What's A Jew To Do With The Pagan Pull Of Halloween?

When I was a painting major in high school, I was a nominally-affiliated Conservative Jew wrestling with a challenging conundrum. What image should I choose for my inevitable tattoo? My entire peer group was preoccupied with the counter-culture of punk, and it was a given that either a piercing or tattooing was a de rigeur part of our misfit identity.

No matter how many images I poured over, I simply could not decide. Would it be an exploding head by Ralph Steadman or maybe a decomposing skull by Pushead? You get the picture; the more macabre the better!

SamhainBandAt the same time as I was agonizing over the tattoo image short list, I immersed myself in the most morose punk rock and death metal known to mankind. There was something about the wild and ecstatic sonic energy of the Misfits (1977-1983), for example, that drew me to a weekly mosh pit filled with thrashing dancers — this, I suppose, was my search for community. At some point, I stumbled onto a later incarnation of the Misfits known as Samhain (1983-1989), featuring lead singer Glenn Danzig, Eerie Von on both bass and drums, as well as other motley members. Samhain performed harrowing hits like "All Hell," "Bloodfeast," "Die, Die, My Darling," "Death Comes Ripping," and of course "Halloween II." I was totally absorbed by this celebration of the un-dead world, and I became curious about where this music and art was drawing its inspiration from -- what exactly is Samhain?

Who better to turn to for an answer than Philip Carr-Gomm, the Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Writing about the Paleopagan and Mesopagan druids in Britain, Carr-Gomm reflects:

"Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November, was a time of no-time…the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en." (Philip Carr-Gomm, The Elements of the Druid Tradition, 1991)

Etching-Druid-Samhain-FestivalAt the time, I lacked the self-awareness to understand what it was about the counter-cultural adaptation of Samhuinn that held such sway over my peers and myself (never mind the power of the same impulse, mutatis mutandi, in Judaism, which is most apparent during the carnivalesque of Purim!) But given the anxieties of high school and the unmoored search for meaning, we were regularly swimming in creative chaos, a seemingly endless stretch of "time that is no-time." But Carr-Gomm expands on this concept:

"But behind this apparent lunacy lay a deeper meaning. The druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the 'other side.'" (Philip Carr-Gomm, The Elements of the Druid Tradition)

The argument Carr-Gomm presents is of a druid culture that is really more about life than death. These pagan rites were really focused on making contact with the spirits of the departed as sources of guidance rather than dread. The druids needed to connect to the “root-wisdom of the tribe” not as something dead, but "as the living spirits of loved ones." I found this idea very compelling, and it opened the door for me to turn back to Judaism.

That "slight, small turn" -- what the Kotzker rebbe called ein klein drei -- is all it took! I spent the next chapter of my search for meaning in and out of different ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic yeshivot (study academies), shteiblach (small, "old school" synagogues), and even Carlebach camp at Rainbow Festival, searching for the root-wisdom of my own tribe not as dead (which is how I was encountering religion in its institutionalized forms), but "as the living spirits of loved ones."

Still, even as I began to explore the riches of the Jewish world, I progressed deeper into the macabre counter-culture of Samhain. Eventually, I was invited by a close punk friend, S.M., to listen to Reign in Blood, a new record by the death metal band Slayer. I remember sitting in his broken-down, Section 8 housing as the lyrics of the album's opening song, "Angel of Death," started screeching from his turntable:

"Auschwitz, the meaning of pain
The way that I want you to die
Slow death, immense decay
Showers that cleanse you of your life
Forced in
Like cattle
You run
Stripped of
Your life's worth
Human mice, for the Angel of Death
Four hundred thousand more to die"

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1993-051-07,_Tafel_mit_KZ-Kennzeichen_(Winkel)_retouchedThese words written by Slayer guitarist and lead-vocalist, Jeff Hanneman, scorched my soul. I immediately got up and left, nauseated. Perhaps that was the point -- to reach the point beyond meaning which is nausea. The systematic tattooing of prisoners at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex (including Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz) set it apart as an experience beyond any common notion of pain or humiliation; in that respect, at least, Slayer was partially right. Prior to tattooing, upon arrival at the concentration camp, prisoners were issued their numbers. These were sewn to their uniforms, along with different shapes, symbols, and letters identifying status, nationality, and religion of the prisoner.

Prisoners selected for immediate extermination were almost never assigned numbers—after all, that would have been a waste! This history alone should have been enough to nauseate me and any of my friends, preventing us from considering anything resembling a tattoo. (Indeed, I recall another Jewish friend, A., who had tattooed most of his body when he became a skin-head in high school and then spent the next decade in laser surgery to remove every last trace.) Nausea can compell choices and actions; as I was to learn later from Emmanuel Levinas, writing as a soon-to-be-survivor of the Shoah in 1935, nausea, along with pleasure, were two visceral emotions that lead us to escape from being:

"There is in nausea a refusal to remain there, an effort to get out. Yet this effort is already characterized as desperate: in any case, it is so for any attempt to act or think. And this despair, this fact of being riveted, constitutes all the anxiety of nausea. In nausea -- which amounts to an impossibility of being what one is -- we are at the same time riveted to ourselves, enclosed in a tight circle that smothers." (Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape).

As the depths of my soul were being smothered in high school by this counter-cultural being-towards-death, my malaise had reached its limit and my innards were heaving outwards, propelling me along a new pathway of meaning. As I wended my way through university, eventually focusing on French language and literature, I became drawn to that same Jewish philosopher, Levinas, who escaped the clutches of Nazi genocide. Levinas’ courage to continue embracing life in the face of death, to see that beyond the slaughterhouse of Nazism an ethical first philosophy was still possible -- this gave me renewed hope as a Jewish philosopher. I came to the realization that the impossibility of choosing one image was now irrelevant; I would now never scratch an image into my skin for life -- the tattoo came to seem utterly banal. How I came to this realization without yet knowing of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), where she coined the controversial term describing the unthinking, mindlessness of the Third Reich’s leaders like Eichmann as "the banality of evil" still shocks me.

So here we are in American Jerusalem on erev-All Hallow's Eve, being pushed and pulled in so many directions as Jews. I see the terrified look in the faces of a visiting Israeli family here for just six months, trying to make sense of the mayhem about to unfold. "What should we do with our children?," they ask me. This is their welcome to San Francisco; for those new to American culture, it can be a scare. Far away from their homeland, this family has landed in the heart of another holy land called American Post-Judaism -- as Shaul Magid courageously reminds us in his book of the same title. Yet, despite the horrors of the latest stats, the family is in search of itself and meaning. How can they resist the pull of paganism and reclaim and redeem the foundations of Jewish monotheism from the shadow of "the Mosaic distinction," that moment when an earlier inclusive monotheism was eclipsed by a more exclusivist monotheism? By embracing cosmotheism, a theology that posits that "the divine world (or cosmos) and the world we live in are inextricably intertwined" according to Magid. But cosmotheism remains largely undiscovered.

So, this year, as my nine-year-old daughter pulls at my sleeve to take her out to "trick or treat," I am gentle, but firm in reminding her that if we do go, it will be nothing more than a dress rehearsal for Purim, our day of redemption — a time beyond time — beyond good and evil, when the divine cannot be divorced from the world.

Image credits: 1) Original concert photo of band Samhain taken April of 1986 in a tiny club in Columbus, Ohio; J Fotoman; 2) Colored etching of a Celtic Druid Samhain festival at Stonehenge, uncredited and undated; 3) Nazi camp ID emblems in a 1936 German illustration, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license; 4) Halloween trick-or-treaters, photo by Pictoscribe (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)