Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The New Halloween

LAST SUNDAY I WENT WITH MY FAMILY to the Bronx Zoo, and suddenly Purim broke out. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, I am used to seeing the paraphernalia all around, and children in costume for weeks on end. However, it seems to me that Halloween has changed. Halloween used to represent cartoonish gore, a mixture of carved-out pumpkins, bats and cobwebs. It used to be Casper the Friendly Ghost. Halloween is now Tim Burton. Walking around the Bronx Zoo, I was struck by how realistic the imagery was. It was replete with tombstones, lifelike corpses and skeletons, and dismembered limbs. It has gone from cute and scary to gory and morbid.

You can now find Halloween depictions like the one below across the country. What has changed? Why has Halloween become so morbid?

When we try to understand the greatness of our patriarch Avraham, we must take into account his social context. The Talmud is Avodah Zarah (19a) explains that Avraham lived during two of the most persuasive societies we have ever seen. He lived during the generation that built the Tower of Bavel, and he rejected their forced collectivity. It wasn’t only Avraham. At the end of Parshat Noach (10:11-12) we learn that Ashur went and built big cities, especially the city of Ninveh, which we know from the book of Jonah. Rashi (quoting the Midrash) says that Ashur saw that his sons were getting swept up in the culture of Nimrod and wanted to join the group building the Tower of Bavel, he decided to pick up his family, move far away and start a new town, a new society. That is why the city of Ninveh was so dear to Hashem and why Jonah was sent to tell them to repent, its origins were pure and holy.

Avraham fought that culture, and then encountered the city of Sodom, a wealthy and influential society that demanded complete loyalty to its ideals. Avraham was able to fight all of this and still be true to his own beliefs and show a willingness to promote them as well.

We might think this is simple, but only because we fail to realize how overpowering society’s beliefs can be. Twenty years ago it was socially acceptable to smoke on airplanes, now it is anathema. We were just as aware of the dangers of smoking twenty years ago, but society’s tolerance for public smoking was much greater.
I think we have seen a societal transformation with Halloween as well. The gruesomeness of modern day Halloween is part of a larger trend. We have taken a collective oath that we will all live forever. It is impolite to look at it any other way. We have become a society that has trouble dealing with death. As chronicled in this Sunday’s New York Times article “The Dead Have Something to Tell You”, we are pushing all forms of death farther and father to the margins of society. We simply don’t encounter death as a part of life, and it is giving us a skewed sense of our own mortality.

When we say that “40 is the new 20” and “60 is the new 40”, we are really showing how terrified we are of aging, and how we want to distance ourselves from our own mortality. This fear of death begins to come out in other ways, and our fear of our own mortality begins to seep into our culture. We might deny its existence, or turn it into a game or even a joke, thereby bringing our fears to light is a way that protects our fragile state of mind. Video games have become shockingly graphic in their violence, and movies are in a constant competition of one-upsmanship in who can create the most realistic and gory film.

Halloween has followed the same pattern. Our growing fear and discomfort with death have given rise to the morbid Halloween. No matter how bizarre and inappropriate it seems. When we don’t encounter death in our lives, and aren’t at peace with our mortality, then those fears come out in these bizarre ways.

The horrific tragedy that happened last week to the Krim family took place a block from our Shul. Many people in our community either knew them or have surely passed them on the streets. We all just encountered death in a very real and tragic way. It is unconscionable to me that less than a week after this tragedy people will walk the street celebrating death and having fun. It is truly twisted and perverse.

There was a young woman in my community in San Francisco who was diagnosed with having severe seizures, and she lived her life never knowing when the next one would come. She was painfully aware of her mortality. She was the happiest person I ever met. Her glowing smile never left her face. She came to every Torah class, volunteered for every Chessed opportunity and worked harder than anyone I have ever known. At the tender age of 26 she died in her sleep. At her funeral I read something she had written on her Facebook page, that teaches us all that to really live life, you need to have a healthy understanding that you will not live forever.

She wrote:

You'll cry because time is passing too fast, and you'll eventually lose someone you love. So take too many pictures, laugh too much, and love like you've never been hurt because every sixty seconds you spend upset is a minute of happiness you'll never get back. Don't be afraid that your life will end, be afraid that it will never begin.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is Rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.