, of one of the crowd.