With Thanksgiving here and Halloween behind us, ‘tis the season to discuss the role of secular holidays in our Jewish lives on campus. Hillels across the country work to keep college students engaged in Jewish programming and within a Jewish community while they are away from home. They are continuously battling increasing secularism, and in the month of October, Hillels across the country held a variety of Halloween-themed events. For some, these events go against traditional Jewish values and risk ostracizing Jewish students who grew up religious and didn’t celebrate these holidays. In our secular world, though, events like these can bring students in touch with their Jewish identities, students who wouldn’t even show up to Hillel otherwise. Halloween is a secular holiday, but if it can serve as a bridge and attract more students to Hillel, it’s worthwhile to celebrate as Jews.Halloween began as a Celtic harvest festival, which people celebrated by lighting bonfires and wearing costumes to frighten ghosts coming up from the underworld to disturb their crops. Later, Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as a day to honor saints, and the night before became known as Hallow’s Eve. Many Jews feel that the superstitious origins of Halloween mean that the holiday conflicts with Judaism and that to celebrate Halloween is to participate in paganism. Despite Halloween’s origins, however, it has grown into a national holiday rather than a celebration of any one particular faith or belief. In the same way that there would be no objection to Hillel celebrating July Fourth or Memorial Day, there is little reason to object to a holiday that now has much more to do with candy and dressing up than anything else.
This year, Halloween-themed Hillel events ranged from murder mystery shabbatons to an annual Halloween Barn Dance to simple Halloween-themed Shabbat dinners. Staff at Stony Brook Hillel explained that they feel they can celebrate Murder Mystery Shabbat because Hillel is a pluralistic organization, catering to a spectrum including Reform and Orthodox Jews. Shaina Abrams-Kornblum, director of Jewish student life at Stony Brook University, said in The Long Islander, by making the shabbaton murder mystery themed, they weren’t explicitly endorsing Halloween, but instead occupying a middle ground – with a scary theme that all students could enjoy. University of Illinois student Annie Goldstein called her Hillel’s annual Halloween Barn Dance “the highlight of my semester last year” on Illinois Hillel’s website and encouraged other students to attend in costume to celebrate her favorite holiday. These different approaches to celebrating Halloween reflect a struggle within the Jewish community to both embrace American culture and retain our Jewish identities.
It is true that Halloween remains a secular holiday and not a Jewish one. But I believe one way Jews have survived this long as a people is by holding on to our own traditions while also embracing new customs. Jews have spent almost 2,000 years in exile, cast away in different parts of the world with different laws, traditions, and customs. Ashkenazi Jews have different customs than Sephardi Jews because they each derived their cultures from the places they lived, and neither is wrong for having been influenced by their respective cultures. Likewise, Jews in America can’t help but be influenced by American culture, as we will see this weekend with the mass migration of Jewish students going back home to celebrate Thanksgiving. If celebrating a bit of that culture dove-tailed with Judaism can encourage more people to get in touch with their religion, then my only hope is to get little Challahs in my trick-or-treat basket next year.
Jillian Gordner is a first-year English major at the University of Michigan.