Monthly Archives: October 2012

The October 31st Dilemma

“When do we get to hand out candy?” my children ask.  Repeatedly.  For most of October, even earlier when the stores start setting up their Halloween sections in September.

Candy for Tonight

Notice that my kids don’t ask about getting costumes or going trick-or-treating.  This year is the first time they have contemplated anything beyond answering the door: they want to be a ghost-in-the-box or panthers . . . to give smiles to the neighbors who come to our door.

I admit that the decisions that led to this reality were hard.  I remember asking colleagues what they do with their kids and watching Facebook posts to see what else I might be able to learn from the American Jewish niche of which I am a part.  My random sampling yielded such varied results that it helped little in advancing my thinking.  In the end, I focused on three values:

  1. What I will call “Jewish otherness”
  2. Civic engagement
  3. Respect for religion

With these values in mind, I struck a balance between the point-counterpoint of my friend, Rabbi Jason Miller.  I have taught my children that Halloween is a religious holiday that deals with spirits like ghosts, goblins, witches, and the like.  I reaffirm that as Jews we do not believe in these characters; for us, they are pretend. [Later, I will have to teach them about spirits in the Jewish tradition, but I am fairly sure that they will not associate King Saul’s woman of Endor with the black-hatted, broom-riding witches of today.]  That covers value #1.

The reality, however, is that Halloween is about more than its original concerns.  The night has become equally, if not more so, about candy and trick-or-treating.  Here, I find it not only reasonable, but also compelling to acknowledge the holiday.  As good neighbors (another Jewish value), I believe we must turn on our light, welcome the strangers who ring the bell or knock, and give them a treat.  We get to see members of our community we know well or barely ever see.  We enjoy a bit of awe and wonder at the creativity of the human mind as we gaze upon artful costumes and artful explanations for lack of design.  Given my family’s good fortune despite the passing eye of Hurricane Sandy, I think it even more important this year to welcome neighbors with our lights on.  While, I do not know if we will be able to engage in this civic encounter tonight, I hope we do.  It is value #2.

Lastly, I reaffirm for my children that others, for whom Halloween is serious, are worried about being scared or tricked by the spirits of this night.  In that vein, we have focused on the treat in trick-or-treat.  We do not decorate our house with cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns, or graveyard images.  The lights are on.  The candy bowl is full.  We are hopeful for a season of light during the oncoming winter.  We live value #3.

When all is said and done, there is still candy in the bowl to put in lunchboxes for weeks.  My kids seem not to feel left out; they are apart, Jewishly, and a part, civically, of the night.  Besides, as they will tell you, costumes are for Purim and candy celebrates the sweetness of Torah at b’nai mitzvah and on Simchat Torah.  Happy Halloween!

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Yom Kippur at College

Is such the fast that I desire: a day for people to starve their bodies? . . . Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

Despite the call of these very words from the haftarah (the selected reading from the books of the prophets) for Yom Kippur morning, many Jewish students on college campuses this year seem to have taken the day as just such: a day to starve their bodies.

This year it seems that such was the fast:

  • to walk across campus with pangs of hunger in your stomach?
  • to sit in class with caffeine-withdrawal headaches so distracting you learn nothing?
  • to sleep as much as possible to reduce the waking hours ’til the day ends?
  • to stop by prayer services when you get a chance?

          While some students’ observances were nothing close to the above, the anecdotal reporting of multiple rabbis on college campuses this year was one of grave concern that prayer services are indeed last on the list.  Another year, we might have chalked up the low turnout to the nearness of the day to a weekend, allowing students to travel home.  This year, we have no such excuse.  Students are observing Yom Kippur, if at all, not in the communal setting of prayer.

Without belaboring the drama of recent studies like the Pew Forum’s “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Americans increasingly experience religious life in personal, not institutional ways. Rather than lament this situation, I wonder what we might learn and do for next year and the years to come.  Because for now, apparently, YES, such is the fast.

Conversation on Delaware’s Green, Yom Kippur 2009

One of the great lessons of working in Hillel is the insistence on using “yes, and . . . ,” rather than “but.”  If indeed fewer and fewer students (and, likely, American Jews generally) are observing their fast in communal prayer settings, what is the meaning of their fast?  Yes, Jews are still fasting, and . . . what?

I propose three ways forward:

  1. We must think more about the meal before and the break fast after.  Ritual dining related to Yom Kippur is more crucial for meaning-making than we have explored.
  2. We must understand fasting on campus or at work as a form of soul-affliction.  Even divorced from the prayers of penitence, going without food or drink amidst one’s non-Jewish companions is an uncomfortable admission of difference.
  3. We must do more to make the meaning of the prayers accessible to everyone.  Explanations of particular liturgical passages or Scriptural readings can have great impact, if we get them beyond the confines of deviations from their prayed settings.

I would start with correcting the translation in many mahzorim (high holy day prayer books) and in the NJPS editions of the Bible:  “a day for people to starve their bodies” is better translated as “a day for human soul-affliction.”  Doing so contextualizes the meaning of standing apart.  By addressing the ways forward I suggested, we might get deeper into the meaning of the day to see how, for example, seeing oneself as if dead changes how we see ourselves in the world. In that light, we can do more than stand out; we can act out for justice, for what we can fix in ourselves and in the world, and for what God really wants: “from your flesh you will not hide, . . . and your righteousness will walk before you” (Isaiah 58:7-8).

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