But What Should I Be? Halloween: A Time of Reflection

Halloween and Purim. Two times a year, one secular, one Jewish, during which we are invited to dress in costumes and play at being someone – or something – else. We can be . . . anything. So can everyone else.

Would we be okay with seeing someone dressed up as a concentration camp inmate? Striped pajamas? Yellow Star of David? What if the person in the costume was German? Or their ancestors were German? Or Polish? What if they said they were wearing this costume to celebrate Jews and Jewish culture? What if it was a couple’s costume: Sexy Female Inmate and Nazi?

The idea makes my stomach turn and my heart hurt.

I couldn’t find a pre-made Halloween costume of Elie Wiesel, but I think it could feel entirely different. If someone wanted to emulate this specific person and dress as him, that could feel respectful and celebratory.

It was also a little different for me at first when I saw a costume like this Toddler Rabbi. Setting aside for the moment that it’s being sold by Wal-Mart along with a whole line of rabbis, a toddler dressed up as a Chassidic rabbi could seem kind of . . . charming . . . or at least innocuous. But then I start thinking about the variety of ways charming could become disturbing. Add a gold chain around the kid’s neck and pockets spilling monopoly money.

The first Halloween costume I remember wearing was when I dressed up as Holly Hobbie’s friend Amy in preschool. She was the one in green and she had the best name. Obviously.

For me, the joy of a costume is partly the fun of expressing another side of myself within the safety of a masquerade, and partly the fun of trying on a new persona and seeing how it fits and taking that persona out into the world. I love it.

In Jewish youth work our question was whether we should allow students to wear costumes for religious school if October 31st landed on a Wednesday or Sunday. After all, Halloween, for all of its costumes and candy, is no Purim. Its roots are not Jewish and how it is celebrated now was shaped dramatically by both pagan and Catholic observances. Its historical values are not Jewish, either, and tend toward receiving rather than giving and tricking to the point of property damage. However today’s observations of Halloween have pretty dramatically diverted from its origins and its history, and it’s possible to support the argument that its values, for better or worse, are nothing other than American. There are also plenty of good questions to ask about Halloween from the $2.8 billion dollars we’ll spend on candy to the child slave labor that produces about 70% of the chocolate we’ll give out,  and the sweat-shop-made costumes before we even get to a question of specifically Jewish values. Regarding Jews celebrating it at all, there are some discussions I find provocative and some less so but still relevant.

Myself, I long ago decided I was participating in the fun of Halloween.

Not working at a synagogue anymore has opened up some space for me to think about what it means for me personally to celebrate Halloween in keeping with my Jewish values. After all, the value of bechirah chafsheet is the Jewish philosophical assumption that all human beings have the ability to freely choose actions, and are responsible for our choices.[1] I think within the aspect of responsibility is my obligation to be intentional about the choices I make.

Dr. Arienne K. of Native Appropriations[2] got me thinking about costumes last year when I came across several of her posts. In them she articulates problems with costumes such as Pocahottie and others in her Sampling of the Racism for Sale. Reading her posts made me remember a couple’s costume I saw some years ago: Sexy Indian Princess and her Cowboy. Maybe they could double-date with the Sexy Inmate and Nazi.

In Spirit Halloween’s advertising for their “Indian Costumes” they describe outfits that can make you look the “best in the tribe” and warn against eating too much candy and “going on a sugar induced vision quest.” (Maybe a concentration camp inmate costume should warn against, what? The temptation to eat things that aren’t kosher?) There is also a “sexy Indian dress” for the “more daring ladies out there trying to land their own John Smith.”

Now, of course, we know it was not John Smith, but John Rolfe who Pocahontas married and with whom she went to England as converted Rebecca Rolfe after her kidnap by Captain Samuel Argall and subsequent divorce from Kocoum. We also know, even though Disney has worked hard to confuse history, that John Smith was many decades older than her when he arrived on her people’s shores and wrote that she was about ten-years-old. We do know that, right?

We also couldn’t confuse any of these costumes with the real Pocahontas anyway since as an adult she would have worn a deerskin apron and a leather mantle in winter, had skin decorated with tattoos, and worn leggings and breechclout in the woods. Once married, she would have cut her hair short, no braids. Or could we?

It’s not even a question. We could. We could and we do because real Native people and real Native experience is not part of the costume. We could because most of us know a lot more about the costume than we do about the people it caricatures. I worked at Jamestown National Colonial Historical Park for a season after college, so I know something about Pocahontas, but I’ve lived in Minnesota since 1999 and I know embarrassingly little about Minnesota Native history. I do know when a non-Native person dons the caricature of the identity of Native people, we participate in the ongoing colonization and oppression of that identity and that people. When we buy costumes with descriptions that frame everything about Native people in past tense verbs, we are buying and selling the story that there is no present tense Native experience.

In response to the appropriation of other identities as costumes and a “black party” hosted in 2012 for which attendees painted their skin brown, showed up in “grills” and “urban clothing,” and hosts served chicken and watermelon illustrating some, shall we say, rather overt racism in our country, ten students at Ohio University put together a campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” Asked in an interview what makes a costume racist, Sarah Williams spoke directly to my thoughts about the difference between dressing as concentration camp inmate or as Elie Wiesel. She said, “Everyone wants to be ‘a thug’ or ‘a criminal,’ but nobody wants to be Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois . . . . Someone will dress up as ‘a dirty Mexican,’ but no one’s going as [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor.” Ms. Williams reported that about 80% of the response to the campaign was positive. Of the 20% that was negative, about 10% made the argument that Halloween is just fun and the costumes are harmless. I read some of the other 10% of the comments and found them outright verbally violent.

What about a Jewish response? Is Halloween just fun? Are these costumes harmless? Are we taking ourselves and each other too seriously?

I think as Jews our choices always matter and while we value fun and pleasure, before we can enjoy something we have an obligation to do our best to ensure others are not being harmed for our entertainment.

We can be informed by the rabbinic concept of adam yachid, that one human being was created in the beginning so that no one can say, ‘my father was greater than your father.’ As our ancestors are equals, so are our identities, and so is our right to have dignity and be treated with respect as a people and as people. Our sages taught to avoid humiliating someone in public and that harming someone’s dignity is akin to murder. We are pushed further to actively honor people and encourage dignity and respect for all human beings – k’vod hab’riot. If we need more reasons than those, there are plenty, and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. Chillul Ha-Shem discourages actions that could bring shame to the reputation of the Jewish people by desecrating God’s name, and connected with the central idea that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, the desecration of another is the desecration of the image of God. We are told to preserve societal peace and work toward positive inter-ethnic relationships – Darchei Shalom, and when our rabbinic law encourages k’vod nashimּ – the honor of women – it doesn’t say, ‘except for Native American women.

And what if the costume is derogatory, but it also rings with some truth? Rechilut prohibits statements which are not true, and lashon harah expands this prohibition to include even factually truthful speech if it might possibly malign an individual or ruin a reputation. Speech is more than words. Speech is expression. A costume is an expression. A costume of an identity is an expression of an identity.

There are plenty of ways to have Halloween fun without hurting a soul or damaging anyone’s dignity.

As for what I’ll be, this year we have a two-family Cat in the Hat group costume in the works. One of my favorite three-year-olds, Thing One, and his brother, Thing Two, have invited me to be Fish. I’m all over it.

This article originally was published in TC Jewfolk in 2014