Zombies, Vampires, and Things That Come Back to Life: A Rabbi’s Take on Halloween and Beyond
Kids’ fascination with the undead goes far beyond one holiday, but it’s a perfect time to talk about Jewish traditions around death
Since it does not involve direct physical contact with the dead, sh’mirah is a less threatening form of sacred fellowship service. It requires no specialized training or materials and can be organized even in the absence of taharah. Contrary to our fears, the dead are actually vulnerable and, after all these centuries, still in need of our vigilance against body-parts trafficking and other forms of criminal desecration—by the living. (Who’s the ghoul now?)
A sacred fellowship does not eliminate our questions, fears of death, or grief in the face of loss. There are times when reality pushes us much too close to our nightmares. But when the fabric of our lives is torn apart, the hevra kadisha helps to weave it back together. When “nothing” can be done, the hevra kadisha goes to work. Sorrowful and sometimes even stunned—as when our hevra responded recently to the tragic death of a young child—we step forward as a community to offer what we can: quiet presence and simple actions to accompany the dead as well as the living.
It’s not necessary to believe in an afterlife in order to volunteer, but participation can offer a powerful sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. We discover doors and windows that open through the walls of our worst fears into loving service, and our lives are enriched—one might even say “hallowed”—in the process. It’s a tradition worth sharing with our children throughout the year.
Berman tells the story of a 3-year-old girl whose mother served as a sacred fellowship dispatcher, making calls to schedule volunteers after a death. “One day Talli was playing telephone with an imaginary friend. As she spoke into the receiver, she announced: ‘This is the Kadisha Kadisha.’ A moment of silence followed and Talli said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry you are not available tonight. I’ll call you next time.’ ”
There are about 70 adult volunteers on call to my sacred fellowship in Brooklyn, and many are or have been parents of young children at the time of their involvement. Each of our current co-chairs gave birth to her youngest child and returned soon afterward. All the volunteers are vigil-keepers, and some have recruited their teenagers to sit with them. Children learn by example that showing up for the dead is part of what makes a caring community—and that if you’re not available tonight, it’s OK. We’ll call you next time.
There is no Jewish Day of the Dead to follow Halloween, but it is traditional to honor the hevra kadisha once a year with a festive dinner. I encourage sacred fellowships to open their annual dinners to the community at large. The most popular date for this dinner is the 7th of Adar, considered to be the anniversary of the death of Moses. This also happens to be exactly one week before Purim.
Every year before the annual dinner, I fast on behalf of the hevra and visit one of our local cemeteries, where I seek the graves of those who have been watched over and cared for by our sacred fellowship. The gates are circled with brisk traffic, and it’s not the intimate wooded clearing of my childhood designs. Still, leaves rustle with ru’akh (Hebrew for both wind and spirit) through the scattering of trees on the grounds.
I could bring students there, but for now I keep it simple and meditative. I take my time reflecting and praying at each of the graves. Among them is a grassy plot reserved for my body, to be one day laid to rest under the same sacred fellowship care. Meanwhile, as long as the breath of human life is within me, my position on zombies is that I don’t want to deaden my experience of a lifetime.
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