Last year while out to dinner on the sixth night of Hanukkah, I asked my shul dinner companion if he had lit the hanukkiyah before coming out to meet me or would do it when he returned home. He responded, “Neither, it’s too sad to be lighting candles when it’s just me.” Earlier that week on the second night of Hanukkah, a group of women meeting at the synagogue had a similar response. Hanukkah was sad they said. Their children were grown and out of the house and they found the holiday depressing, especially the idea of candle lighting, which they mostly did not do.
In years in the rabbinate, I’ve led countless discussions with parents of young children about how to celebrate Hanukkah and make it meaningful, but until last winter hadn’t engaged from the other side: How to celebrate Hanukkah as an adult, or why to celebrate Hanukkah as an adult.
The Code of Jewish Law addresses how to celebrate another Jewish holiday when children are not present. When it comes to the Pesah Seder, even if no children are there to ask the mah nishtanah, the Four Questions must still be asked by an adult having a seder by him or herself or at a Seder where everyone is a Torah scholar. The Code wants us to understand that not only do adults have an obligation to observe the holidays, but also that the serious themes as represented by the rituals of the festivals are perhaps best engaged in adult exploration of Judaism.
Then there is the matter of modeling that even without children at home still being able to share with adult children or grandchildren that we lit the hanukkiyah and that the rituals are a beloved part of our Jewish practice.
When we celebrate holidays with young children we tend to focus on the rituals that would engage them, and providing warm family memories to add to their treasure trove of Jewish experience. As adults, either without children or with children out of the house we have the opportunity to engage with Hanukkah on a more adult level.
So if you really want to skip spinning the dreydels this year, go ahead but light the candles or the oil to illuminate your own adult practice and study of our tradition.