Jewish Children and Halloween: Point-Counterpoint

Tomorrow night is Halloween. Perhaps the only Jewish custom concerning Halloween is the debate as to whether it’s an appropriate celebration for Jewish children. Much has been written on both sides of the argument, but I have never addressed it here on this blog. This year, I decided to offer a point-counterpoint exchange answering the question “Is Halloween Kosher?” — Meaning: Is Halloween an acceptable experience for Jewish children in America? My friend and local colleague Rabbi Aaron Starr does not condone his children’s participation in Halloween while I do. Feel free to leave your own opinion in the comments below.

Rabbi Aaron Starr

POINT | It is hard to say “no” those whom we love the most. But, as parents, we know there are times when our sacred task is to teach and to guide, and thus to decline lovingly our children’s requests to do that which we as their caretakers know is dangerous physically or spiritually. For example, despite the vast commercialization and de-emphasis on the religious side of Christmas and Easter, Jewish parents should not allow their children to celebrate these Christian holidays. Likewise, Jewish parents should warmly steer our children away from the celebration of Halloween. Instead, Jewish living should be offered as the fun, meaningful, impactful path our children ought to take.

According to ABC News, Halloween dates back to a Celtic holiday when spirits were believed to rise from their graves, and costumes were used to fool the spirits in hope that farmers’ land would survive through the winter. Later, Christians assimilated Halloween into their own religion as the night before November 1’s “All Saints’ Day”. Then in the 19th century, Irish immigrants adapted their own native customs to the American celebration of Halloween, carving pumpkins into lanterns to honor the souls they believed were stuck in purgatory. What is clear is that the American celebration of Halloween is a product of strong pagan and Christian traditions that have been overly commercialized by twentieth and now twenty-first century candy and costume companies.

How much better it would be for our children and our People to encourage our kids to celebrate Jewish holidays with equal passion and excitement as others do Halloween! It seems to me far more uplifting to dress our children up in celebration of Purim and to give away gifts of food to our friends and those in need than to celebrate a pagan-Christian holiday by parading through dark streets in scary costumes receiving or even begging for candy from strangers.

Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStarr.


Rabbi Jason Miller

COUNTERPOINT | Our children (like us) are growing up in two worlds. They are living in Jewish homes, infused with Jewish values and traditions, and as participants in a vibrant Jewish Diaspora community. But, our children also live in a secular society in which certain “holidays” and their customs have become part of the fabric of that society.

While I would never condone Jewish children celebrating such Christian holidays as Christmas or Easter, I don’t see the problem in them participating in Halloween. This American tradition may draw its roots from troubling origins (like Thanksgiving), but over the centuries it has been become re-imagined as a fun, neighborhood experience. To draw a connection from the 21st century observance of Halloween to Samhain or All Hallows Eve is shortsighted and silly. I was unaware of the Celtic, Pagan and Christian connections to Halloween as an adult, and I suspect that will be the case for my children as well.

Today’s practice of Halloween seems innocent enough for me to allow my children to participate without hesitation. Our Halloween tradition consists of pumpkin picking (also used to decorate our sukkah) and then carving, selecting appropriate costumes (often recycled from Purim), and then walking our neighborhood with friends to go door-to-door collecting candy. There is no begging or threatening for these gifts of chocolate bars and lollipops; only the sweet sounds of repeated “pleases” and “thank yous” from the mouths of adorable children. Halloween is a night when the neighborhood comes alive. It’s an opportunity to catch up with neighbors as the cold winter looms. Upon our return home we sort through the collection of candy identifying the kosher sweets to keep and the non-kosher and undesirable ones to be donated.

To forbid our children to participate in Halloween is to pretend we’re living in a gated shtetl, ignorant of the American society with which our Jewish lives coexist. I have no problem saying “no” to those I love, but I also believe in the importance of making thoughtful, sensible decisions when there’s no harm to fear.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Lesson of Abraham’s Wealth

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha, we are told of the divine command given to Abraham to leave the land and travel to a new land which God will show him. We are then told about Abraham’s financial status. V’Avram Kaved Meod. And Abram was very rich. Rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. There is much to be learned from this word kaved, or rich. The word most often used for rich or wealthy in the Torah is ashir. So we must be curious about the choice to use kaved here.

