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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

Regina Sandler-Phillips
October 30, 2013
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

“What is your position on zombies?”

It’s not something I’m usually asked as a rabbi, especially in the middle of a meal. Adam was approaching bar mitzvah at the time, and his parents had invited me to stay for dinner after one of our study sessions.

‘Tis the season for discussions of how kosher it is for Jews to celebrate Halloween. But the fascination with “the undead” isn’t limited by the calendar; it’s ongoing, particularly for young people, and it provides opportunities for dialogue between generations on issues that go beyond costumes and candy.

My young student’s phrasing of his question was more nuanced than most. As a rabbi, I’m often invited into a game of “Judaism Says.” This game is somewhat less arbitrary than “Simon Says,” since I’m expected to make a statement based on reasonable knowledge and authority. But “Judaism Says” inevitably oversimplifies complex issues.

What “Judaism Says” about Halloween, for example, varies as much by personal focus as by denominational persuasion. More traditionally observant communities uphold clearer dress and dietary codes, but mixed religious symbolism, consumer excess, and supervision of children’s behavior are concerns across the Jewish denominational spectrum.

Whatever their ambivalence, Jewish leaders of less insular worldviews generally conclude that the pagan/Christian elements of Halloween have been secularized beyond recognition, and that participation in this one day out of the year will not cause irreversible damage to Jewish identity. Many recommend a proactive clarification of parameters—at least to ensure that basic health and safety needs are met and ideally to highlight teachable moments for instilling Jewish values. Purim is often upheld as a superior Jewish costume-and-candy alternative.

But rabbis don’t usually address the significance of the year-round fascination with the undead. Even commentaries like “Can a Zombie Count as Part of a Minyan?” sidestep implications as elementary as Purim yet often absent from general Jewish awareness.

Adam didn’t ask me about an annual event—Halloween—but about zombies, a continuous multimedia preoccupation. He and his family also knew something about my counterpart preoccupations as an end-of-life chaplain and may have guessed that to a hammer, everything looks like—well, a wooden peg.

Unlike many young people, I wasn’t drawn toward the haunted house route when I was Adam’s age. I never watched a single episode of Dark Shadows. The only ghost story I remember is one that ends in a kitschy joke. (“I am the Viper. I come to vipe your vindows.”) “Zombie” referred only to my state of consciousness after pulling a sleepless all-nighter to finish a school assignment. My interest in creatures undead was otherwise limited to my 45 rpm recording of “Monster Mash.”

But if the undead didn’t interest me as I grew up, the dead certainly did. I found myself mentally redesigning the roadside cemeteries that I observed from the back seat of our family car: “A graveyard shouldn’t be next to a highway. It should be in a clearing in the woods, with a path through the trees for people to come and visit. There should be benches under the trees for people to sit … ”

My youthful musings emanated from a fairly literal understanding of what it means to rest in peace. In retrospect, I wanted the living and the dead to get to know each other in a relaxed environment—to transcend stereotypes, if you will—without any expectations of the latter’s bodily revival.

The rationalistic “Judaism Says” with which I came of age negated centuries of Jewish afterlife traditions. This negation combined the ancient religious hostility to necromancy, the modern secular insistence on scientific measurement, and the ethical imperative to focus on our responsibilities here and now. Sadly, the rationalistic approach has left us mostly blind to our own denial, with diminished capacities for acceptance of inherent mysteries. Popular culture fills the void with a relentless onslaught of imaginary fates worse than death. The creative powers of fear and fantasy far outstrip our ethical here-and-now efforts to visit the sick, honor the dead, console the bereaved, and communicate our own final wishes to those we love.

“Here is my position on zombies,” I told Adam. “I would like a tiny fraction of all the money, time, and resources spent on zombies and vampires and ‘the undead’ to be spent on coming to terms with real death and what it means for our lives.”

Adam nodded, and the dinner table conversation turned to other topics. I was content to have planted a seed of possibility for future cultivation.

I could have talked about golems. Broadly speaking in terms of “Judaism Says,” golems are to zombies what Purim is to Halloween. The first golem was Adam’s primordial namesake, formed of clay before God animated him with the breath of human life. Later narratives depict various rabbis replicating the divine experiment on inanimate forms, with disastrous results: Breaking free of human control, the machine becomes a monster. The most famous version of the golem legend stars the MaHaRaL, Rabbi Judah Loew of 16th-century Prague.

I personally connect the dots of the MaHaRaL’s golem legend with two items that are historically documented. The first is that Rabbi Loew was a guiding force in the sacred burial fellowship, the prototypical hevra kadisha of Prague, whose surviving artifacts include a painting of members engaged in annual prayers at his grave. The second is that Rabbi Loew was a staunch advocate of developmentally appropriate Jewish education, of introducing children to Jewish texts and values in accordance with their levels of maturity.

“A golem is a sturdy creature on which to hang a young-adult story,” Marjorie Ingall has noted in this magazine. “It works as a repository for every theme that speaks to teenagers: Who am I in the world? What powers do I have? Who can I trust? How do I create a separate existence from my parents’? How do I control my anger and manage my baser instincts?”

It also offers opportunities for dialogue on the D-word. My position on zombies (and golems) is that, with a minimal investment of enlightened adult guidance, the youthful fascination with the undead can be channeled toward a healthy, helpful involvement in honoring the actual dead.

Prior to her own involvement, sacred-fellowship educator and author Rochel Berman imagined the hevra kadisha as “a group of little hobgoblins … who worked in the dark and never appeared in the light of day.” One of her friends was warned by childhood playmates that “the hevra kadisha will get you,” bogeyman-style. In well-timed dialogue, anecdotes like these can help to redirect young-adult attention from media fictions to the bodily facts of life we call taharah: taking care of our own by cleansing, dressing, and laying out the bodies of those who have died.

While taharah remains the purview of adults, adults and teenagers alike can learn to be respectful and cooperative in the presence of the dead by participating in sh’mirah: the traditional vigil around the clock between death and burial. Even younger adolescents, having come of ritual age, can take a shift sitting at a funeral home with a parent or other trusted adult

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.

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips is the director of WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources in Brooklyn, N.Y.