By Hannah Reich Berman
A newly acquired friend of mine, Angie, is an Italian Catholic girl who had never been around a Jew before she met me. We met at a Weight Watchers meeting and after listening to her dieter’s tale of woe, it dawned on me that Italians, with their large and lengthy family dinners, rival Jews in the eating department any day of the week. At the weekly meetings, I sit near my friends, many of whom happen to be Orthodox Jews, and Angie has recently joined our little group. Recently, after a meeting, she took me aside to ask the following questions: “Hannah, exactly what is Shabbos and what is the difference between a long one and a short one? And why do some of your friends prefer the long Shabbos because they get a fuller Friday while others prefer the short Shabbos because they get a longer Saturday night?” After I stopped laughing, I reminded her that Fridays and Saturdays are like every other day of the week; they are ‘shorter’ in the winter when darkness falls early and ‘longer’ in the summer, when it does not. She didn’t quite get it until I explained to her that the Jewish day begins (and ends) at sundown.
To the best of my (somewhat limited) ability, and because my new friend was fascinated by all of this, I taught her about the meaning of Shabbos and its observance. She nearly fell over when she learned that, in addition to not cooking on Shabbos, we do not write, use the telephone, or get into a car (or any other moving vehicle). We also do not use any electricity. “Not even television, the computer, or an iPad?” she asked in astonishment. “And this is every week of the year?” I explained that yes, it is a weekly deal. As Orthodox Jews, we rarely stop to think about it, but the list of restrictions is a long one. Angie listened and her comment was, “So basically you guys have a voluntary 24-hour power outage every week.” I laughed again and told her that was correct but for the fact that it is actually a 25-hour period.
At a recent Weight Watchers meeting, when the topic of the lecture was about how members would deal with all the candy that will come into their homes on Halloween, I whispered to Angie that we Jews had already had our food challenge for the season. It was on Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, both of which were now behind us. When I told her that it had been a series of three, three-day, challenges, she wanted to know how we got through it. I answered her honestly. “I have no idea.” Then I said that at least we don’t celebrate Halloween. But I admitted that, once upon a time, I did just that.
As a young child, I was always giddy with anticipation of Halloween. My family was observant. But my parents, who were not American born, assumed that Halloween was a ritual marking the start of the harvest season. So we were allowed to participate. In September, after the long, carefree summer days had ended and as I was in the process of adjusting to the restrictions of school, my mind would race ahead to October 31. The thoughts of goblins and goodies brightened dreary school days and by the first of the month I would scan the calendar to make sure that the 31st didn’t fall on a Friday. That would have meant no trick-or-treating for me as it was understood that running around the street in a costume and collecting candy was not exactly a Shabbosdik activity. This year it does fall out on a Friday so I would have been one unhappy camper. But if Halloween fell on any other night, my sister and I were allowed to participate. The fact that this was a pagan celebration formerly known as All Hallows Eve (or All Saints Eve) escaped us. We also did not realize that much of the candy we ate was probably not kosher!
My friends and I would spend dreamy hours deciding what kind of costume we each wanted. I have no idea why I bothered to dream because my sister and I wore the exact same thing every year. Our next-door neighbor had generously given my mother two bunny rabbit outfits that her children had outgrown. They were worn out schmattes, complete with cottontail, whiskers, and big floppy pink ears. We wore them every Halloween for years. When I outgrew my costume, I went on to something more sophisticated, but when my younger sister outgrew hers, she got stuck wearing mine for another three years. Buying a Halloween costume was not a high priority in my family’s budget.
By the middle of October, we and our friends would map out a route for candy collection and, on the big night, we traveled in a pack. There were seven of us and we all remembered from the previous year who gave out candy and who did not. We would skip the houses where we knew that all we could expect was a ‘plain ole apple’ as we referred to it. And we often added a step to our routine by hitting some houses twice. With a bit of larceny in our little hearts, we returned to the houses where the occupants had given us our favorite candy and we hoped for a second helping. We would get that second helping, provided we were not recognized! But two bunny rabbits, a little ghost, a chubby fairy princess, a tall witch, a skinny Superman, and a short pirate make a rather conspicuous group. We hoped that a different person would answer the door on our second visit. I remember one man was just about to give us the goodies when he called out to his wife, “Edna, come see these adorable kids in their costumes.” The jig was up! We knew his wife would remember that we’d already been there. So we ran like bandits—without the candy.
Our strategy was simple. We walked up one side of our street and down the other and we grumbled every time we came to a darkened house. We used the expression “trick or treat” but we were innocent young children and didn’t even know what the expression meant. Even when no one came to the door, we never played a trick. We rang every doorbell on the block before the seven of us returned to someone’s house where we all sat in a circle on the floor, spilled out the contents of our bags, and began the swapping. The trading that went on at that powwow would have been an inspiration to any self-respecting broker.
Sadly, the world is no longer a safe place. Parents need to be concerned about razor blades in apples, candy that’s been tampered with, and strangers grabbing children off the street. It seems that monsters really do exist after all. So today’s youngsters do their ‘trick or treating’ only when accompanied by an adult, and all of it is done before nightfall.
The passage of years, and the fact that I have long known that Halloween is a holiday which Jews do not celebrate, has done nothing to dim my warm memories. I confess that, even today, I enjoy the sight of pumpkins, witches’ hats, and broomsticks. It reminds me of a time when I loved going out in the dark, with my friends, and traipsing down the street dressed as a bunny rabbit. Childhood memories are precious. So every October, when I see festoons of black and orange crepe paper and large candy displays in store windows, it reminds me, not only of the fun I once had on Halloween, but of my parents who were uninformed and thought that it was a celebration of the harvest.
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and is a licensed real-estate broker associated with Marjorie Hausman Realty. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-902-3733.