In modern Hebrew, we use the word kaved to mean heavy, as in that sofa is too kaved for me to move. It can also mean a burden. The medieval commentator Rashi mentions this meaning in his commentary on the verse, and adds another meaning of kaved that many of us are familiar with. From the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments, kabed et avicha v’et imecha – that we should honor our parents – we understand kaved to mean honor or respect. Similarly, from the same root of course is the word for an honor that is given out in synagogue, a kavod. Finally, the word kaved also means liver, the heaviest part of our body. So to review, Abraham, we learn in our parsha this morning is wealthy. We know this from the Hebrew word kaved, which is an unusual choice for wealthy, and also according to the dictionary connotes honor, respect, dignity, seriousness, heaviness, burdensome, taxing, laborious, and liver.

Here it is used to mean that Abraham was weighted down with many possessions because of his wealth. But in the very next verse, we learn that Abraham traveled from the Negev to Beit El “in stages,” l’ma-asav. Rashi tells us that the use of this word means that upon Abraham’s return from Egypt, he took the same route back staying in the same places he had lodged on his way down to Egypt. Rashi points out that while Abraham is wealthier now, he has retained his humility and doesn’t choose to stay in nicer places. Abraham, our patriarch, was not altered by his accumulation of wealth. Recognizing the tendency to be burdened by material wealth, Abraham managed to maintain his kavod when he became kaved. This is not always the case.

As we know from the recent financial meltdown, power and wealth can be burdensome and challenging. In our society, such a vast possession of wealth requires much responsibility and integrity. It catapults people into the public eye, living life in a fishbowl, having every business decision scrutinized, every investment maneuver questioned. There are many advantages to a life of wealth, but it must be done while maintaining kavod – honor.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

One Missing Yarmulke, Several New Friends

We tend to see the differences that separate us from other religious groups rather than the commonalities. That sounds so cliché, but it’s true.

When some Jews hear of an Islamic religious school, called a madrassa, they make assumptions about what might be taught there. They don’t take the time to even consider that the Arabic word madrassa is very closely related to the Hebrew word midrasha, a Jewish religious school.

And when some Jews see a Muslim man wearing a skullcap called a kufi, they make assumptions about his religious views, political sentiments, and opinions on a range of social issues. They tend to forget how similar the kufi is to our kippah, or yarmulke.

One day recently both of these similarities struck me. My plane landed at Chicago’s Midway Airport. It was an early morning flight and I felt like I had traveled back in time since I actually arrived at an earlier time in Chicago than when I had taken off in Detroit thanks to the one-hour time zone difference. During the flight, I fell into a deep sleep.

It wasn’t until I got into my rental car that I realized I wasn’t wearing my yarmulke, as I normally do. At some point during my “nap,” my yarmulke must have fallen off and was lost on the plane. I pulled over to the side of the rode and checked everywhere — pockets, carry-on suitcase, and briefcase. My yarmulke was nowhere to be found.

I was on my way to a small Illinois town south of Peoria to check out a large spice factory that was interested in kosher certification from my agency. I knew I couldn’t walk in there without a yarmulke on my head. I was on a tight schedule though and at a loss for what to do.

I called my wife back in Michigan who began researching if there were any synagogues between my current location and my destination in Pekin, Illinois. While she did that, I continued to drive and search the sides of the highway for any random Judaica store where I could purchase a replacement yarmulke. And that’s when it caught my eye.

Off the highway on what seemed to be a service road was a small mosque. Would that work, I wondered. After all, there’s really not much of a difference between the Muslim kufi and some of the larger yarmulkes that my sons wear to their Jewish school every day. Would a kufi be a better option for me than stopping at a gas station and buying a baseball cap? It was worth a shot.

