The thing about growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community is that Halloween simply doesn’t exist. It is not acknowledged, it is not celebrated and it is not noticed. But, just as I had dreamed at a young age of one day having a Christmas tree, I also dreamed of celerating Halloween.
Purim is uneventful. In the neighborhood where I grew up, Purim meant dressing up as one of two things: Queen Esther or Queen Vashti, the two women in the Purim story.
I dreamed of dressing up as Charlie Chaplin and walking like a penguin through the halls, covered with Stars of David and signs that read “Happy Purim!” When I was in first grade I told my mother I didn’t want to be a princess or a queen. She walked to the variety store run by a serious Mr. Miller, who wore a black hat and never looked my mother in the eye. There, she purchased two pieces of large oak tag, string and a scissor and sent me to school as the castle for Purim. I was ecstatic and even more thrilled when Steven, the class clown, came into Mrs. Harrari’s classroom wearing a sequin dress and his mother’s Chanel pumps insisting that he was the most gorgeous Vashti in the room. We became fast friends after that.
In the fourth grade on picture day instead of wearing a new outfit and teasing my hair, I got on the school bus dressed as Benjamin Franklin. My mother had a powdered wig in her closet, which I wore with a velvet cape and gold-rimmed round glasses. The photographer was so stunned at my appearance he dropped his camera. When he finally took the photo and the prints were sent to my mother’s house, she hung it up proudly next to all of the previous year’s photos.
I wanted to dress up all the time and Halloween felt like a holiday forbidden to me. One year my mother decided to take me trick or treating. We weren’t Orthodox, even though the school I attended was and so was the neighborhood I lived in. At first we knocked on doors up and down our block, but no one would answer. Finally, my mother packed me in the car with my plastic pumpkin from the 99 cent store and drove me to an Italian neighborhood where people hung giant Frankenstein’s out their windows and parents stood on their porches dressed like ghouls handing out tootsie rolls and Doublemint gum.
That year I learned a very important lesson: Halloween has nothing to do with Judaism. It also has absolutely nothing to do with Catholicism, or Christianity or Islam or Buddha or anything. It’s a day when kids dress up and go around asking for candy.
Now, as an adult with a two-year-old daughter and another one on the way, I can appreciate Halloween for what it really is: a day of dressup and sugar highs. My daughter has the best of both worlds. She is Jewish-American on my side and Mexican-Catholic on her father’s side. We run our household as an interfaith family. And because she is Mexican-American, she gets two Halloweens and a Purim. Let me explain.
Halloween is always on October 31st. This year my daughter will be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz because that’s the only costume that was on sale at Target. But from October 31st to November 2nd is Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico. On those days it is traditional to bring a favorite food to the grave of loved ones. We can’t wait to paint my daughter’s face like a candy skull and drop off a pastrami on rye to my father who is buried in Paramus, N.J. Purim, of course, comes much later in the year. But she gets to celebrate this as well.
On Purim in my neighborhood, not everyone dresses up as one of the few characters in the Purim story. Last year my family and I spotted costumes that ranged from a family of spotted cows to a father and son dressed as Chinese take-out boxes. Even the ultra-Orthodox are bending the rules. I remember wondering if that Chinese take-out duo were kosher. But I feel that the Jewish community is beginning to realize that it is harmless to dress your kids up and take them out to show off. So why not on Halloween as well?
Because I spent so many years dreaming of what costumes I could wear to go trick-or-treating, I think it’s important in my interfaith family to celebrate Halloween, not as a religious holiday, but as a fun day in general. I want my daughter to grow up knowing that she can be Dorothy, Elmo, Iron Man, Supergirl or anyone she wants to be. Esther and Vashti are fine, but they are only examples of two women. What would I be teaching her if I told her she only had two choices in life? As a child it seemed only my mother understood the creativity of dress up. Well, and Steven’s mother.
If it is as the Buddha says and our thoughts really do create the world, then I want to create the world based on Halloween. I want to be the Jew who prays to Hashem but still knows how to rock an Axl Rose outfit. I want my daughter to embrace the lengthy megillah but still believe in the power of death and it’s finality on Dia de Los Muertos. Halloween in a middle ground and a starting point for great things to come.