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I heard one liberal Jewish day school head say this about Halloween:
“Our school is a safe haven from the secular world. As best we can, we shelter and protect our kids from those forces, and create an island of safety from the secular world.”
This school did not allow students to bring in candy or costumes or talk about what they did on Halloween night. And yet, almost all the students had gone trick-or-treating. Moreover, virtually every teacher in the school had celebrated Halloween as kids and taken their own children trick-or-treating. Liberal Jewish families clearly do not feel endangered by this popular North American ritual. Thus, when educators call for a safe haven - which reflects their own anxiety about families’ ability to navigate living in multiple cultures simultaneously - this only serves to strike a dissonant chord among the very families they seek to engage in Jewish life.
When Reform educators view Judaism as being in opposition to music lessons, sports, or Halloween and wall off children from supposed outside “threats,” they set up a cultural war that is neither productive nor winnable. Instead, religious school needs to be a place where students learn how to handle normal cultural dissonance. Otherwise, our youth may never know how to do so later in life, as college students and adults, in a fully integrated world absent of externally monitored Jewish boundaries.
Successful Jewish education requires that we face our survivalist anxieties and stop fearing that their every decision will either ensure or threaten Jewish continuity. Rather than measuring the effectiveness of Jewish education in outcomes such as Hillel affiliation and in-marriage, we would do better to treat each and every learning moment as an opportunity to embrace the dilemmas of contemporary American Jewish life. In that spirit, Jewish education can be a safe and playful laboratory to practice addressing the challenges of living as part of (at least) two cultures.
Surprisingly, there seem to be precious few examples of institutions willing to address this challenge head on. Among dozens of day schools and religious schools I have visited around the U.S., only one, for example, displayed Halloween books in the library in October. When I asked the librarian to explain her school’s policy surrounding the celebration of Halloween, she proudly took me around to the other side of the display table, where an array of Jewish books addressed the themes of Jewish goblins and spirits, such as golems or the mazikim (demons) mentioned in the Talmud. Here was one school willing to engage students in conversation about two traditions. In a sense, by juxtaposing them back-to-back, the school was unabashedly mirroring contemporary Jewish experience in North America.
It is time we begin to teach “biculturalism” consciously and confidently, rather than fearfully and fretfully.
As students enter primary grades, they might explore the similarities and differences between Halloween and Purim from historical, ethical, and/or culinary perspectives. In the best of worlds, they should be able to articulate each holiday’s rituals, narratives, and messages, and, by accepting Halloween’s prominent role in our lives, better understand Purim’s significance to the Jewish people.
The more we can help our students and families to face cultural dilemmas proudly and creatively, without the ultimate weight of Jewish continuity and survival on their backs, the more they will be willing and able to create a vibrant Jewish life for themselves and the larger Jewish community. When we “come out” proudly as ambivalent Jews, confronting our doubts and contradictions while striving to become simultaneously “a part of and apart from” our American/Canadian cultures, we will actually reinforce Jewish continuity.