Post­ed by Nat Bern­stein

It’s a ques­tion every Jew­ish Amer­i­can par­ent faces at the wan­ing of Octo­ber: Will you allow your chil­dren to trick-or-treat?

The delib­er­a­tion gen­er­al­ly comes down to whether one con­sid­ers Hal­loween a sec­u­lar hol­i­day or acknowl­edges its pagan-Chris­t­ian ori­gins. The for­mer inter­pre­ta­tion is held as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Jew­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion in All Hallow’s Eve fes­tiv­i­ties and cus­toms; the lat­ter dredges up some dis­com­fort for those com­mit­ted to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish val­ues, obser­vances, and/​or identity.

But maybe—just maybe—we have that backwards.

The increas­ing­ly pro­fane treat­ment of this old, old hol­i­day in the Unit­ed States in many ways brings out the worst of Amer­i­can cul­ture. Why should Jews feel more com­fort­able align­ing with that than with a for­eign but spir­i­tu­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant observance?

In the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion, Hal­loween kicks off All­hol­lowtide, a three-day remem­brance of the dead. It pre­cedes the ensu­ing solem­ni­ty of All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day with a sort of vig­il for the depart­ed. Cos­tumes were incor­po­rat­ed to con­fuse wake­ful imps and wan­der­ing souls, lest a loi­ter­ing spir­it attempt to exact vengeance on its last night of pur­ga­to­ry before pass­ing on to the next world. Tricks and pranks devel­oped in mim­ic­ry of such men­ac­ing forces, and the somber rit­u­als were often fol­lowed by mer­ry com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­ly gath­er­ings. Hal­loween was a time to cel­e­brate what scares us, to employ humor and ridicule to con­front the pow­er of death.”

Yes, the premise for this hol­i­day and its tridu­um is very not-Jew­ish, but there are cer­tain par­al­lels. While ghouls and gob­lins and pix­ies and saints reside in a realm com­plete­ly dis­tinct from Jew­ish lore, our his­to­ry includes an appre­ci­a­tion for spir­its of the dead, dyb­buks, witch­es, and mis­chie­vous demons. Jews, too, sym­bol­i­cal­ly wel­come vis­its from our ances­tors—ush­pizin—and play all sorts of tricks to ward off evil forces of super­sti­tion and the supernatural.

And when it comes to laugh­ing at death, no one — no one — does gal­lows humor like the Jews.

Jews sit with death — lit­er­al­ly: our com­mu­ni­ties hold an oblig­a­tion to sit night and day with the bod­ies await­ing bur­ial; Jew­ish fam­i­lies gath­er on the floor to con­tend with the loss of a loved one for a sol­id week—or per­haps it’s death that sits with Jews. Our lit­er­a­ture, espe­cial­ly in the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish writ­ers, orbits around the specters of the depart­ed and the grief of those who sur­vive them. A foun­da­tion­al com­po­nent of Cul­tur­al Judaism” in the present age is how its adher­ents cleave to and from the tra­di­tion­al death rites: the sub­ject of the millennium’s most pop­u­lar nov­els, adap­ta­tions, and short films.

Death is a con­stant and con­tin­u­ous dis­cus­sion in every aspect of Jew­ish life, from par­ent­ing to friend­ship to reli­gious prac­tice to humor. Why should we delib­er­ate­ly ignore the inten­tion­al­i­ty of a day designed to con­front it?

Hence, in lieu of spooky sto­ries or tales of hor­ror, tonight’s Jew­ish Book Coun­cil read­ing com­pi­la­tion is a short selec­tion of books that engage with loss, that explore how Jews of vary­ing back­grounds and iden­ti­ties cope and con­tend with death:


Relat­ed content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.