I exited the highway and did a quick turnaround to try and find the mosque I had passed a few miles earlier. It would be my first time entering a mosque despite the fact that I live in Metro Detroit with its dense Muslim population and abundance of mosques. Alas, the doors of the mosque were locked and it was dark inside. I quickly Googled the address and called the phone number that was listed, but it just rang and rang. For no good reason, I knocked on the doors again and then left.

As I drove away from the mosque I spotted what looked like another mosque in the distance. Perhaps that was the administrative office I thought. Maybe they could sell me one of those Muslim skullcaps (I hadn’t yet learned the word kufi). It was worth a try. I turned down the next street and headed for the building with the star and crescent on the roof. I couldn’t find the street that led to a parking lot so I parked at an auto repair shop and walked across a field to the building.

The doors were locked but I could tell there were people inside. I rang a door bell and a very nice woman opened the door. I saw classrooms up and down the hallways and immediately determined that I had just entered a madrassa. Cute little children were in a large room singing songs and playing games. That was obviously the pre-school. Older children ran up the stairs to a second level of classrooms. I went up to the reception desk and explained my situation. Rather than giving some story about being curious about Islam and wanting a kufi, I explained that I was a rabbi who customarily wears a Jewish head covering and somehow lost it on my flight into Chicago. I asked if they could sell me a Muslim head covering.

She seemed confused by my request, but explained they had no store in the building and didn’t sell kufis. But just as I was about to head back to my rental car, the woman found another woman and shared my story. She told me to wait a moment and about five minutes later she returned with a large, black knitted kufi for me. I asked her how much it would cost and she insisted that it was free. I took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to her as a donation. The idea that I had just made my first charitable gift to an Islamic school was not lost on me. With some trepidation I placed the kufi on my head and thanked the kind women as I left.

Just as I got back in the car and took a look at myself in the rear-view mirror my phone rang. It was my wife telling me that there was an Orthodox synagogue in Peoria. I told her I was wearing a Muslim kufi on my head and shared my story of the welcoming women at the madrassa.

I called the Orthodox synagogue which didn’t have a gift shop or any complimentary yarmulkes,but the woman on the phone referred me to the Reform congregation that shared a building and had a gift shop. When I called that number I got the recording telling me to call the husband-wife rabbis on their cell phone. I called and found myself talking with Rabbi Karen Bogard who told me that her husband Rabbi Daniel Bogard had dozens of yarmulkes and I could drive to their home to pick one out.

Rabbi Karen told me that she and her husband had just graduated from rabbinical school and begun to serve this small congregation in Peoria. We played the game of Jewish geography and learned we knew many people in common. After driving for another couple hours she called me back and directed me to a park close to their home where she would be with the couple’s newborn baby. I drove to the park, gave Rabbi Karen a hug, picked out a yarmulke and then began telling her the story of my visit to the Islamic school. I proudly showed her my new kufi.

While I wore the borrowed yarmulke to the visit at the spice factory, I still felt appreciative to the generous women at the madrassa who provided me with the kufi. It is a story I will continue to tell with pleasure. Losing a yarmulke led me on an adventure to a mosque, a madrassa and a neighborhood park where I met a new rabbinic colleague.

I keep that black kufi on the desk of my office and every once in a while I smile as I consider the similarities between Jews and Muslims. Perhaps, my kufi will serve as a reminder to others to seek out the connections with members of other religions and to explore what we share in common rather than what divides us.

Cross-posted to the Forward’s Arty Semite blog, MyJewishLearning’s Members of the Scribe blog, and the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Country Clubs Still Alive and Well

Last night, I attended the Michigan Region of the Anti-Defamation League’s annual event at Knollwood Country Club in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Knollwood is one of three Jewish country clubs in the Metro Detroit area and the fact that this event is held at a country club every year wasn’t lost on me. There was a time in the not so distant past that local country clubs (including Oakland Hills Country Club just down the road from Knollwood) had unwritten rules barring Jews from membership. Thanks to the work of the ADL, such discrimination is virtually unheard of anymore.

