It’s odd celebrating Hanukkah in a quiet, empty nest of a home. There’s no clambering for gifts, no rushing to multiple events at multiple locations. No one is getting positioned in front of a favorite menorah for lighting rights. There aren’t a multitude of gifts on the dining room table. There are no clumps of wrapping paper from the previous nights’ festivities floating around the house. We’ve only made one night’s worth of latkes, so the house does not have that usual redolence from the magic mix of oil, onions and potatoes. And this year, for the first time in over 3 decades, Liza did not decorate the house with the multitude of Hanukkah zibben-zachen: no streamers, folding paper menorahs, little Maccabees, and so forth.
This empty nest feeling did cause a bit of the blues to enter into the Hanukkah blessings. But it was also an epiphany of sorts. If being Jewish is experienced primarily as the responsibility of passing it down to the kids, and the kids are gone, then isn’t the job done? Why engage in behaviors mostly deemed pediatric? No wonder so many Jews leave their temple after years of belonging! It becomes largely irrelevant to day to day, week to week, month to month life.
The holidays weren’t “invented” for children only. I know, I know: I’ve heard the “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” theory of Jewish holidays. And yes, it’s a pretty accurate superficial gloss. And we do simplify them, reduce them to a sweet, savory sauce. But they are so much more. They are complex expressions of gratitude and longing and fear and courage.
An empty nest doesn’t have to be devoid of spirituality and community. It can be a place of connection and engagement. This is the challenge of 21st-century Jewish life: to embrace the various dimensions of Judaism and Jewish life as mature adults, to care about choosing Judaism for ourselves and not for our children. There really is more to it than dreidels and toy Torahs.
A temple thrives when every generation feels engaged. A temple thrives when folks find in it a means by which to navigate a harsh and often hostile world. And if the Jewish tradition gives us anything, it’s instruction on how to have faith and even flourish in a world that has not exactly rolled our the red carpet for us.
Whether your nest is full, or whether it’s empty, we need you as a part of the community. Your input. Your presence. Your passion. You!
Bring your light to your temple. The more light, the brighter, the warmer the flame. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. That’s an adult Hanukkah message.