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When Monsters Lurk in Every Shadow

When Monsters Lurk in Every Shadow

Are you threatened by someone who has different beliefs than you?


Every year at Halloween, my wife and I lay in a supply of candy for the trick-or-treaters who come knocking at our door, even though neither we nor our children observe the rituals of the day. Only once did we fail in our preparations: that was the year we forgot to brief our four-year-old son on the creepy customs of this curious festival.

Shortly after dark, I watched from the window as the first of our nocturnal visitors arrived, alighting from a minivan that idled beside the curb and swiftly approaching our front door. The doorbell rang, and my son raced to answer it, excited only by the prospect of an unexpected visitor.

Imagine his surprise, upon throwing open the door, to find himself face to face with a 4-foot-high Frankenstein's monster complete with rubbery green skin, oozing stitches, and bolts protruding from its neck. Imagine further the surprise of our gruesome little guest when he stepped forward with his bag held open, only to receive a two handed shove in the chest and have the door slammed in his face by a ferocious four-year-old shrieking, "Monsters!"

Young Frankenstein took off toward his car at full flight, also screaming, "Monsters!"

We sorted the matter out and little Frankenstein got his Milk Duds, but it was a long time before my son was willing to answer the door again. That's a normal response, for a four-year-old. I have to wonder, however, if we aren't all spending far too much time peering out from behind our curtains and seeing monsters lurking in every shadow.

The simple minds of children sort out the dichotomy of their worlds in the most rudimentary fashion: us and them, superheroes and monsters, good guys and bad guys. And the good guys always wear white.

As we grow up, however, we should come to appreciate that the world is considerably more complex, that the good guys don't always look like us and the bad guys sometimes do. Unfortunately, by longing for the simplicity of childhood, many adults cling to an either/or view of the world as unsophisticated as a child's. And although childishness in children may be cute, in adults it is not only embarrassing, but dangerous.

The desire for a return to simplicity is easily understood. As technology and social evolution spin our world around faster and faster, people are seeking common belief, common culture, and common interest to steady them against the storm. Indeed, cultural continuity and a sense of community are among the most stabilizing factors within families and society. But when we begin to feel threatened in our own beliefs and insecure in our own cultures simply because others are expressing their beliefs and cultures in their own way, then culture becomes a battlefront across which enemies stand ready to attack.

The Talmud says, "Know how to answer a heretic."

One response to this kind of uneasiness is to become a universalist. "I'm okay, you're okay, and everyone else is okay, too." The only one not okay is the one who passes judgment on others. This is a comforting philosophy, which may explain its popularity. It also explains a report last year that teachers in high school and college failed to persuade a large percentage of their students to take a stand in condemnation of Hitler's Nazis: by refusing to concede that one ideology is better or worse than any other, the students eliminated the need of ever having to defend their own.

A second response calls for a good offense as the best defense. By attacking the shortcomings of others, I deflect attention away from my own. It doesn't take much imagination, either, since virtually every religion and culture has enough dirty laundry to provide any supermarket-aisle tabloid with a supply of juicy banner headlines. But all that soiled laundry, aired in the light of day, only feeds our mistrust and paranoia, without providing any direction toward cleaning up the messes that we have made ourselves.

The only reasoned response to cultural insecurity and, as such, the most difficult, is for all of us to study and learn about our respective cultures and ideologies well enough that we immunize ourselves against the xenophobia that results from ambivalence in our convictions. When I truly understanding my own identity, my heritage, and my beliefs, when I take responsibility for my faults and begin working to correct them, only then can I move toward confidently separating attitudes that are wrongheaded from those that merely differ from my own.

"Know how to answer a heretic," the Talmud says. You don't necessarily have to engage him in debate, but you do have to know, for your own peace of mind, why his beliefs differ from yours. Without such knowledge, we are helpless to discern what hides behind the masks all around us, helpless to recognize the difference between dangerous fanatics and simple neighbors, between real monsters and children whose only wish is that we add a little sweetness to their lives.

