The Last Word Dan Fried­man On Hal­loween

Forward Magazine - - Contents - THE LAST WORD BY DAN FRIED­MAN Dan Fried­man is the ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the For­ward. Fol­low him on Twit­ter, @dan­fried­manme

It’s dif­fi­cult to­day to look at the or­ange-and-black pa­per scenery be­hind tod­dlers in ghost cos­tumes and imag­ine just how dis­turb­ing Hal­loween was a cen­tury ago.

For the Jewish com­mu­nity — com­ing from Europe — the dev­il­ish prac­tices of Hal­loween were not only be­wil­der­ing but also threat­en­ing. Yes, we could come to terms with peo­ple walk­ing the streets dressed in cos­tumes, but it was harder to un­der­stand an alien cus­tom where peo­ple banged on our front doors de­mand­ing goods — promis­ing ret­ri­bu­tion if they weren’t sat­is­fied. “Trick or treat” seemed, if not quite a pogrom, a lose-lose propo­si­tion. As in­deed per­haps it still does.

Anar­chic fes­ti­vals are scary. And the first step for the Jewish com­mu­nity in com­ing to terms with Amer­i­can Hal­loween was be­ing able to un­der­stand it.

After largely ig­nor­ing Hal­loween be­fore the war, the For­ward pub­lished a se­ries of long, his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­cles in the 1950s ex­plain­ing the hol­i­day’s Chris­tian and pre-Chris­tian re­li­gious roots. They also, help­fully, de­scribed how to avoid “brats” who might “break milk bot­tles or stuff up your buzzer with pins so it doesn’t stop dron­ing.”

As al­ways, for the For­ward’s writ­ers, the frame of ref­er­ence is Jewish rit­ual. Here’s Jay Grayson on Oc­to­ber 31, 1951: “Hal­loween is ac­tu­ally a Chris­tian hol­i­day. It’s a type of yizkor, me­mo­rial day, for the Chris­tian Saints.”

Grayson is also glee­ful at Chris­tian­ity’s newcomer sta­tus, hap­pily point­ing out that it is an “an­cient fes­ti­val that Chris­tians took over from the an­cient Druids.” He fur­ther states that the Pil­grims “ig­nored Hal­loween” and that the date of the Catholic hol­i­day of All Saints’ Day is not ac­tu­ally Oc­to­ber 31 but Novem­ber 2.

Although, as S. Mi­nes­man wrote on Oc­to­ber 30, 1958, the hol­i­day is “a tra­di­tion older than Chris­ten­dom and brings with it much dam­age,” the heart of the ex­pla­na­tions cen­ter on the chil­dren. In his ar­ti­cle about the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal dan­gers of this “‘in­ter­na­tional Purim for chil­dren,’” he de­scribes “kids dressed up in cos­tumes of ghosts and gob­lins, with sooty faces or wear­ing masks that frighten on­look­ers.”

By the 1980s, ex­pla­na­tion had shaded into ap­pre­ci­a­tion, and Jewish pur­vey­ors of pop cul­ture were rev­el­ing in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of Hal­loween. No longer need­ing to re­fer to any­thing be­yond the uni­ver­sal Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, Steven Spiel­berg took a sub­ur­ban Hal­loween and added sun­shine (by mov­ing west) as well as an ac­tual alien to cre­ate the most iconic scene of his 1982 movie “E.T. the Ex­tra-Ter­res­trial.” The re­sult shows how bizarre Hal­loween can seem to an outsider but also how the hol­i­day can, strangely, make the outsider ac­cept­able.

At the end of that decade, in the song “Hal­loween Pa­rade,” Lou Reed de­lighted in the poly­mor­phous per­ver­sity of the Hal­loween scene in Green­wich Vil­lage:

There’s a Greta Garbo and an Al­fred Hitch­cock And some black Ja­maican stud There’s five Cin­derel­las and some leather drags Although the neigh­bors from his teenage years on sub­ur­ban Long Is­land might have viewed Reed him­self as some sort of Hal­loween char­ac­ter, by this later stage in his ca­reer he was se­cure in his outsider per­sona and could take the diver­sity of the fes­ti­val at its face value. Amer­i­can Jews had be­come com­fort­able with Amer­i­can Hal­loween.

Iron­i­cally, a gen­er­a­tion on, the cy­cle has come full cir­cle. Hal­loween is no longer de­scribed in terms of Purim; Purim is de­scribed in terms of Hal­loween. The Amer­i­can Jewish pop­u­la­tion clearly has many strands, but enough seem to un­der­stand Purim as a Jewish Hal­loween to pro­voke a se­ries of ar­ti­cles on the Huff­in­g­ton Post, Kveller and in these pages, push­ing for an au­then­tic Purim, un­tainted by the com­mer­cial­ized Chris­tian-Pa­gan cus­toms of Amer­i­can Hal­loween.

The worry is that we have grown so com­fort­able with Amer­i­can Hal­loween that it is in dan­ger of re­plac­ing our own anar­chic fes­ti­val of Purim. Cos­tumes aside, though, there aren’t re­ally that many sim­i­lar­i­ties: They have Druids and Saints, we have beauty pageants and geno­cide. So, though I un­der­stand the con­cern, I have no real anx­i­eties that a peo­ple who have kept apart milk and meat for thou­sands of years won’t be able to keep apart hamen­tashen and pump­kins for the du­ra­tion of the Amer­i­can repub­lic. How­ever long that may be.

HAPPY HAL­LOWEEN: An Amer­i­can in a ghost cos­tume, circa 1905.

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