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Downhill Doubts

Why skiing and winter sports don't hold more of an allure for Jews.


by J.D. Smith

February 1, 2001 | 7:00 pm

J.D. Smith: Is this any way for a nice Jewish boy to dress?

J.D. Smith: Is this any way for a nice Jewish boy to dress?

My father has disowned me. We did not get into a fight about the family business -- there is no family business. I did not marry out of the faith, and I have no children about whose upbringing we can disagree. The source of our irreconcilable differences is that we went skiing together last year, and he is convinced that I cannot be his natural child.

His theory, which is a little complicated, goes like this: Jews have been enormously successful in myriad activities during the past 4,000 or so years, among them arts, science, finance and, lest we forget, religion. We have been far less successful in the field of navigation and exploration. It took Moses 40 years to get from Egypt across the Sinai, about a three-week walk if you know where you're going. We did somehow manage to get just about everywhere in the world, but it's not clear as to whether our ancestors wound up in, say, Spain as a result of a well-considered expedition to spread the word, or if they just made a wrong turn at the Gaza Strip and refused to stop at a gas station to get directions until they hit the Prado.

The theory continues that only a handful of Jews turned right and headed for Northern Europe. As a result, there are no Svens or Larses in our mishpocheh, only Arnies and Murrays.

When I was growing up, the chosen destination for winter holidays was Miami or Maui, not Aspen or Gstaad. Maybe our family just never got the word that it was okay to go outside and play in the snow, but now that I've become a somewhat adventurous skier, my father says the three most dangerous words in the English language are "Follow me, Dad." His reasoning is that it's crazy for Jews to be skiing in the trees. By that logic, if I ski in the trees, I must be either crazy or not Jewish and therefore not his son. Ergo, I am disowned.

I knew we were in foreign territory on my first ski trip to Deer Valley, Utah. After a rough day on the bunny hill, I returned to the Stein Ericksen Lodge and found the bar packed at 3 p.m. (It turns out that Stein is the first name of Mr. Ericksen, a famous Norwegian Olympian. I thought there was a Jewish partner in the hotel with top billing.) At one table of raccoon-eyed apres skiers was a blond couple wearing white sweaters with a little blue snowflake pattern. These people drink in the afternoon and never spill anything on themselves. In my family, a white sweater is a blank canvas on which one invariably spills his Bloody Mary.

There are many famous Jewish athletes, but every time one comes to prominence, every time Shawn Green comes to bat, we whisper with pride, "Did you know he's Jewish?" Then we answer back, "Really?" with a prideful little nod of the head, a raised eyebrow, awestruck that the shtetl could ever produce such a lean, limber specimen, as if to say, "Our boy's pretty good, huh?" Yet, for all the Sandy Koufaxes and Lenny Krayzelburgs, you never hear about great Jewish Winter Olympians.

My mother explained the dearth of famous Jewish skiers by saying, "It's cold, it's wet, it's too fast, it goes down a hill, you could fall and hurt yourself." After a moment she added, "And those clothes make you look fat."

I don't know what it is that says to a button-down businessman, "You'd look good in a red-and-yellow one-piece and a blue hat." Perhaps it's the thought that if he falls down and can't move, people will be able to find him. No one looks good in these clumsy outfits, with the possible exception of Robert Redford, who, I should point out, is not even remotely Jewish.

Then there are the boots. You tighten these eight-pound molded plastic monsters until only the big toe can move one millimeter. Occasionally I hear someone on a chairlift tell me about how comfortable his boots are since he got the ergonomic foot beds. No, Bally loafers are comfortable. Ski boots are anti-Semitic.

Skiing does not come naturally to most people. We struggle with the rhythm of off-weighting, keeping our balance forward, planting the pole, initializing the turns, visualizing the fall line (why do they insist on calling it that?). It could be reasonably asked why people want to subject themselves to this torture test in the first place. Once I reasonably mastered the groomed slopes, I took on the bumps. Again, why? I ask myself that question at the end of every mogul run. I think the answer may lie in the importance of my burgeoning relationships with my chiropractor and my masseuse. For a lot of people, skiing is like taking the very long way, the scenic route, from your condo to the bar.

Maybe there aren't enough Jews in Canada or enough ice in Tel Aviv to field a hockey team. And with our considerable investment in cosmetic dentistry, we are often precluded from participating in any sport where getting your teeth knocked down your throat is the goal of the opposing team. I tried to talk some friends into forming a luge team, but it holds little appeal for our people. Any sport in which you travel at speeds of more than 90 miles per hour and lead with your genitals is not going to gather a minyan. There are no guys named Arnie or Murray on the luge, and there never will be.

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