My last Halloween

These days it creeps up on me like an ache — the occasional pumpkin in a front yard, the synthetic cobwebs in trees, the subtle turn in the weather and, yes, there’s that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the hollowness of those dreams in which you’re lost in a white tunnel, with nowhere to go but forward, though you know that every step will take you farther away from home. 

I know why Lot’s wife looked back. 

From early September, the discussions begin. What am I going to be this year, and when are you doing to decorate the house, and do we have enough candy for the trick-or-treaters, and why don’t you dress up as well — my friend’s mom wears a costume every year and my teacher painted her feet green. Throughout October, negotiations revolve around which stores we’re going to shop at and how many trips we’re going to make and how many hours in total we’ll spend looking for “the same as last year, but different.” My older son is a ninja redux, the younger one wants to dress up as a cowboy, even when it’s not Halloween. My daughter, who likes fine clothes and red lipstick, has been a ballerina three years in a row and wants to be a ballerina again, “only not the same kind of ballerina,” she says, and the boys join in the chorus, “and not a ballerina that has to wear a sweater if it’s cold.” Ninjas and cowboys, needless to say, don’t wear sweaters either. 

Our neighbors are mostly young families with small children. The house directly across from ours is one of those haunted mansions that spits out fog and echoes of laughter, with the shadows of headless corpses popping out of open coffins every 60 seconds. The owners have the whole decorating thing down to an art, so they don’t have to start until the weekend before the big day, but the rest of us, bumbling pumpkin carvers and clumsy spider-web spinners, get to work in mid-October and are still “perfecting” the set at 5 o’clock on the 31st, when the first few kids with their parents appear at the door. By then, my little cowboy has been dressed and ready for a couple of hours already, and has posted himself, basket of candy in hand, in the foyer. The ballerina is waiting upstairs for her cousin, Cleopatra, to arrive for hair and makeup, and the ninja is setting boundaries for me as to how much of the evening’s spoils I’m allowed to take in the name of tooth decay. 

So much of my remembrances of motherhood is traced with guilt — at the mistakes I made thinking I was doing the right thing, the chances I missed because I was focused on the wrong thing, my impatience and arrogance and just plain ignorance. So much of it, too, is condensed into a cluster of midnight feedings and birthday parties, school trips and beach outings and, “Alex, stop working and go to bed”; “Kevin do your homework and go to bed,” seven nights a week. Amid it all, those early Halloween memories sparkle — bright, fleeting, untainted, brimming with anticipation, rife with possibility. 

When did I last put my children to bed with the makeup still on their faces and the candy tucked under their beds? Close the door behind the last trick-or-treater? See the back of that young woman with the long, pale hair and giant angel’s wings? The zombie impaled with a sword and still walking? 

The next morning, the street is strangely quiet. The cobwebs have been cleared from the trees, and the doorbells no longer howl. The haunted mansion has been sold to a less theatrical family, and the basket full of candy remains, untouched, by the front door. The kids have grown up and left home. Oct. 31 is just another day on the calendar.  

It’s not that I have nothing else to do with my time, now that the obligatory visits to the pumpkin patch have stopped. It’s not that I have no identity outside of being a mother. On any given day. I’m a good few months behind on a whole lot of work-related projects, my domestic talents still waiting to be discovered. I can attend to neglected friendships and an ailing social life, spend more time with my parents, travel again with only my husband to places that are not necessarily child-friendly. But even with all that, I feel like a typewriter in the age of Siri: still operational, but functionally obsolete. 

I think that’s why Lot’s wife looked back: to see her daughters one last time and, through them, the part of herself she most liked. 

I do have other things to do with my time, yes. I just can’t think of anything better to do on those October mornings when I drive by the little preschool on my way to the gym and see tall those little fairies and wizards march, single file and effervescent with joy and pixie dust, before their adoring, admiring parents.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

In the ‘hood, the treat is no trick

If you’re one of those people that took the kids out on Halloween, there’s a good chance you avoided Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson.

Because believe me, they don’t trick or treat in the hood.

This is not a polite refusal to partake in something foreign, like, say, some ultra-Orthodox might respectfully abstain from celebrating Thanksgiving. No, this is an assertive, purposeful rejection. Halloween is seen as the crowning achievement of secular emptiness. You celebrate, glorify, trivialize and idolize something as deep and holy as death, and in return, your kids get to gorge on KitKats and day-glow jawbreakers.