October 22, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 10

(9) Anonymous, November 3, 2008 11:15 AM

Very disapointed in this article

This holiday has nothing to do with cute little children dressed in costumes, this was the holiday when they KILLED Jews under disguise, it's a Christian-Pagan ghoulish "All night souls" celebration. We as regular Jews have to fight hard enough not to succumb to the Christian environment, we don't need an esteemed rabbi to tell us that he partakes in this holiday, even though only in tangent.

(8) Anonymous, October 31, 2008 2:10 PM

Boundaries are healthy.

This is an excellent article. While it may be true that the origins of halloween have been diluted and played down over time, this isn’t a sign to celebrate the loss of meaning because that would encourage a mind set that “if it didn’t happen to me, I don’t have any responsibility to recall the past or to do anything about the influence the present has on the future”. My main concern these days is the outcome of the holiday – and just for the record, this used to be my favorite holiday of the entire year. For all of my life it was a holiday that never let me down, New Year's Eve never lived up to its hype, but halloween was always festive and fun. However, how long into my adulthood am I going to participate in a meaningless night where more often than not, people get hurt - either by drinking too much, partying too hard, or by careless stunts? Is this what America needs in a holiday?? More superficiality, distractions, carelessness, and reckless behavior? Are these the values we want to emulate or teach to our children? Am I an American Jew or a Jewish American? I can celebrate my Jewish Holidays in most any country, but if I were in Israel or Australia or Greece right now, would I be walking around in a costume to celebrate my American Holiday of Halloween?? No. If, chas v'shalom, a beloved family member of mine were to have been murdered or victimized on this holiday, would I continue to celebrate it in the way America says I should, with candy and parties? No, I would recall the legacy of my family member and commemorate their life because I have pride in being related and connected to the past through their memory. Since I am a part of the Jewish People, and Jewish people were attacked, killed and harassed during this holiday IN America...then why would I want to celebrate it or be a part of a day that has caused pain to my family? I don't think my belief in Hashem is too fragile to fear a child in a spiderman costume, but we aren’t talking about spidey, we are not that naïve. I do fear what continuing to down-play the significance of what being Jewish in America means to the Jewish People, let alone the values in American society.

(7) suzi, October 31, 2008 1:31 PM

evil spirits? really?

in response to muman613's comment, how much of evil spirits there really are in Barney and princess constumes? come on! i don't think the article or the issue has anything to do with representations. the issue is knowing our "costumes". especially for children, learning our traditions should come before "americana", whoever innocent it is.

(6) Joe, October 30, 2008 12:39 PM

Halloween, as it is today, is not pagan

Yes, of course, Halloween has pagan origins. I doubt that you could find a single kid in a costume who could tell you about them or who feels any connection to them. At this point, is is nothing more or less than a bit of Americana. To those concerned about loosing their Jewish identities I ask the following question respectfully: Is your belief in Hashem so fragile that you can be challenged by an eight year old in a Spiderman costume? Is Hashem, master of the universe, so weak that He could be tumbled by an exchange of snickers bars? What are you afraid of?

Anyomous _ Jerusalem, October 27, 2013 8:10 PM

horrible holiday

I grew up in the States and think that Halloween is a creepy and horrible holiday. Witches, monsters, trick or treat, if they didn't get the treat they wanted there would be a "trick". Sometimes just chalking up the door, but the older kids would slash tires. We always had a big basket of candies, etc., that we gave out generously. Also, we made sure to be home, because who knows what they would do if no one answered the door, as happened here and there to our neighbors. And I grew up in a good neighborhood. No, we were not afraid of losing our Jewish identity, nor was our belief in H-shem fragile, chas v'chalila. We didn't want to be part of that "culture" and all that it stands for . We didn't want, and we were not afraid to say so, any form of assimilation. There is so much real, deep joy in Judaism that we weren't even attracted to that emptiness, which was actually repulsive to us. We just to stay happily at home, hand out the candy, and say, "Baruch Hashem sh'lo asani....."

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