Free Press Column about Winter Holiday Season

DAVID CRUMM: Spiritual quest starts in metro Detroit



December 10, 2004

For years, I’ve heard Jewish parents talk about the Christmas envy their kids can feel at this time of year, but I’d never heard of Hanukkah envy until recently.

My son Benjamin, 15, and I were untangling strands of Christmas lights in front of our house when he asked, “Dad, why couldn’t we have been Jewish? Their holidays are so cool! They get to eat special meals, read things, light candles, do things together.”

“We’re doing this together,” I said, hefting a snarl of lights.

“Uh, right, Dad,” he said with a shrug. “Maybe it’s crazy, but it feels like we should do something more with the holidays.”

I knew that his question was far from crazy. He was slicing through our holiday hoopla with the laser vision of youth. And that’s how a spiritual quest unfolded this week that wound up connecting with the plight of refugees in Africa, a mountain of winter coats in Detroit and an unusual Christmas party tonight in Royal Oak.

My first stop involved calls to two of the country’s top religious authors, Christian Bible scholar Marcus Borg and Jewish cultural expert Scott-Martin Kosofsky. They told me that my son’s query is the same question that countless Americans are asking right now.

Kosofsky’s newest effort is “The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year.” When I asked him about the meaning of Hanukkah, he said, “Most of us grew up knowing full well that this is considered a minor holiday, and that a lot of what we see in Hanukkah today is a case of Christmas envy that developed in Jewish families to give us a version of the Christmas gift-giving season. But there’s really much more to Hanukkah than that.”

The festival, which ends with the lighting of an eighth candle in Jewish homes on Tuesday evening, marks an ancient triumph of religious freedom. A Jewish group called the Maccabees fought successfully to reclaim their temple in Jerusalem from a ruler who was trying to replace Judaism with Greek culture. Jews light candles to recall the light rekindled in the temple by the Maccabees. “And, if you focus on that, then this is a powerful story of liberation,” Kosofsky said. “Especially with the founding of the state of Israel, the Maccabean period is a time people harken back to and say: We did it then; we can do it again.”

What amazed me was that Borg pointed to similar themes in Christmas. Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity” is a plea for feuding Christians to agree on some basic truths.

“And in Christmas, we’ve got several basic themes,” Borg said. “One is the theme of light coming into the darkness. That’s an ancient symbol of enlightenment and deliverance.

“But another theme is both theological and political. It’s the theme of Jesus as the son of God, which was a title claimed by the Roman emperor. So, it’s very powerful: a story of light in our darkness and of one who comes to challenge the kingdoms of this world.”

It’s a disservice to obscure the two faiths’ many differences, but I wanted to test the assumption that there is a middle ground in holiday themes. And, looking around metro Detroit, I found that this idea makes a lot of sense.

At the West Bloomfield congregation Beth Ahm at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Rabbi Jason Miller is inviting the public to join in a nationwide Sabbath of Conscience on Darfur. (Beth Ahm is at 5075 W. Maple Road.)

“One lesson from both Christmas and Hanukkah is that, when you’re in the dark, you need light,” Miller said in describing this unusual effort. “As Jewish people, we say that we’re called to be a light unto the nations. We need to show that hope is possible, even in places that seem hopeless to us like the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan. So, hundreds of Conservative rabbis across the country have agreed to address Darfur during Hanukkah.”

On Saturday, Miller will talk about practical ways people can contribute to efforts to help end the displacement and massacre of thousands of families in Darfur.

Or, consider this: At 7 p.m. today in Royal Oak, there’s a Christmas party for people with AIDS, their families and friends. Over the years, as I’ve brought up this popular annual event to someone who’s never heard of it, there’s often a reflexive wince. Apparently, it’s jarring to hear the words Christmas and AIDS in the same breath.

But there’s hardly another religious service in the course of a year that’s as richly uplifting as this celebration. The host is St. John’s Episcopal Church at Woodward and 11 Mile.

And that brings me to the mountain of coats in northwest Detroit. My last stop was a visit with Capt. K. Kendall Mathews, Detroit commander of the Salvation Army. I found the uniformed clergyman at the Army’s Brightmoor Community Center, surrounded by a vast, fluffy rainbow of winter coats.

“We’ve already distributed 10,000 coats this winter around Detroit, but these are about 300 more we’ve just received,” he said Thursday as volunteers sorted the garments.

Suddenly, the challenge of untangling heaps of coats seemed a lot more important to me than untangling Christmas lights. I should bring my son down here one day and help, I thought.

“But you know what?” Mathews told me. “The holidays are great because they inspire people to kick it up a notch and give more. But, if people truly understood what God was doing for us, I think they’d see that we should be doing this as a year-round thing.”

Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |