Indeed, it was quite a party. While there were the expected ghosts, goblins and skeletons, for me the most frightening were the numerous brides, bedecked in all their finery. I don't mean the zombie brides (appearing not dissimilar to Fruma Sarah) – and there were many of these – but for me the un-bloodied were even more frightening. Indeed, many times we would see four or five walking disconsolately together, appearing to me like a convention of jilted brides, without a groom in sight. (Apparently it has become a Japanese Halloween custom for a group of friends to dress in similar costumes).
For the young, I think un-costumed Shelley and I provided a good bit of amusement, not because we were foreign (there were plenty of costumed young men and women from outside Japan), but rather for our age. I think we could have given nearly everyone twenty-five, if not thirty years. Many seemed to wonder as they offered us a shy English greeting of “Happy Halloween,” what these doddering old people were doing at their party. One considerate young man even wanted to help me as I climbed up a small wall to get a better angle for pictures, and looked concerned when I decided it was time to climb (unaided) down.
In a way Halloween is the antithesis of normal Japanese life. As I looked at the massed twenty-something youths, I thought of how most of them would look on Monday. The young men would all be wearing their regulation off-the-rack suits, with white shirts and regimental ties, and the young women would all be wearing their normal dark shade business attire. Halloween in Japan is a time to let loose. It is perhaps a healthy safety valve, which provides a moment of escape from all expectation and conformity.
I have been asked many times as a rabbi if Jewish children should participate in the fun and games of Halloween. Isn’t it a Christian or even a Pagan festival? To me, these questions represent an unhealthy fear of the outside world, as if trick-or-treating and a jack-o-lantern are a form of spiritual contamination. (I think the same misplaced fear is also evidenced by those in other traditions that worry about Halloween and devil worship, or forbid the Harry Potter books based on similar reasoning). The connection of Halloween to its Christian and ancient pagan roots is tangential at best. While it may have, at one time, been a religious observance, today it is a secular childhood (or in Japan young adult) celebration. Costumes, pumpkins, and a reasonable amount of candy are not the greatest spiritual dangers of our time.
Unlike Japan, the Jewish tradition is not well stocked with monsters, and most are a legacy from the very distant past. Our golems have morphed into super heroes, and even our quintessential villainess demon Lilith has changed her stripes and become (I can’t say in this context domesticated) the standard bearer of Jewish feminism.
Yet the evil and danger often represented by Yokai and monster still remains, and like in Japan, the monsters are all around us. On Halloween children dress as demons, goblins, angels and heroes reminding us of the bifurcation of human nature. Each of us has a Yetzer hatov (the propensity, urge and ability to do good in the world) and a Yetzer hara (the propensity, urge and ability to do evil in the world). Yes, the monsters are all around us, for we are both the angels, monsters and everything in between. The Jewish tradition reminds us, however, that each of us has the free will to decide between these two extremes; indeed this is what it means to be created in the image of the divine. We are not fated to be either good or evil, the choice is left to each of us. Our tradition teaches that each mitzvah (good choice) we make leads to the next and also strengthens the good within us, and sadly conversely each averah (bad choice) strengthens the evil within us. Likewise good and evil choices by humanity as a whole strengthen either the good or evil in the world. Tikkun Olam (the human task to repair of the world) challenges us to make the good choices and to hear the voice within us, which pushes us to love, and to care; to make the choices that create a better world not only for ourselves but also for all its residents.