As the ADL prepares to mark its centennial year, it is important to remember that the ADL is unique as a national Jewish communal organization in that it wants to be able to go out of business. Unfortunately, so long as anti-Semitism exists in the world — and sadly it still does — the ADL will have to stay in business. I first became involved with the ADL as a college student when, through the Jewish Student Union, I helped organize a one-day conference on anti-Semitism. Later that summer I served an internship at the Michigan regional office of the ADL and was directly mentored by Dick Lobenthal, a national legend in the fight against prejudice, racism, and intolerance. This year I am once again finding myself actively involved with the ADL as a Glass Leadership Program participant.

Augusta National didn’t admit its first Jewish members until the 1980s. Many local golf and country clubs in Michigan had unwritten rules restricting the members of Blacks and Jews.

Sitting in that Jewish country club last night with several hundred other supporters of the ADL’s important work, I considered the reasons that Jewish country clubs are still in existence. At a time when Jewish men and women are no longer restricted from membership at country clubs, these Jewish clubs remain throughout the country. While Jewish hospitals (Detroit’s Sinai Hospital closed several years ago) and universities (Brandeis is only about 60% Jewish today) are no longer in existence, Jewish country clubs have endured. In the Metro Detroit area there are three Jewish clubs within a five mile radius of each other.

This past summer I was asked to write an article for the Tam-O-Shanter Country Club’s newsletter about the importance of Jewish country clubs in the 21st century. Here is what I wrote:

I recently discovered that every episode of the 1980s TV sitcom “Family Ties” are available on Netflix. Growing up, I always enjoyed watching that show on Thursday nights and I thought my children might enjoy it too. So, I streamed the pilot episode which first aired 30 years ago in 1982. My 8 1/2-year-old son and I sat down and watched it together.

I was immediately reminded that the TV shows from the 80s were more values focused. This particular episode dealt with Alex Keaton’s girlfriend taking him to her family’s restricted country club for dinner. It was the first time my son had ever heard that clubs existed that restricted minorities from membership. He looked at me dumbfounded.

I pressed “Pause” on Netflix and began to explain bigotry and racism to my wonderfully innocent son. I pictured my own father explaining this to me some 30 years prior when I first viewed this episode of “Family Ties.” The first sentence I said to him was, “This is why Tam exists!”

The reason we have Jewish country clubs like Tam-O-Shanter, I explained, is because decades ago Jewish people were forbidden to join the existing golf clubs in our area. Not only did Jewish visionaries around the country build clubs for their own ranks, they created some of the most beautiful golf courses and luxurious country clubs.

Thankfully, times are much better today and local clubs are open to Jewish membership, but the Jewish clubs have endured. Not only is Tam still strong today, it has maintained its Jewish essence. Passover seders, Shabbat dinners, and break-the-fast meals are highlights of Tam’s annual calendar. Over the years, Tam has played host to several golf outings for Jewish organizations including Michigan State Hillel and the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation, in addition to hosting events for AIPAC, Jewish Senior Life, and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The locker room at Tam often sounds like a local version of the Broadway show “Old Men Telling Jewish Jokes” and it’s not uncommon to hear some chosen Yiddish expressions tossed around on the golf course.

As [club owner] Sheldon [Yellen] often remarks, “It’s important to keep Tam a Jewish club.” And it is. The “No Jews Allowed” policy at country clubs is a thing of the past, but Jewish clubs are still necessities for our community. After watching that episode of “Family Ties” with my son, I think he will feel a stronger connection to Tam. I know I will.

Jewish country clubs may not exist anymore in response to anti-Semitism, but their existence does remind us of a darker time in our country. I for one am glad that the Anti-Defamation League is strong and continues to serve our community to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all. As the ADL approaches its centennial year, we should realize the importance of this organization and celebrate its successes.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Holocaust Tattoos, Settlers and Quaker State Oil

I’ve written before on this blog about tattoos in the Jewish tradition. In fact, my 2008 blog post explaining that it’s only a bubba meisa (old wives’ tale) that Jewish people can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have a tattoo remains one of the most popular posts on this blog.

