Program Notes: In the theater, program notes provide further background on the play, or the playwright, or the director.  In this series, I write about what I'm thinking about, and what's in the paper at the time. This week: Scaring yourself sweet, or being Jewish and loving Halloween the most.

I love Halloween.

I can’t remember a time when I did not love Halloween. I vividly remember loving a little book in kindergarten that explained all the Druid rituals and origins of the holiday.

It wasn’t about the candy. It was exciting.

The crispness in the air, the orange and black, the hint of magic, they all made me feel like anything could happen.



Some of my favorite childhood books centered around Halloween. “The Little Leftover Witch,” by Florence Laughlin, is about a witch who falls off a broomstick on Halloween night and is taken in by a little girl and her family. (Reading again as an adult, I saw the lovely, quiet allegory of fostering and adopting).


Another “falling off a broom” book is “Spook,” by Jane Little, about a little dog who falls off the broom of a witch who is allergic to cats, and is taken in and loved by a little boy out to trick-or-treat.



“Suddenly— a witch!” by Irene Bowen is about a girl with a cold whose cat takes her on a magic broom to a Halloween party she was too sick to attend.

In high school, the short story I wrote that got me a notice by Scholastic Awards was about an old woman too scared of criminals to open her door to give out candy.


Halloween has been my friend.

I’m Jewish, and while I knew I wasn’t Pagan or Celtic (at least, I’m pretty sure I’m not Celtic, but will know more when I do an Ancestry kit; a girl can hope), it never seemed strange to me to love this holiday so.

In my neighborhood in Millburn, just about everyone I knew was Jewish, and everyone trick-or-treated. We wore our costumes to school, and trick-or-treated our way home. After a break, out we’d go again, stopping when the sun went down. That may be because there used to be a Halloween parade after dark, and you wanted to be done by then. People from Paper Mill Playhouse used to help judge costumes.

I remember becoming exhausted as I walked, and walked, and walked, with a pillowcase of candy that got heavier and heavier.

I loved Halloween so much I had birthday parties that were Halloween parties, which is kind of a neat trick when you realize my birthday is around Labor Day.

Mom made herself popular one year when she came down at 3 a.m. during a slumber party and, instead of scolding us, picked up the fortune-telling book and began reading palms too.

The author, end right, with friends at a Halloween birthday party. COURTESY GWEN OREL

But observant Jews sometimes find the holiday problematic. I remember a sad-eyed neighbor child who informed us when I asked him what he was going to be that he wasn’t allowed to trick-or-treat.

Once, my brother freaked out — it’s the only expression — when I put candy in a bowl outside his apartment on Halloween. For some reason I was there and he wasn’t, and he’d recently started keeping Kosher. (We didn’t grow up that way.) A call was placed to a Kosher-kitchen-keeping woman we trusted and, once he was told it was OK if the candies were wrapped, he forgave me. I think.





But for me, one of the very nicest things about Halloween will always be the way it brings people to your door. These days, not much does. People are often afraid or reticent, or just home and inside looking at TV and their phones rather than outside noticing the neighbors.

My late father used to love seeing the tiny children come to the door, some really just toddling up the stairs, as their parents fondly waited on the walk.

“Take some more, darling,” he’d say, holding out the bowl. “Take one for Mummy.” (He was from Boston.)

One child was dressed as a lawyer, and carried a sign that said “I’m suing.” He looked up at us with worried eyes and said, “I’m not, really.”

We’ve had cats that are scared of Halloween, hiding under beds or running outside as the bell rings (and if you have a black cat, keep it inside from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, please.)

But despite its scary overtones, the holiday itself is the opposite of frightening: it’s warm and gooey and cuddly.

What’s not to love?

I don’t have children. But on Halloween, I get to enjoy their sweetness.

Trick-or-treating in daytime in Millburn. COURTESY GWEN OREL