The Se­cret Jewish His­tory of... Snow

Rabbi Ju­dah Loew, aka the Ma­haral of Prague, spoke of snow as a ves­sel of spir­i­tual light in the dark­est days of the year.

Forward Magazine - - Re­views - By Seth Ro­govoy

Jews have al­ways had an am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ship with snow. On the one hand, we trace our ori­gins to a desert land that typ­i­cally fea­tures ex­tremes of heat rather than cold. On the other hand, it does snow in Tiberias and Jerusalem — to that I can at­test per­son­ally, hav­ing lived in both places in the early 1980s, when I had to scram­ble to buy a parka to fend off the win­try weather.

Many Amer­i­can Jews trace their re­cent lin­eage to the lands of Eastern Europe, where win­ters and snow­fall are leg­endary and pop­u­late Jewish and Ha­sidic folk­tales, in­clud­ing “Foot­prints in the Snow,” one of the best-known tales of ”How The Wise Men Got to Chelm.” As the story goes, one day, a shamash, a rabbi’s aide, wakes up and sees a beau­ti­ful land­scape of vir­gin snow. Need­ing to ful­fill his daily duty to wake the town’s rabbi for morn­ing prayers, but not want­ing to spoil the glo­ri­ous car­pet of snow with his foot­prints, he drags his two sons out of bed in or­der to have them carry him to the rabbi’s house. The boys hoist him onto their shoul­ders and trudge through the snow to the rabbi’s abode. Af­ter tap­ping on the rabbi’s win­dow and wak­ing him, the

shamash in­structs his sons to turn around to carry him back home. Much to his hor­ror, he sees not one but two sets of foot­steps in the snow. “I tried so hard to make sure that the snow would re­main beau­ti­ful,” he says, “but some­one else came out early in the morn­ing and ru­ined it.”

The To­rah con­tains nu­mer­ous men­tions of snow, which is of­ten seen as an im­age of pu­rity. Af­ter com­plain­ing about how the peo­ple have aban­doned their ways, God im­plores them to stop bring­ing an­i­mal sac­ri­fices as pay­ment, in­stead telling them, “Learn to do good, seek jus­tice, vin­di­cate the vic­tim, ren­der jus­tice to the or­phan, take up the griev­ance of the widow,” in the Book of Isa­iah. God tells them what will hap­pen once they have com­mit­ted these acts of re­pen­tance: “If your sins are like scar­let they will be­come white as snow.” Later on, King David echoes this verse when he prays for for­give­ness (for sleep­ing with Bathsheba, wife of his ad­viser, Uriah, and then killing Uriah to cover up his wicked deed) in Psalm 51: “Purge me of sin with hys­sop and I shall be pure, cleanse me and I shall be whiter than snow.” In both cases the op­er­a­tive word is she­leg, He­brew for “snow.” Build­ing on this metaphor, Rabbi Ju­dah Loew, aka the Ma­haral of Prague, spoke of snow as a ves­sel of spir­i­tual light in the dark­est days of the year — which if you think about it is pretty cool.

The al­lure of pure, white snow per­sisted for cen­turies and spoke to one par­tic­u­lar ear­ly20th-cen­tury Rus­sian Jewish im­mi­grant to the United States, say­ing “Go north, young man!” Suss­man Rus­sakoff fled Man­hat­tan’s Lower East Side for the north­ern fron­tier of Maine, where he set up shop as a jew­eler in Skowhe­gan in 1907, thereby dou­bling the pop­u­la­tion of Jews in the town. In his mem­oirs, Rus­sakoff wrote: “When I ar­rived, the air was beau­ti­fully clear and frosty. The snow was as white as snow could ever be, and as one walked on it, it re­sponded with a crispy clear singing. Its song was one of wel­come to me.… I was will­ing to do all kinds of work just so as to get away from New York and have my wife and baby in a good, small place with plenty of fresh air.” You’ll still find Rus­sakoff Jewel­ers in Skowhe­gan, now run by his grand­son, An­drew Rus­sakoff.

Rus­sakoff wasn’t the only 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can Jew drawn north­ward. While va­ca­tion re­sorts in the Catskills in up­state New York are typ­i­cally thought of as refuges from the sum­mer­time heat of New York City, many East Coast Jews went there for ice-skat­ing, ski­ing, sleigh rid­ing and to­bog­gan­ing, which were of­fered by such re­sorts as the Con­cord and the Pines, among oth­ers. At Kut­sher’s, Mil­ton Kut­sher set up a snow-tub­ing course to go along with skat­ing and ski­ing. And Grossinger’s, the queen of the Catskills get­aways, is said to have been the first re­sort in the world to use ar­ti­fi­cial snow, be­gin­ning in 1952.

Amer­i­can Jews and, later, Is­raelis, have even made their mark in win­ter sports. As early as 1932, Irv­ing Jaf­fee won gold medals in the 5,000-me­ter and 10,000-me­ter speed skat­ing events at the Win­ter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. In more re­cent times, an Amer­i­can, Gor­don Sheer, par­tic­i­pated in the 1992 Olympic Games, com­pet­ing in the luge. Brother-and-sis­ter snow­board­ers Tay­lor and Arielle Gold rep­re­sented the United States at the Win­ter Olympics in 2014. Is­rael sent five ath­letes to the Win­ter Olympics in Rus­sia that year, in­clud­ing fig­ure and speed skaters and an alpine skier. The 2018 Win­ter Olympics will take place in Fe­bru­ary in South Korea, where the reign­ing world cham­pion in slalom, Mikaela Shiffrin — who has Jewish an­ces­try on her fa­ther’s side — is fa­vored to bring home the gold for the United States.

An en­tire world awaits those who search on the in­ter­net for “Jewish-themed snow globes,” in­clud­ing a Hanukkah-themed globe that plays the melody to “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”).

Some of the great­est mu­si­cal trib­utes to snow were writ­ten by Jewish song­writ­ers, in­clud­ing “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne; “Win­ter Won­der­land” by Fe­lix Bernard (with Richard B. Smith), and of course, “White Christ­mas,” by Irv­ing Berlin.

Fi­nally, in the Book of Sa­muel, it is sug­gested that killing a lion in a pit is a good thing to do in the snow. And, when faced with a lion in a pit in win­ter, it's tough to ar­gue with that.

Seth Ro­govoy is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the For­ward who lives in up­state New York. De­spite his peo­ple’s great affin­ity for snow, he is not look­ing for­ward to shov­el­ing it this win­ter.


BLACK HAT, WHITE HEART:An Ortho­dox boy makes a snow­man af­ter a rare snow­fallin Jerusalem.


PAWN TAKES BUNNYHILL: Bobby Fis­cher learned to ski at the Grossinger Coun­try Club in 1957.

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