Jewish Journal

Shabbat on Slopes Takes Wrong Turn

by David T. Levinson

Posted on Feb. 3, 2005 at 7:00 pm


To me, skiing is almost a religious experience. When you're flying down the back bowls, sun on your face, cool air filling your lungs and a warm feeling filling your heart, it's like you can feel the hand of God.

Last winter, my wife and I went skiing in Deer Valley, Utah.

Deer Valley opened in 1981, and the idea was to create a luxury ski resort with every possible amenity and in the best possible taste. Everything from the incline of the slopes to the way the sun hits them has been considered. The food couldn't be more delicious, nor the staff more solicitous. It was perfect.

On the last full day of our trip, a Friday, I went downstairs to where the ski report was posted. The report was pretty much the same as it'd been all week: "Spring conditions, 91 groomed trails, all lifts open, Shabbat services at 3:00." Yes, Shabbat services at 3 p.m.

Deer Valley, in addition to featuring 91 trails, 21 lifts and fantastic food, had Shabbat services on the mountain at someplace called Sunset Cabin. The services were at 3 p.m., shortly before the lifts closed.

Do I go?

Sure, skiing has its spiritual side -- the hand of God and all that -- but I hadn't planned on having an actual religious experience. I like Shabbat services, and I've found myself atop a slope or two where praying to God seemed my best bet for getting down alive. But did I really want to spend part of the afternoon -- my last afternoon -- at services?

We hit the mountain. Sure enough, at every lift, between the Kleenex and the urgent messages ("Hannah Silverblatt! Call Danny!") was a sign: "Shabbat services. Sunset Cabin. 3:00."

I'm 45, but I remember when skiing was still the domain of tall Aryan people in stretch pants. For years, of course, Jews have taken to the sport with gusto. Indeed, throughout our stay when anyone asked why the slopes were so crowded, the answer was the same: "The New York schools are on vacation."

When I was a kid, most people still hadn't seen a bagel, and every year I'd have to explain to my non-Jewish friends what Rosh Hashanah was. So it was quite something to have Shabbat services atop a mountain -- in Utah of all places. What an advancement! Yet, the whole thing stuck in my craw.

First off, Shabbat begins at sunset. Even in Utah in March, 3 p.m. simply is not sunset. (Maybe they called it "Sunset Cabin" to distract you.) And besides, how many of these people so anxious to observe Shabbat were planning to take the following day off the slopes? Especially after they'd schlepped to Utah.

I skied all day, going back and forth on whether I would attend services or not.

Suddenly, it was 3 p.m. I was obsessed. Who went to these services? Was this, as it were, Muhammad coming to the mountain? Or had the folks at Deer Valley found a way to bring the mountain to Muhammad?

3:05. 3:10.

At 3:16 p.m., while happily shushing down a crowded slope, there it was. Sunset Cabin sat atop the snow, between verdant trees under a bright blue sky. There were no Stars of David or Hebrew letters, but I knew what it was the moment I saw it.

Perhaps it was the young woman standing in the doorway -- it was standing-room only -- with an expression of duty and resignation. Was she upset because she couldn't get inside, or because she wasn't outside on the slopes? And her resignation seemed to turn into belligerence, or judgment, as she caught my eye and my landsman's punim outside skiing, rather than inside praying.

Should I catch the rest of the service? What was my problem, anyway?

I slowed down. And, as I avoided the skiers whooshing by -- Texans? -- I heard the unmistakable sound of many voices raised together, "Yitgadal, v'yitkadash, sh'mei rabbah."

I knew what I had to do.

This is where I'm supposed to screech to a halt, whip off my skis, breathlessly stagger into Sunset Cabin -- tears in my eyes, at one with my brethren, my dead ancestors, the mountain and God himself -- and admit how foolish and cynical I'd been.

But, with one last, rather unfriendly look at the woman in the doorway, I sped up and skied on. I was, for lack of a better word, offended. After all, Kaddish is a serious prayer about a serious thing and the thought of intoning these beautiful and important words, then readjusting my goggles and stepping into my bindings seemed silly, stupid and sacrilegious.

Without a doubt, God and nature are a dynamite combo. But shouldn't religious rituals have some dignity? Shouldn't they demand some extra effort on our part? Like, say, waiting until Shabbat to have to a Shabbat service? Sure, it's inconvenient to have a service on a ski slope after dusk; so, um, maybe the service should be somewhere else. Y'know, I'm glad that I can get Krispy Kremes at Dodger Stadium or Starbucks on United Airlines, but isn't worship just a little different? What's next -- Kol Nidre at the ArcLight? A mikvah at The Grove? For that matter, why have Rosh Hashanah right after the kids go back to school? Let's move it to June.

As I raced away, I thought: Was this service on the mountain about Shabbat, or was it just another amenity, no different in the end than the free ski boot storage or the famous seafood buffet? And is it really advancement to have a Shabbat service so in service to its surroundings? (3 p.m.? Kaddish, 16 minutes into the service?) Actually, perhaps the greatest sin of this Shabbat service on this most tasteful of mountains was that it was, in fact, just plain tacky.

For sure, I think it's possible to find God when you least expect to. Like when you're flying down the back bowl of a beautiful mountain with the wind whipping through your hair. But I don't think that God should have to look for you there, too.

I love skiing. And I love being Jewish. But to me, religion is not a skiing experience.

David T. Levinson has written for a variety of media outlets. His newest play, "Early Decision," will have its world premiere in October.


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