In the same way that the hustle and bustle on the day before Shabbat gives you a good sense of what the hood is about, the eerie silence on the night of Halloween tells you just as much. There might be a wild Mardis Gras-type carnival happening a mile up on Santa Monica Boulevard, but in the hood, the only costumes you’ll see are on the Chasids coming out of Chabad.

In fact, several of my neighbors use Halloween to get a good deal on Purim costumes. Apparently, Halloween has become, in retail terms, bigger than Christmas. So on the day after Halloween, you can get some real bargains on costumes, even some that you can use a few months later on Purim.

The analogy with Purim is instructive. On the surface, they share a certain symmetry: Lots of silly fun around crazy costumes. But you don’t need to dig too deep to see that in many ways, they are polar opposites. While Halloween itself has a religious ancestry — a day certain Christian groups would celebrate “all the saints” — today it is devoid of any spirituality, and has evolved (devolved?) into an occasion to celebrate ghosts, goblins, witches, skeletons and other symbols of evil and death.

Because American commerce can mainstream just about anything, by the time it filters down to our children, Halloween becomes a commercial extravaganza where parents can “bond” with their kids while picking out a $49 costume at Kmart, and then go trick or treating for simple carbs on local streets. In America, even the ghoulish can be made to appear wholesome.

Purim is harder to trivialize, because the rituals themselves are so connected to the religious component. The bad guy is not a spooky mystery — he’s got a name (Haman). The religious text that we read on Purim (the Megillah), tells us to turn the tables on our enemies after our victory, so we put on costumes to look like them. We put on great parties because the text also instructs us to partake in “feasting and gladness.” And to top it off, even the candy and the munchies (mishloach manot) that we exchange with each other and donate to the poor have a direct connection to the holy texts.

In other words, while Halloween revels in the fear and symbols of death, Purim celebrates the holiness and glory of survival. Is it any wonder, then, that observant Jews would rather wait for Purim to have a costume party with their kids?

My problem is that until I moved to the hood a few months ago, my family and I were living in what could be called the Halloween capital of the world (West Hollywood). So naturally, a few weeks ago the kids started asking about our trick or treating plans for this year. It wasn’t easy to give them an answer.

I must admit, though, that I’m conflicted on this subject. As a grown up, I find the Halloween rituals empty and idiotic, not to mention unhealthy. But there’s the problem of this little voice that reminds me of how much I loved it when I was a kid — how my brother and I would spend weeks preparing our Batman and Robin costumes, and how we got such a kick walking with my father (an Orthodox Jew) in the neighborhood instead of doing our homework, and then getting free candy!

So what do I tell the kids? Real Jews don’t trick or treat? Wait until Purim? I know you did it last year but now we’re in a new neighborhood?

I talked with some perfectly coiffed frum supermoms of the hood, and just as I suspected, they all said pretty much the same thing: Halloween is a non-issue. Nobody tricks or treats around here; it’s a vile, dumb holiday. (Hey, who am I to argue?)

A few days before Halloween, though, I got an inkling that my new neighborhood might still, somehow, come to my rescue.

Lately my kids have been spending a lot of time with new friends they have made on our block. On the Shabbat before Halloween, I overheard one of my kids bring up the subject of trick or treating with these new observant friends, and I saw how they got virtually no reaction. I think this might have had an effect, since the subject didn’t come up for the next 24 hours — but I was certainly not out of the woods.

So I conspired with a supermom who is helping me plan a Halloween Seduction Prevention program for the big night. First, a weeknight play date (that’s a big deal), not too much fuss on the homework (also a big deal), roasting kosher marshmellows from Pico Glatt in the backyard (memories of summer, a really big deal), and, for the piece de resistance, TV watching on a weeknight! And if things get desperate, maybe we’ll do an art project and make some scary masks.

By the time you read this, the big night of ghosts and goblins will have come and gone, and I will know if the kids bought my Halloween hood alternative.

Either way, I can’t wait for Purim.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Hey Kids!

The Fire Within

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead, Harry. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right … and what is easy.”

These are the words of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the film “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth film based on the popular series of books by J.K. Rowling, which opens Nov. 18.

FYI: In Israel, the latest film is called “Harry Potter Ugevia Ha’Aish.”

Will you be seeing it?

Stump Your Parents

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” introduces a slew of new words and concepts. Quiz your parents, grandparents and older siblings and see if they know what is true and what is false. Are they as smart as Harry’s gal pal Hermione Granger or as clueless as Harry’s cousin, Dudley Dursley?

1) An auror is another name for the captain of the Quiddich team.

2) The only person to survive the Avada Kedavra, the killing curse, is Harry Potter.