Well, tattoos on Jews are back in the news (that rhymes). This time the story is about grandchildren of Holocaust survivors getting their grandparent’s Auschwitz inmate numbers tattooed on their arm as a memorial. The article in the NY Times opens with the story of Eli Sagir who had the number 157622 permanently inked on her arm. That same number was forcefully tattooed on her grandfather’s arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz 70 years earlier. Sagir’s mother, brother, and uncle also had the numbers inscribed onto their forearms.

Photo by Uriel Sinai | NY Times

According to the Times article, “tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and at the adjacent Birkenau the next March. They were the only camps to employ the practice, and it is unclear how many people were branded, briefly on the chest and more commonly on the left forearm.”

This new tradition is shocking, but some find it meaningful as a way to keep the story of the Holocaust alive as survivors are quickly dying off (there are currently 200,000 Holocaust survivors compared with 400,000 a decade ago). Some tattoo artists see the importance of this practice and don’t charge for their services. The descendants of the survivors interviewed for the NY Times story all agreed that they wanted to be “intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative. And they wanted to live the mantra ‘Never forget’ with something that would constantly provoke questions and conversation.”

There is a certain irony in this story because many parents forbid their children from getting tattoos based on the notion that Holocaust victims were forced to be tattooed. But I think tattoos are just a reality in the 21st century and the idea that Jews with tattoos will be refused burial in a Jewish cemetery seems to have been debunked. The practice of wearing a grandparent’s (or great-grandparent’s) numbers from Auschwitz or Birkenau as a tattoo should be embraced as a new ritual for this generation. Just as survivors’ grandchildren asked them what the numbers symbolize, some day the grandchildren of the grandchildren will ask the same question. These tattoos will serve as a tribute to those who survived the Holocaust long after they die, as well as a memorial for those who perished.

Not all use of the Holocaust number tattoos is for good however. Seven years ago during the Israeli army led pullout from Gaza, Israeli settlers compared their plight to that of Holocaust victims. The residents of the Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif wrote their identity card numbers on their arms in protest. According to an article in Haaretz, the trend began when a Gush Katif woman refused to show her ID card to security forces at a security crossing and instead “she showed him her arm, on which she had written her identity number, in a simulation of the Nazi practice of branding numbers on the arms of concentration camp inmates. Security forces checked her identity and let her through the checkpoint.”

Ehud Yatom, a Likud member of Knesset at the time, expressed his disdain over this practice. “The use by a few disengagement opponents of Holocaust symbols and implications comparing the horrors of the Third Reich to the government’s disengagement plan, even if it is mistaken, constitutes a sin against the memory of the entire Jewish nation.”

Quaker State commerical

Numbers tattooed on ones forearm will always be a shocking image because of the Holocaust. For that reason a friend of mine was horrified when she saw a commercial on ESPN for Quaker State engine oil. She described the commercial to me in enough detail that I was able to find it on YouTube. The Quaker State commercial shows several drivers who are proud of how many miles their car lasted while using Quaker State oil. One man displays the number of miles his car survived with a tattoo on his arm. While I’m sure the company meant no disrespect to Holocaust survivors with this image (the tattoo is on the upper arm rather than where the Auschwitz numbers are usually found), it does show just how sensitive some people can be to that imagery. Here’s a link to the commercial.

As one daughter of a survivor who got her mother’s Holocaust numbers tattooed on her arm articulated “The fact that young people are choosing to get the tattoos is, in my eyes, a sign that we’re still carrying the scar of the Holocaust.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Cool Sukkah Contest in Ann Arbor

I hate to contribute to the stereotype that Jewish men aren’t handy, but I’ve only constructed two notable structures in my life. One is a backyard tree house for my kids and I’ve had to hire a handyman three times already to come over and either fix or reinforce that tree house so it would be safe for my kids to use. The second thing I’ve ever built is our family’s sukkah each year.

