As a student in an Orthodox yeshiva high school, we were dismissed early on Halloween in the daylight hours, because my rabbis were afraid of anti-Semitic violence against us.
Instead of the usual 7 pm dismissal, we got out at 4:30. A letter on the wall categorized it, in Hebrew, as a “day of throwing eggs.” My teachers reduced Halloween to a day of violence. They didn’t want costumed vandals to harass their pupils. What else could the holiday be about, if not for anti-Semitism?
In ninth grade, we studied commentaries on the parsha that only reinforced these fears. “Esau hates Jacob” was a philosophy and historical trend. One interpretation explained – as it was taught to us – that it was a miracle whenever a non-Jew would pass a Jew and not hit him.
Back then, I scoffed at these ideas, chalking them up to ignorance. On the subway, I marveled at the innovative costumes on the subway and was semi-jealous of the little children holding their parents hands, their pails overflowing with candy from trick-or-treating. It seemed pointless, but I wanted in on the fun.
Despite having deep roots in the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, a Celtic festival, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, a casual observer of families with cute little princesses and honeybees are a far cry from paganism. This is American Halloween, Disneyfied.
As an adult, I now have a tradition of taking my friend Randy and his five-year old to see the West Village Halloween parade. They dress up and take part in the festivities. It’s become our ritual. But after this recent rash of violence against Jews, I’ve realized that maybe my rabbis were right.
It was not until I was in the National Socialism Documentation Centre in Munich when something in me changed. I was abroad teaching Muslims and Jews, but arrived a few days early to travel the country. While Lipa Schwartz, an elderly Chasidic man was brutally beaten in his Jewish neighborhood of Boro Park, I walked around the Munich museum, examining pictures of Kristallnacht and the rise of the Nazi regime. The same cobblestoned streets I walked on to get there were in pictures in front of me. Broken windows, graffiti, and other signs of hate occurred right where I stood 80 years prior. It used to be an historic event, something I didn’t feel connected to.
But suddenly, I felt connected to it — with anti-Semitism on the rise back home, in the States. Later, I imagined the thousands of people giving Hitler the Nazi salute in the Odeonsplatz Square, as I walked past dozens of tourists taking selfies, oblivious of this place’s dark past.
I was unaware of the anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish man in New York until the day after I returned, when I saw the violence caught on camera. It was chilling to witness the fear in an Orthodox man’s eyes as he unsuccessfully ran away from his assailant and tried to take refuge in a laundromat. The doors were locked, and he banged and banged on the windows. His attacker caught up and continued beating him. A few other attacks were also caught on tape. The pictures and stories I heard back in Munich seemed to be coming alive in front of me, in our safe city and country.
And now — Pittsburgh.
Maybe there is a reason to be afraid, I thought. This holiday of costumes on October 31st is almost reminiscent of November 9th, Kristallnacht: The chaotic evening of drunken people hiding behind masks remind me of the night of broken glass. They are both days of sanctioned and permitted debauchery. People dress and act in ways they would not have acted on any other day. It seemed that my rabbis were right, perhaps. Halloween can be reduced to a day of throwing eggs.
Sadly, the shooting in Pittsburgh has only reinforced this fear; it’s an indicator of our infirm place in society. Events like the shooting changed the way we see ourselves in a country like America. Perhaps safety was thinly veiled all along.
I’m still going to go out to see the parade, because witnessing broader culture is a worthwhile endeavor, and because it is not worth the cost of buying into the fear. We cannot let them win. I will stand on 6th avenue, proudly and defiantly wearing my kippa out in the open, an act that feels a bit more transgressive now.
Eli Reiter is a teacher and writer living in New York. He hosts and produces the long-form storytelling show “Long Story Long.”