3) The Death Eaters are the supporters of Lord Voldemort.

4) Gillyweed allows a person to fly.

5) The Floo Network is the No. 1 television channel in the wizarding world.

Bonus question: What three schools are in the Triwizard Tournament?

Jr. Sherlocks

Thanks to following eagle-eyed readers who spotted the error on last week’s Hey Kids: Ariel Weinreich, Ilan Elkabetz, Renina Michelson and Mimi Erlick.

Halloween Yes or No?

Mimi Erlick, 10, says: “It’s a pagan holiday, yes, but it’s turned into a Hallmark holiday and it doesn’t have much of a pagan theme anymore. I think that Jewish children should do Halloween. It’s not bad anymore.” Mimi went trick or treating in her neighborhood with two other Jewish families.

Kein v’ Lo

This section of the page will be a way for you to sound off on an issue. This month’s kein v’ lo (yes and no) is about Harry Potter. How does Harry Potter remind us about Jewish values? Is Harry Potter a positive influence for young Jews? Here’s some stuff to think about:

The Kein Side:

• Hogwarts is like a yeshiva where wizarding students go to learn. Learning there is hard work but important. That’s the way school should be.

• Harry’s nemesis Voldemort (aka “He Who Must Not Be Named”) is like Amalek, the evil force that tries to destroy the Jews in every generation. So the idea of an evil force makes sense for Jews.

• Harry bravely supports his friends and teachers, especially Dumbledore (who is like a rosh yeshiva, the wise and good leader of a school).

The Lo Side:


• The Torah forbids magic.: “When you come into the land … there shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination to God” (Deuteronomy 18:9-13).

• Harry Potter is set in a Christian world — with Christmas trees and Christmas presents. In the books and movies, it’s like other religions don’t even exist.

• The books are too violent, and Harry’s character sets a bad example by trying to solve dangerous problems himself, when he should call for the help of adults.

• Hogwarts and magic may seem like fun, but they aren’t real. Kids have to learn to value real life and real school. The real magic is how well you can live your life: how hard you work, how well you treat people – without using magic.

You debate, you decide. Remember, before you offer your opinion think hard about the other points of view. We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to with the subject line Kein V’Lo: Harry Potter.

Answers to Stump Your Parents

1) False (an auror is a wizard specializing in detecting and detaining dark wizards); 2) True; 3) True; 4) False (Gillyweed enables a person wizard to breathe underwater); 5) False (the Floo Network are navigable fireplaces); Bonus: Hogwarts, Durmstrang and Beauxbatons.

Hey Kids!

It’s Your World

Welcome to your page in The Jewish Journal. The last Friday of every month belongs to the kids of Jewish Los Angeles. In honor of the New Year and new look of this page, we want you to come up with a new name for it. Please send your ideas to with the subject line New Name. We’ll pick the best one and make it the new name for the kids page (and you’ll get all the credit).

Kein v’ Lo

The Kein Side:

Many children use the evening to collect tzedakah for different charities instead of asking for candy — or they donate the candy to a food bank. For most people, the holiday has nothing to do with religion or real witches or saints. It’s more of a chance to go out with friends, have fun and decorate. Besides, it’s a great way to meet your neighbors.

The Lo Side:

It is a pagan holiday (a night when people believed the spirits of the dead would contact the living) and a Catholic holiday (candles are lit Nov. 1 on All Saints’ Day to honor the dead), but Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish holidays. Asking strangers for candy is rude; and tricks are mean. Jewish children have Purim as a day to dress up.

What do you think. E-mail your thoughts to with the subject line

Kein V’Lo: Halloween. We’ll publish your opinions next month.

Stump Your Parents

Enjoy these facts about autumn — test your parents, grandparents and older siblings and see who gets the right answers first.

1) Which Hebrew month do we welcome in November?

2) How many weeks of autumn are there?

3) What is the full moon that follows the beginning of autumn?

4) What were the first jack-o-lanterns made from?

5) Who first suggested using Daylight Saving Time?

6) Why do the leaves change color?

7) In the Torah Portion Noach (which we read Nov. 5), God put up what object to show that everything was OK after the flood?

Answers: 1) Cheshvan; 2) Thirteen; 3) Harvest Moon; 4) Turnips; 5) Ben Franklin; 6) As the leaves lose chlorophyll (which makes them green) their other pigments
are exposed.; 7) A Rainbow

Trick or Treat?

I asked my long-time friend, "Are you a strict father?"

"Not really," he said, "but I wouldn’t let my daughter out for Halloween."

I asked why he had punished her.

