Halloween, Interfaith Style

Pumpkin Carvings, photo Susan Katz Miller

On Saturday night, I was out late partying with people dressed variously as a dying newspaper, Facebook (the culprit), Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On Sunday morning, I woke up, shook off my candy hangover, and went to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with our interfaith community.

Halloween is the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, no one questioned that American Jews should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a return to deeper Jewish practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. As an interfaith family and community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for interfaith families.

The Spiritual Leader of our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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4 Replies to “Halloween, Interfaith Style”

  1. It is amazing the transformation of holidays and its generational effect. When I was a child growing up Christian but not excessively so….. we celebrated Halloween, enjoyed trick or treating. Religion had no relationship to this particular holiday…it was about fun and candy. Then cruelty came with poisoned candy and fruit and we had to be more cautious. You could celebrate in schools w/costumes and fun….now adults with their own particular quirks have added a dimension that some have to wonder is it necessary. I don’t feel scared from having celebrated this holiday in my youth. My Unitarian church hosts a haunted house every year. Safe, harmless fun!

  2. I was raised Jewish in the south in the 1940′-60’s. There was much I was excluded from as a Jew in the largest church city per capita in the country. But on Halloween all of that was left behind. I was free to dress up, walk the streets with friends (my mother following in a car) and experience a sense of adventure I rarely felt as a girl (let alone a Jewish one) in that era and place. My Jewish parents and their friends, all Conservative or Orthodox Jews, enjoyed the holiday as much as the children. They were no negative comments in those days that it was a pagan holiday. It was the only non-federal holiday that Jews and Christians shared together – and shared in joy.

    I am grateful to Sue for her clarity and insight about traditions and the stages we go through in this country. I very much appreciate her reflections of the Interfaith Families Project’s embracement of holy days; how light and clarity, wisdom, and history are shared with it’s members so that we may reap as many benefits as possible from the traditions that each family shares.

  3. There is an implication somewhere in there that choosing NOT to celebrate other people’s holidays, even in a secular way, is not respectful. I respect that my family celebrates Christmas and Halloween and they respect that I celebrate Jewish holidays and secular American holidays only.

  4. Aliza–

    I certainly do not intend to imply that. I absolutely respect the right of interfaith families to choose one religion for their children if that is what works best for their family. There are many voices in the blogosphere (most notably at interfaithfamily.com) devoted to promoting that perspective. And I absolutely respect the right of someone who has chosen one religion to not celebrate holidays from other religions! Each pathway for an interfaith family has benefits and drawbacks. This blog is unique in that it discusses the benefits of raising children with both religions.

    My perspective in this post was simply that interfaith families who have chosen to celebrate both sets of holidays are then free to explore the religious origins of Halloween, rather than celebrating it as a secular holiday, or avoiding it as a non-Jewish holiday. I find the religious context deepens the holiday experience for our family, but I respect the right of people to either not celebrate it or celebrate it in a completely secular fashion.

    Hey, everyone go check out Aliza’s awesome blog about being a Dominican New Yorker who converted to Orthodox Judaism, http://www.alizahausman.net/. The issues faced by converts to Judaism parallel those of interfaith families in some ways, we share the “being both” state to some extent, but there are also radical differences.

    –Sue

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