A 2009 Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man, would have no premise whatsoever without its extended opening, supernatural sequence featuring a “dybbuk” (an evil spirit in the form of a recently deceased person) visiting an unfortunate and hapless couple. Bad luck and spooky things then plague the family for generations.
Why the reluctance, the disapproving hang-up among some Jews (and other groups) about this gilded fall milestone? Meanwhile, the Jewish biblical and post-biblical traditions are the ones loaded with ghouls, ghosts, and malicious phantoms.
I remember: Years ago, four Orthodox Jewish boys, defying the traditional Jewish proscription on Hallowe’en, bravely snuck out anyway. At dusk they emerged, practically floating with delight, grasping little brown lunch bags for their candies, out for “Trick or Treat” in the old neighborhood.
It was if they had been set free to experience something dark and mysterious and forbidden—that also resulted in a heap of Snickers, M&M’s, Mars Bars, Reese’s Cups, Twizzlers, and Pink Dubble Bubble Gum like these fundamentalists had never imagined. The small change they got they immediately turned back over to their synagogue!
We were all about twelve, and I knew those curly-locked fellows, though I ran with the more secular-culture crowd of Jews and Catholics in the neighborhood. Frankly, I didn’t even know back then why fuss about participating in a holiday that some in my community called “pagan,” and others excoriated because it derived from a “Hallows’ Eve.” Fine—for me it was about a brisk night of safe carousing, spooky swirling leaves, hot cider, lit grinning pumpkins and it was not negotiable.
The record shows that my identity was not affected and I have great memories and shared a heady experience in a charming, departed neighborhood with fellows named Schuster, Smith, and O’Reilly. We dressed up as goblins, skeletons, and ball players and, after divvying up and devouring our loot of chocolate bars, had the appropriate stomach aches on the first morning of November.
What kind of Exodus from Egypt could be recorded absent the malevolent and gurgling Angel of Death that came for the Egyptian firstborn? Witches? What of the legendary Lilith, Adam’s supposed first flame, who, with long hair and flaming eyes, beguiled and seduced men in their sleep?
And there is the unforgettable and terrifying super-hero, the Golem, a Frankenstein-like ogre that evolved from clay and was completely supernatural. Nor would Jewish literary and social history be complete without the perennial dybbuk—described by one contemporary writer as “an evil spirit that seeks vulnerable souls to displace so that it can occupy a person's body.” Only exorcism can rid one of the dybbuk. Watch the beloved Fiddler on the Roof and you will be chilled by the extended paranormal scene of aroused corpses dancing and prophesying during Tevye’s cemetery dream—oy vey.
These aren’t mainstream images but neither are the once-a-year specters and terrors and shrieks of the wickedly fun Halloween season. What’s the moral here? My four Orthodox-garbed friends got the most loot in their bags that night, outdoing all of us, because without even changing, they were already in the most elaborate costumes! Halloween is culture with hot cider and a good fright. Trick or treat—amen!
[This article reprised from a previously syndicated edition.]