"She wasn’t punished. I just couldn’t let her celebrate a Christian holiday."

Actually, Halloween is a 3,000-year-old Celtic holiday, which means it was invented long before Christianity. When the Christians gained power, they couldn’t get the Celts to forget about Halloween so they made a few changes and adopted it as their own.

"Halloween is a holiday for candy lovers," I told him. "And mimes." (A mime once told me that Halloween was the one night of the year he does not paint his face and speak to strangers.)

"It’s a Christian holiday," he said quietly but firmly.

Then I remembered something from our childhood: "I went trick-or-treating with you!"

"I didn’t know about it then," he admitted.

"Why not?"

"My parents never told me."

My best guess was that, as a child, he had mistakenly accepted and tasted about 1,000 pieces of Halloween candy.

Then I remembered something else from our childhood.

"Your uncle owned a candy factory," I said.

"The family candy factory had nothing to do with my parents allowing me to go out trick-or-treating," he insisted.

I began to fear for his 9-year-old daughter.

"The other Jewish kids will make fun of her," I said.

"Not all Jewish kids go out for Halloween," he retorted.

That much was growing clear. I had started out asking about his relationship with his little girl but now we were talking about which holidays were right or wrong in 21st century America.

"What about Thanksgiving?" I asked.

"Thanksgiving is fine," he replied. "And you’re invited."

"When I read about Thanksgiving in elementary school — and you were sitting next to me — I came across a bunch of Pilgrims," I continued, dismissing for the moment his wife’s sweet potato pie. "Pilgrims and Indians. Not one Jewish family in the bunch. Compare that to the Last Supper, where there were plenty of Jewish folks at the table."

"Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday," he claimed.

"Giving thanks to the Lord in prayer is what: nonreligious? A holiday for atheists, Pilgrims and Indians?"

I tried to explain to him that while religious holidays help preserve cultures within American society, national holidays relate to all Americans. Sharing holidays keeps us together, along with television.

"I don’t want my daughter relating to witches and ghosts," he explained.

The Celts believed that, on Halloween, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead became so thin that spirits could pass through in either direction.

"Halloween used to be about witches and ghosts," I reminded. "Back when they arrested people for writing down their dreams."

"Suppose, one day," he argued, quietly but firmly, "Christmas isn’t known as a Christian holiday? Do you go out and get a Christmas tree?"

"Anything that’s still got strong religious meaning," I decided, "is a religious holiday. Some folks have Easter; some have Passover. Every U.S. citizen has Independence Day, Groundhog Day and April Fools’ Day."

"And your favorite one is …?" he asked.

"Independence Day, naturally."

"Because of your great patriotism."

"And the extra day at the beach."

"So you wouldn’t get a Christmas tree in, say 30 years, when religion is hardly mentioned?"

Christmas — reduced to a marketing holiday?

"In 30 years, the Chinese New Year and Cinco de Mayo may be the two biggest holidays. And, if traffic allows," I revealed, "I’ll be visiting my family."

"We’re moving to Israel," he countered.

"By the time you move to Israel," I told my friend, "they may be celebrating holidays they share with their Palestinian neighbors."

I knew that wasn’t likely, but maybe it helped convince him to stay and help his fellow American Jews figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.

Meanwhile, whenever a child knocks on my door and says, "Trick or treat!" he or she is going to get some candy, not a lecture.

Don Rutberg is a USC grad who writes and teaches in Philadelphia. His latest book, “A Writer’s Survival Guide,” will be published in 2004 by Pale Horse Publishing.

ADL: December Dilemma

‘Tis the season when children in public schools face the December Dilemma. As part of a classroom lesson, Jewish youngsters may be given Christmas trees to color. During holiday music programs, they may find themselves acting in a nativity scene or singing “Silent Night.” Santa Claus may show up on campus, passing out candy canes and asking them what they want for Christmas.

Nor is the dilemma confined to Jews. Muslims and others must contend with the fact that from Halloween onward, many classrooms are focused almost entirely on the upcoming Christmas season. Even when teachers try to be ecumenical, they sometimes stumble. Instead of Christmas trees, they may pass out dreidel shapes to Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religion forbids them to celebrate any holidays at all.

At this tricky time of year, when everyone’s sensitivities are on high alert, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) looks out for flagrant abuses in public school classrooms. The ADL circulates a clearly-worded set of guidelines entitled “Religion in the Public Schools,” which spell out legal decisions pertaining to the separation of church and state. Organizational representatives are also ready to meet with teachers and principals to discuss specifics. ADL makes clear that the practice of religion during the school day violates the Constitution. It is, however, permissible to teach about holiday observances in a way that is neutral, historical, educational, and age-appropriate. Although some supposedly non-religious symbols of Christmas — like Christmas trees and Santa Claus — are legally acceptable as classroom décor, the ADL encourages a balanced approach that helps all children feel included.

