Bending the Knee and the Value of Anachronisms
No, I’m not making a Game of Thrones reference, unless I’m skiing like there’s a hot Targaryen at the bottom of the ski hill.
I’ve been a telemark skier for about 23 years. I’ve done alpine and I’m fine with it, and I’m mildly curious about splitboarding, but telemarking has become special to me. I was already a decent skier when I was stationed at Fort Richardson in Alaska. After a few weeks at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska, particularly the ski portion of the training at Black Rapids Training Site, I developed an affinity for free heel skiing almost by necessity. We had those nice “white rockets” with a bear-trap cable binding that accommodated the white “bunny boots” Arctic paratroopers wear.
They generally teach the wedge method for getting downhill, but I instinctively wanted to cut more elegant turns. Our instructor, a staff sergeant (this was 1996) whose name I can no longer remember, grabbed better skiers and taught us the tele turn, and I was hooked forever.
“You can earn your turn,” he said, echoing a staple statement of telemark skiers. It was practical. Bunny boots and white rockets weren’t the parabolic, plastic boot affairs that let amateurs cut decent tracks down a slope. If you can ski with elan in that rig, you can ski in anything. And my backcountry / touring “work” setup I use around our property here in Maine is a practical wide Fischer ski with fish-scales and a nice Voile cable binding, and a pair of Karhu tele boots. I can make clean tele turns in those just as easily as I can in my more sophisticated Rossignol/Rottefella/Crispi rig that I use for actual backcountry downhill and the resort.
There was a semi-famous article in POWDER magazine a few years ago that posited that “telemark is dead.” Perhaps as a commercially viable product for manufacturers, that’s true. As the article points out, there aren’t major innovations as there are in alpine skiing all the time. We haven’t had a boot update in some time. And the innovations of alpine skiing are hard to argue.
I have no rational explanation for why I am drawn to this form of skiing. It’s certainly not because I think I’m better than an alpine skier. It’s could be as simple as even the most clumsy, but successfully executed tele turn feels damn elegant to me. I feel like there’s a discipline and a reverence for the descent, on or off piste. At the end of the day, I share a mountain with all sorts of skiers and snowboarders, and I’m just glad we’re all there, paying for lift tickets so that our resorts can keep the lights on, the snow groomed, and the chairs going up. I’m not a snob and I’m not an elitist.
It does, fit into a pattern in my life. There’s a romance in the anachronism. There’s a luxury in the stark simplicity of yesterday’s innovations. I do most of my creative writing on a Kaypro CP/M machine. I love telemark for the same reasons I love these other things, I think: reduced to its most basic form, it’s still wholly functional.
And this, too, is why I love traditional Judaism. It’s why I love traditional liturgy. It’s why I try so hard to be shomer mitzvot. Just as I find that with telemarking, that there’s a discipline and a reverence for the descent, there’s a discipline and a reverence to the ascent with a traditional religious approach.
I walked out of a service on our winter vacation this year. There’s only one synagogue in our preferred holiday destination with my in-laws. It’s a Reconstructionist synagogue. Their rabbi is kind, and many of their congregants are wonderful. This week, I tried their Friday night Shabbos service after mostly enjoying it the last time we were there. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a valid minyan, so a congregant said “we can do 9 plus the Torah.”
Now for those of you that aren’t familiar, this is a common misunderstanding of a relatively settled debate about whether a pre-bar mitzvah boy holding a Torah can count for a quorum of 10. As I understand it, Rabbi Feinstein permitted it only if failure to make a minyan would lead to the demise of a congregation. Most other authorities, contemporary and in the past, don’t allow it. This guy wasn’t a scholar (though neither am I, but I care to know what I am talking about). He couldn’t cite an authority when I asked him to back that up. Nearly all Ashkenazi, and that includes myself, follow the rule that adults over 13 make a minyan, and that’s that. So when they got to the Borchu, they opened the aron and continued as if we had 10. I left shortly after, knowing that 8 plus the Torah isn’t a minyan however you shake it.
I challenged myself about this on the way home. What would it have hurt to just let it be? I was a guest in their synagogue. At the same time, I was a guest being pressed into something I knew to be wrong. I pushed back, I was met with supposition and a fiction about what constitutes a minyan, and they proceeded to abuse my presence to make their minyan anyway. I think I was right to be offended. Besides, not that I think it’s mandatory to rocket through liturgy, but it’s the same complaint I have about Reform liturgy – why does it always seem to take liberal branches of Judaism twice as long to daven a quarter as much of the traditional liturgy?
It was the same discontent I felt when we were members of a Reform synagogue. I still love the community. I love the rabbi. But “choose your own adventure” isn’t a recipe for maintaining a lasting tradition. If we can say something is Jewish merely because we say it is Jewish, or it “seems” correct, the only thing that occurs is dilution at worst and pollution at best. And in fairness, they do say that’s what they are. Reform didn’t stop Reforming; they acknowledge they are constantly evaluating their faith to reconcile with the present.
Say what you will about the Conservative movement, but it puts a significant amount of consideration into decisions to upend standing rabbinical decrees. But this isn’t about finding fault with a weird, isolated congregation, or the problems with movements of Judaism. This is about why I’m drawn to the traditional vs. the increasingly common approach. Just like alpine skiing, I think non-traditional Judaism is viable and wonderful in their own way. They’re just not for me.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned since embarking on adulthood, it’s that nothing worth doing should be easy. Nothing worth investment should come without cost. For me, community center Judaism, where I mouth a transliterated repetition of one line from a much longer prayer, is never going to be sufficient, particularly if it is to believed we are in conversation with the divine. I can cut an easy turn with the right alpine ski and boot combination, or I can drop my knee and feel that long turn in my knee and in my quads. I feel an intimacy with the fall line that I simply don’t feel in an alpine ski.
When I telemark, I commune with the mountain. When I word process on a 37-year old computer, I’m communing solely with my creativity and none of the distractions of modern computing. When I cling to Litvak traditions, I’m doing it because I’m trying to commune with G-d. In each case, that communion is worth the extra effort, or the inconvenience, or even the lack of popular appeal.