It turns out that I’ve underestimated the spiritual importance of chairlifts.
Give people a Rorschach test with an Austria-shaped ink stain (a spoon tilted to the right with an oversized bowl and a short handle), and skiing is likely to be among the terms associated with my alpine native country. Every winter holiday while I was growing up, my family would fill several suitcases with thermal underwear and we would travel west, from the top right corner of the bowl, where Vienna is located, to the beginning of the handle, or mountainous Salzburg.
Never much of an athlete, I saw skiing as one of the few national duties I had to fulfill (watching “Sissi,” a three-part movie screened every Christmas on TV that offers a heavily romanticized depiction of the life of Austria’s former empress, played by Romy Schneider, was another one). But I always looked forward to the breaks. They came in the form of chairlift rides. Among my favorite activities on the 10-minute trip up the hill were: eating the chocolate my aunt had stuffed in the pockets of my skiing jacket, singing Beatles songs off-key with my cousins, and shouting ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa,’ and seeing if any of the people skiing on the slopes underneath me would reply.
It came as somewhat of a surprise when I recently learned that there are more constructive things to do on the chairlift — like learning about Judaism and strengthening my Jewish identity.
Joshua Segal, a skiing instructor and retired rabbi of Congregation Betenu in Amherst, N.H., offers a program called Ski Kabbalah. On the chairlift ride up, Segal gives his participants a task related to kabbalistic concepts, to be performed while skiing. He says that elements of the Tree of Life, the central mystical concept of Kabbalah, correspond with parts of the human body, and thus kabbalistic concepts such as balance could be directly translated into skiing.
“For example, if you were to take away one thing, what do you have to do to compensate?” he asked. I always dreaded when skiing instructors demanded that I go without sticks, but Segal told me that he only takes skiers who are able to meet these sorts of challenges anyway.
Segal is not the only one who offers spiritually enlightening alternatives to munching on half-frozen chocolate bars while dangling in midair. “Shabbat on Skis,” available at two ski resorts, Copper Mountain in Colorado, and Heavenly Mountain in California, is the brainchild of Jamie Korngold, also known as the “Adventure Rabbi” and the author of several books, including “God in the Wilderness” published by Random House in 2008.
She meets with her participants once a month on a Saturday morning, skis with them for two hours, and then leads a 15-minute service in a “beautiful little shelter” at noon.
“I try to give people something to think about on the chairlift,” Korngold, who lives in Boulder, said. “Sometimes it’s the idea of how to make this day, Shabbat, different from yesterday.”