November 18, 2019

Trick or Treat or Stale Pita Bread

Photo from Flickr

When my family arrived in the United States, we stopped celebrating Purim and started to take an interest in Halloween.

In hindsight, it was a sad fact that as newly arrived Persian Jews, we completely lost touch with Purim, the one Jewish holiday whose hero, heroine and antagonist were Persian. On the other hand, American culture is hard to resist. In fact, I’m glad we arrived in the U.S. months before Christmas, otherwise we may have taken a real interest in eggnog (the horror) and Christmas trees. For a refugee family, television, consumerism and whatever television passionately instructs you to buy as consumers is the first step in becoming real Americans.

That first Halloween, our parents couldn’t justify spending money on “fake clothes” that we would wear for only one day, and they were even more opposed to buying expensive candy that we would give away for free on our doorstep. We didn’t realize we were supposed to provide something for trick-or-treaters until a few minutes before they arrived, which explains why every child (and a few adults) who knocked on our door on Oct. 31, 1989, were treated to cut-up slices of stale pita bread. The look on their faces matched the one of horror on my father’s face as he watched his precious pita leave the apartment in the entitled hands of little penguins and someone we later learned was called a “gremlin.”

The next year, we took a stab at the Halloween spirit: We didn’t buy candy but at least I had a costume (a witch) — except I wasn’t allowed to go trick-or-treating because I had to stay home and feed cubes of raw steak into the meat grinder for kabobs the next day. American kids had their chores, and I had mine.

Did an Iranian Jewish family have any business celebrating Halloween customs while not giving two figs about Purim five months later? I don’t know. Halloween originated with an ancient festival when Celts wore costumes to ward off ghosts. We could identify with that, given that back in post-revolutionary Iran, women wore the mandatory hijab to ward off the dreaded “Modesty Police.” Of course, our version of having people who knocked on our doors and “tricked” us if we didn’t give them what they wanted often resulted in arrest, torture or bribery. I guess in the bribery department, there were similarities with Halloween.

Did an Iranian Jewish family have any business celebrating Halloween customs while not giving two figs about Purim five months later?

When I became a young woman, I associated Halloween with only one thing: Once a year, I actually was expected to dress immodestly, and even then, I really just wanted to dress up like Frankenstein.

These days, I’m over the macabre fascination with horror and death that accompanies Halloween. I’m dealing with a mortgage and the state’s drought. I want fewer skeletons on my front lawn and more budget-friendly fake grass.

Also, I now celebrate Purim, so once a year I still get to wear costumes and stuff myself with sugary foods until the zippers on the Frankenstein costume start to give.

I like Purim because it celebrates life and survival, which, when compared with the frights and fun darkness of Halloween, isn’t very sexy. I get it.

More than anything, I like that Purim invites us to give, whereas Halloween urges us to take. Sure, buying candy and giving it to total strangers is a form of giving, but there’s a reason it’s called “trick-or-treating”: not every home escapes being “tricked” with toilet paper, eggs or worse. And when those grubby hands reach for that Halloween candy, boy, do they take.

To welcome Purim, I accompany our children when they knock on doors, wholly ready to give little mishloach manot baskets, and not expect anything in return. Giving freely, especially to the needy, is an unnegotiable value in our home.

Here’s my challenge to Jews who celebrate Halloween: Have a blast and enjoy, and five months from now, find ways to celebrate Purim, too. You can even dress up as a “sexy Haman.” Just make sure you don’t get too close to the rabbi.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.