Originally published on the Huffington Post (10/30/2014)
We don't do Halloween in our home. Maybe I'm lucky -- my kids are still young enough that I can just explain Halloween however I want and it's a non-issue. My older son attends a Jewish day school, so I'm pretty sure we're safe with him (while he may hear about it from his friends, he won't experience what I did as a child, getting pressured at public school to trick-or-treat with neighbors). And my younger son has special needs so while he attends the Early Learning Center at our town's public school, I don't think he would understand enough about Halloween to question any of our practices (or lack thereof).
Perhaps I'm getting off easy with this one!
But we live on the end of a cul-de-sac and we do strive to be good neighbors. It's not their fault that we don't do Halloween. I always buy candy, keep our light on, and open the door when the cute little costumed children show up. The challenge is how to explain this to our children without confusing them or enticing them to participate in trick-or-treating.
Here's what happened last year: I explained that children would ring our doorbell and ask for candy and that we would give it to them. I added that this was a holiday called Halloween that we didn't observe but we would help the children who did observe it. (I think that was my first mistake: using the word "help" in this context.)
So each time the doorbell rang last year, my then-4-year-old dutifully went to the candy basket, took out a piece of candy, and solemnly placed one piece in each child's bag. If it wasn't so pathetic I would have been roaring with laughter. He really thought he was helping, giving them tzedakah(charity)!
There are two problems here: first, why does my son give tzedakah with such a punim (face, specifically a pathetic one)? Has he already internalized a difference between "those-who-have" and "those-who-have-not"? How can we teach him that when we help people, they are still people, and we should not pity those who need some help, because we all need help somewhere and at some time?
And secondly, the more immediate challenge: how do I undo what I've done to Halloween? I don't want him to participate in trick-or-treating, but there should be joy in helping others to celebrate their holidays (like wishing other people a Merry Christmas). Perhaps it's time to start a new Halloween tradition -- even in this rabbi's home.
This year I will encourage my children to watch for trick-or-treaters. I will ask them to guess which costumes are approaching our home. I will engage them in counting games (How many kids have we seen so far? How much candy do we have left? How much have we eaten ourselves?). We will talk with the neighbors we know in our brief 30-second encounters, and we'll meet some new ones. We'll set aside some candy to bring to people who are actually in need -- soldiers protecting our country or children who are sick in the hospital -- so we are actually doing some tzedakah. And we'll talk about the mitzvah (commandment) of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, just like we did a few weeks ago on the Jewish holiday, Sukkot. It's lovely to welcome people into your home -- even if in this case they tend not to come in the front door.
And then we will eventually leave the light on, the remaining candy in a basket outside the closed door, with a pre-written sign taped over the doorbell: Happy Halloween -- Please take a candy and enjoy! While inside, dressed in our warmest pajamas, we will gather together as a family to celebrate Shabbat, our weekly Jewish ritual, eating the sweetest foods, singing songs, enjoying each other's company. I hope in this way we are able to instill in our children a sense of community as well as pride in who they are as American Jews.