Today is the third day of the 8-day sukkah festival (observed for 7 days in Israel) when Jewish people all over the world eat meals in a temporary hut. The first time I constructed my own sukkah was thirteen years ago during my first year of marriage. Truth be told, I supplied the beer and my non-Jewish (and very handy) next door neighbor did most of the manual labor. Over the years, however, I’ve gotten better at erecting this 12×10 foot booth with canvas sides and a couple bamboo mats for a roof. This year I put it up in record time with some help from my kids (who are now old enough to be more helpful than hindrance).

As I was building the metal frame of the sukkah this year I thought about the impressive sukkah designs I helped judge in the Sukkah Arbor competition a month ago. This is the inaugural year of Sukkah Arbor, which like a similar design competition in Manhattan called “Sukkah City: NYC,” is a design-build competition to re-envision the sukkah. I had the distinct honor to serve as a juror in this competition together with my colleagues Rabbi Rob Dobrusin (Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor) and Rabbi Seth Winberg (my successor at University of Michigan Hillel), several architects, builders, and professors in the U-M School of Architecture. Looking at 22 spectacular entries, we were tasked with judging the best handful of the lot based on sustainability, portability/reusability, beauty/inspiration/awe, and innovation. The entries were also supposed to adhere to the Jewish laws concerning the building of a sukkah:

  1. The sukkah must enclose a minimum area of 7 x 7 square handbreadths.
  2. The sukkah must have at least 3 walls, but the third doesn’t need to be complete. The walls must remain unshaken by a steady wind.
  3. If the sukkah has only 2 complete walls, and they face each other, a third wall of at least 4 handbreadths must be within 3 handbreadths of one of the complete walls.
  4. The base of the walls must be within 3 handbreadths of the ground, but need not reach the roof.
  5. The sukkah must be at least 10 handbreadths tall, but no taller than 20 cubits.
  6. The roof must be made from something that once grew in the ground, and is no longer attached to the earth.
  7. The sukkah must have a roof made of schach: the leaves and/or branches of a tree or plant.
  8. The roof cannot be made of bundles of straw or sticks that are tied together (although untied straw or sticks may be okay).
  9. The sukkah must draw the eye up to its roof, and to the sky beyond.
  10. In day, the roof must provide more shade than sunshine. Its individual construction elements must be less than 4 handbreadths in width.
  11. At night, one must be able to see the stars from within the sukkah, through the roof.

When I was contacted by my cousin (technically my mother’s cousin’s son), Andrew Hauptman, many months ago to serve as a juror for this competition I immediately agreed. I thought it was great that Andrew was involved in this endeavor and so excited about it. Andrew, a very talented architect in Ann Arbor, isn’t an observant Jew and hasn’t been very active in the Jewish community so I thought this was wonderful that he was taking a lead in this project. I hope we can create similar events that encourage participation of other Jewish rituals for those who haven’t traditionally been involved.

Sukkah Arbor, like similar projects in other cities, really gets people involved in the sukkah building process who otherwise wouldn’t even know about the Jewish commandment to build a sukkah on the Sukkot holiday. The objectives of Sukkah Arbor were to bring 21st century ‘design-build’ techniques and materials to a traditional observance, unite the wider community in a participatory, educational and artistic project, and to raise awareness of and educate about modern causes that connect to the holiday of Sukkot including homelessness, hunger and the environment. Architects, builders, environmentalists, and artists who have gotten involved in different aspects of Sukkah Arbor have learned about the Sukkot festival and the meaning of the sukkah.

The winner of Sukkah Arbor was the “Hay Bales” sukkah created by Harold Remlinger, Ralph Nunez and Shari Stein (pictured above). Mazel Tov to them and to all of the sukkah designers. The sukkahs were originally on display at Liberty Square Plaza and can now be viewed at the Ann Arbor Jewish Community Center. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to be a part of this project and hope it continues for many years to come.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller