Friday, October 30, 2015


It's October 30.  Tomorrow night is Halloween.  We don't get too many Trick or Treaters at our house, but Halloween raises interesting challenges for Jews. 

Has Halloween become a secular observance like Thanksgiving for everyone to observe?  Most of us don't think twice about Valentine's day as a day for sending notes or flowers though we all know it's really St. Valentine's Day.  (Most authorities question whether there ever was a St. Valentine altogether.)

When I was maybe 9 or 10 growing up in San Francisco, one year the parents gathered all the kids on the block and paraded us in our costumes in the small grocery parking lot on the corner.  I'm sure I was the only Jewish kid.  I remember overhearing several parents quietly complaining about the Fogiottos, a religious Catholic family that dressed their kids in religious costumes: a priest, a nun, a monk.  "Why," they asked, "did the Fogiottos have to make this event religious?"  I remember agreeing with them.  Only much later did I come to appreciate that the Fogiottos had it right.  Halloween is a religious holiday.

So, should we abstain as most Jews do from Easter and Christmas?  Or should we conclude that Halloween or All Hallow's Eve has lost its religious meaning?

As indicated above I went out trick or treating.  My mother was a master craftsperson.  She hand- made all of my costumes, which were then handed down to all the relatives and friends.  There was the cute clown costume, and the Dutch boy costume complete with wooden shoes, etc.  When Carol and I had children I took them trick or treating.  (I grew up on a block with many children and where the houses were close together.  Each year I rang doorbells for several blocks bringing home quite a loot..  When our oldest Ari was ready to go out in a suburban neighborhood where the houses were on 3/4 acre plots, I remember being disappointed when Ari said he was tired after only hitting four or five houses!)

But some Jewish parents take the position that Halloween is not for Jewish children.  Cantor Shivers did not take her kids out on Halloween, but remained at home and made sure to distribute candy to anyone who came to her door.

So here's the dilemma.  If you decide not to engage in Halloween festivities because it is a Christian or even pagan observance, should you behave as Cantor Shivers or keep your porch light off and not engage in this silliness at all?  One might legitimately decide that none of this is for Jews. Period.  Alternatively one might decide that from a Jewish perspective it is important for me to be a good neighbor.  I live in a mixed neighborhood of mostly non-Jews.  It is incumbent upon me to participate even if just to give out candy.  Or one can avoid the entire matter and go out to the movies.

I wonder what our Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu neighbors do?  Do atheists observe Halloween?      


Everyone Carol knows asks her what it's like to have her husband home all the time.  And she readily admits that I'm not home that much.  Well, the truth is that I am home somewhat more than pre-retirement. However I find myself pleasantly busy.  With what? All kinds of good things.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of officiating at Linda Shivers and Albert Kolkin's wedding along with Linda's brother.  I have officiated at weddings of immediate family which is one of the enormous perks of being a rabbi, but never before at the wedding of someone I worked closely with as a professional partner for close to 20 years. 

At Rabbi Stampfer's suggestion we are both teaching "Emeritai Classes" on Thursday mornings.  I teach from 9:15-10:15am and he then teaches from 10:30-11:30am.  In my class we are studying "The Jewish Mind" by Raphael Patai, a fascinating exploration of the intellectual and cultural encounters that Jews have had through the centuries and how Jews balanced the attractions of assimilation while maintaining our distinct identity. Rabbi Stampfer and I both have challenges keeping our classes to just one hour.  I also continue to teach my Bible class,  We recently concluded the Book of Esther and now are engaged in understanding Deuteronomy.

The Oregon Food Bank has also captured my imagination.  I sit on both its Board of Directors and Executive Committee.  OFB is an enormously impressive organization.  With an annual budget of over $20,000,000, the organization is dedicated not only to feeding the hungry, but to get at the root causes of hunger: everything from proper health care and nutrition to productive employment.  I sit on the Board Advocacy Committee and chair CEO evaluation committee.  Once a month I get right in there distributing 4 tons of produce in a program called Harvest Share, our small piece of the program chaired by Barb Schwartz.  I am overwhelmed to learn that 50% of Oregon school age students are eligible for free or reduced lunch!  Those children receive hot breakfast and lunch during the school year, but then take home backpacks over the weekend so that they will not go hungry.  Shocking!

I also teach in various venues.  Each year I am invited to PCC Sylvania in a class focused on death and dying traditions to speak about Judaism's views on everything from cremation to mourning customs.  Concordia College, a Missouri Synod Lutheran School in Northeast Portland, requires every student to take a course in comparative religion. I am their go-to guy to introduce the students to Jewish ideas and approaches to life.  I  mentioned Missouri Synod, b4ecause that is the conservative branch of Lutheranism.  I am unbelievably impressed that Concordia determines that having a broad knowledge of various religious traditions is sufficiently important to make it a required course. 

I continue to teach in our Oregon Board of Rabbi Introduction to Judaism course, which attracts many people considering conversion.  Teaching Jews by choice has always given me great pleasure and I think I will continue to welcome students.

One of the challenges of retirement is to rethink one's daily routine.  I am enormously thankful that I have an office at the synagogue, considerably smaller than my previous office, but an office nonetheless.  Here I can think and do much work and preparation. (Two weeks ago without thinking after teaching a class I automatically walked into my old office and with considerable embarrassment closed the door.  Rabbi Kosak was not there, thank goodness. 

I continue to attend morning Minyan though not everyday.  I do not come to shul Friday evenings, spending them with Carol and invited guests at home, but I am here every Shabbat morning, sometimes attending the main service and sometimes the Downstairs Minyan.  I now get to the gym three times a week, something I was never able to accomplish previously and get to my yoga class each week.

Recently my uncle died at age 89 in Florida.  I am saying kaddish for him since his wife and children will not do so.  I will soon fly to Montgomery, Alabama, where his oldest son/my cousin lives to attend a memorial service.  We have preliminary plans to see our San Diego children and grandchildren after the new year and Carol and I are excited about plans for an extended trip in March and April to Southern Spain and Morocco.

I am addicted to the New York Times and read the New Yorker on my hike to and from the synagogue when it is not raining on Shabbat morning.

So far so good.  The world is complicated, but life is truly a joyous gift.