Last year, I spent Shabbat Chanukah with my sister who lives 15 blocks north. She told me to stay with her until the end of Shabbat so that I could say havdalah and light the menorah with her. Knowing that your menorah should be lit in the house you sleep in, I insisted on going to my apartment. But thanks to the convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah, none of my roommates were home.
I went to light my menorah, and as I sang Maoz Tzur in the tone-deaf way I was raised to do, I stopped singing mid-song. No rabbi pictured this scenario – a woman lighting alone, not in her father’s home and not in her husband’s home. And not just one girl, but thousands of young men and women living alone. Chanukah lighting is my happiest observance, and yet, on this Saturday night, I was sad.
Havdalah, Bedikat Chametz, The Shabbat table.
Jewish ritual is at its peak in communal and familial settings. You wouldn’t dream of sitting down to a Shabbat meal without friends or family around. You would never begin to search for 10 carefully wrapped pieces of bread the night before Pesach without everyone gathered so that each job (including, as it is in my family, checking off a list as you find each piece of bread) was taken care of. And the thought of lighting Menorah before everyone was home was almost unthinkable in almost every home I know of.
Halachah was built under the assumption that you would be with a community or a family. It is why we have so many rules about taking care of the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Being without a family is not only heart wrenching, but also makes Jewish practice isolating, and sometimes seem empty. And yet here we have a society where thousands of people are living on their own without a family. What happens to ritual then?
Picture a studio apartment after 10 years on the Upper West Side on a cold Winter Friday night with no noise in the apartment, and your only option is to turn on a TV. How do you expect someone to turn that down when the alternative is deafening silence?
We need to make Judaism and our lives in this “interim” period (being single, living alone) not just about getting to the next stage (marriage, having a family). We need to invest in our current community, not just think about the next community.
I want to see Jewish engagement opportunities created for young adults that are appealing because of their Jewish nature and not the social scene. An understanding that we need to figure out what is best for us in various stages in life, and how to make halachah something enjoyable and happy.
No one in school ever taught me that happiness is a goal in life. But really – if your observance is not filled with happiness, then what is it doing for you?
The author is a girl living on the Upper West Side.
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