Growing up in a secular family, I spent many Halloweens of my youth dressed as a Jack-O-Lantern. But that doesn’t mean I liked the holiday. I actually hated how showy people got with single-use costumes, the obsession with spooky things, and the overall lack of meaning in the celebrations.
And then, of course, there were the yearly warnings at school about safety: Check for razors in apples, needle holes in candy wrappers, strangers following you in the dark. Maybe Halloween made sense before my generation, back when people lived in communities, knew their neighbors, trusted each other. To me, it was mostly a hassle.
But I’ve also found some unexpected opportunities for acts of kindness, many that are not at odds with an Orthodox life.
One fall semester in college, I joined a group of students volunteering at an emergency family shelter. Some of the kids were chronically homeless, used to being shuttled around whenever their mother’s time ran up in an accommodation. For others, it came as a bit of a shock: one day, it just so happened that their house burned down.
By then, I had already lost interest in the holiday, but I suggested that we have a Halloween party in the shelter, including face painting (mostly my face, as it were) and trick-or-treating from room to room. Maybe it didn’t contribute to their sense of normalcy, but it certainly added to their sense of joy and the feeling that people cared about them and their situation.
Years later, when I moved to a city with higher crime rates, I was happy to participate in the “Downtown Safezone” blocked off and set up for trick-or-treaters, including a costume parade and contest. Our building became “the Haunted Co-op,” with creepy cobwebs and tombstones displayed in the hallways; the kids had a great time, and that’s what really mattered.
Though becoming an Orthodox Jew has added more complexity to my feelings about Halloween, with its pagan origins, I’ve decided to take the charitable view of the holiday.
For a lot of people, for most, even, Halloween is not any sort of worship. It’s distant both from the religious traditions and any sense of sincere trickery. Halloween is a time when people who are a little weird are encouraged to let their freak flags fly in the form of over-the-top costumes, for neighbors to actually get out of their houses and walk around the street, to knock on each other’s doors.
And sometimes, in a Jewish community with a sense of obligation towards its members, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t necessarily have that tightly-knit community.
Though our homes may be close together, many people are deeply lonely, and the idea of simply walking across the street and trying to make friends with a neighbor is more frightening than the spookiest goblin that might show up for trick-or-treat.
Perhaps what people are really searching for when they come to your door is a little bit of trust and togetherness, however fleeting, even if it occurs from behind the safety of a mask.
I’m happy to have retired my jolly old Jack-o-Lantern costume, but I feel more excited to participate in Halloween as an observant Jewish adult than I ever did as a little candy-grubbing pumpkin.
Maybe I won’t get any trick-or-treaters. Maybe none of them will appreciate my seaweed snacks or the allergy-safe treat of puzzle books and crayons. Maybe everyone who shows up will be someone I already know. But maybe I’ll meet someone new, someone who could use a friend in the neighborhood, or at least someone nearby to ask about runaway dog sightings or road construction.
If, for just one night, we can share a fun-sized piece of community with someone who isn’t usually at our Shabbat table, I think that’s a mitzvah. Leaving the light on for nations of ninjas and Elsas is a very simple, very Jewish thing to do.
No’a L. bat Miri is a writer and editor based out of New Jersey. She earned her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte’s program in Latin America.