ADL’s Western States Associate Counsel Tamar Galatzan fields phone calls from anxious parents of many backgrounds. Galatzan is well aware that the issues raised are thorny ones. Many Jewish parents, for instance, are satisfied if they can go into their child’s classroom and explain the rituals of Chanukah. Clearly, talk about latkes and gelt poses no problem. But what about displaying a menorah and describing the miracle of the oil? Last year, after a Jewish parent’s Chanukah presentation, a Christian mother demanded equal time to explain to the children the religious significance of Christmas.

On the job, Galatzan deals with several types of educators. Young teachers, fearful of giving offense, sometimes try to avoid holiday references altogether. Veterans may resist any changes to time-honored lesson plans, saying, “I’ve been teaching this lesson for 30 years and no one’s had a complaint.”

Galatzan emphasizes that most school personnel mean well. She recalls visiting a school in San Bernardino County where a prominent display illustrated how Christmas is celebrated around the world. One label read, “In Israel, it is called Chanukah.” When Galatzan pointed out that Chanukah is hardly the Israeli name for Christmas, the school principal was genuinely surprised. It’s important, feels Galatzan, to recognize that such errors are sometimes made “out of ignorance, not mean-spiritedness.”

Galatzan urges parents to be vigilant, and to contact the ADL when they have serious grievances. She also hints that it’s wise not to be too thin-skinned about such things as a Christmas tree in a classroom. She suggests that parents choose their battles carefully, perhaps saving their ammunition for more blatant forms of religious coercion.

The Anti-Defamation League can be reached at 310-446-8000.

It’s a Little Tricky

Once again we are faced with the annual dilemma of what to doabout Halloween. Should we let the kids “trick or treat” or not? Weknow that Halloween is not a Jewish holiday; that is not the problem.We celebrate Thanksgiving and Presidents Day, both American holidayswhich reflect good values. Halloween, on the other hand, does notreflect a value system that we would like to pass on to our children.It focuses on taking, greed and violence, not to mention theconsequences, a nasty trick, played on those who refuse to give.

My children attend a Jewish day-school where no attention is paidto the holiday. But we still experience the holiday in our suburbancommunity where party stores are transformed into haunted houses,street corners are dawned with pumpkin patches and everyone istalking about what they are going to be on Oct. 31.

In our home, where we believe the influence on values isstrongest, we play it down. No pumpkins or carving, no decorationsare displayed and very little attention is placed on costumes. Weeven relate the collecting of candy to the value of tzedakah(righteousness) by having the kids donate ten percent of their candyto a charity.

To counterbalance, we make a huge deal of all other Jewishholidays, particularly Purim. While we will spend money on a Purimcostume, anything laying around the house will have to do forHalloween. We give gifts, have lots of treats and host Purim parties.

Another subtle message is found in the garage. There, you can finda box designated for each Jewish holiday filled with paraphernalia.The boxes overflow; Passover and Hanukkah require two boxes each. Themessage is clear: we have a Purim box, but there is no box forHalloween.

And yet, we still struggle. I admit, although we move closer andcloser to our yiddishkeit, we are still assimilated.

This year presents us with something that can compete withHalloween — Shabbat! The perfect solution. The children loveShabbat. It’s our favorite time of the week — family, friends, goodfood, yummy desserts! What could be better? They’ll never missHalloween. So here is the plan: We are having a Shabbat Party. Theinvitation goes like this:

It’s a Shabbat Party

You’ll want to be there

But, regular clothes you mustn’t wear

Come dressed in a costume

be creative and fun

At the end of the dinner

We’ll pick the best one

The theme is of course JEWISH

be it hero, holiday, or food

Base your costume on your mood!

We’ll do the dinner, dessert,

treasure hunt, the whole thing

there’s just one thing you can bring —

A can for SOVA

will make us all smile

So come on October 31st

and party a while!!

At 5:30 p.m…

please knock on our door

We’ll light candles and a whole lot more.

Well, the response so far, a big hit! They can’t wait. My8-year-old daughter has announced she wants to dress as Hava, thedaughter in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Would this have been her firstchoice for a Halloween costume? It took Shabbat to help us through.

Risa Munitz-Gruberger is associate director of The WhizinInstitute.