Purim and Halloween

An ideological face-off

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Family & Life!

Recently, someone asked me whether I liked Purim better than Halloween. It seemed like such an odd question; the holidays had been so distinctly incomparable in my mind. But upon consideration, perhaps because my name is Esther, perhaps because of my Jewish background, I would have to say that Purim unequivocally kicks Halloween's rump. Of course, I am slightly biased: If Halloween featured a Queen Esther, I might be inclined to change my preference. But I doubt it.

When I was growing up, Halloween was only celebrated by public school kids. At my yeshiva (Jewish day school), a letter from the principal was sent to parents each October warning them that observance of Halloween was pagan and therefore destructive to the Jewish educational process. As a result, while my public school contemporaries demanded candy from strangers, I stayed home and watched "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Again. And that was Halloween.

The first time I trick-or-treated was in college, after my Jewish education was set and solid. Some of my friends ventured to the nearby suburbs to go door to door. Instead of aping local urchins desperate for a sugar rush and threatening a trick if thwarted, we decided to offer a service in return for sweets. We sang to the people who opened the door, usually classic tunes like "I Get a Kick Out of You" or "New York, New York"; they smiled, and we were one step closer to our ultimate goal...tooth decay. In our version of the trick-or- treat, everyone wins. I learned a lot from the experience: that I feel awkward in a costume, that I like to sing, and that it is fun to get candy from people. There was no spiritual or religious component to my first Halloween; it could have happened any day of the year.

Purim is a different story entirely, quite literally. The story is written in a scroll, the reading of which is one of the holiday's most basic components. The dramatis personae are weak and relatable, palpably human. The story is about being in the right place at the right time, and interestingly enough, God barely even plays an onstage role. Righteousness is rewarded with royalty and evil punished with death. A perfect Hollywood tale, driven by named characters from opening titles to closing credits. Purim is good. Purim, for lack of a better word, works. We identify with the heroes of Purim and see them in our mind's eye; we carry the story with us as we party into the night and feast during the day that follows.

But our partying is not without accountability. The traditions of Purim, not always observed by costumed revelers, are sending packages of food to one's neighbors (mishloach manot) and gifts to the poor (matanot la'evyonim). These traditions add a social service element to the celebration: Although we acknowledge the importance of a good party, we also recognize our responsibility to others.

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Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer who lives in Manhattan.