Daniel Landes
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Isolated in holiness

'Ironically and beautifully, the pure white layer of snow leads to a thawing of the frozen heart'

The single most shocking and delicious snowstorm revelation is how isolated we are in Jerusalem. Our royal road, the thin Kvish Echad (Highway One) is easily blocked, and this recent snowfall has accomplished that trick. Combining this with the advent of Shabbat, people abandoning cars on the road, and certain governmental unpreparedness made the isolation partially self-inflicted. At home, faced with ice on top of cold, Jerusalemite families are at a loss: no one has chains on their cars, shovels to clear the walk, or salt for the outside stairs. Faced with the felled trees in my neighborhood of Abu Tor, I recall the sturdy men of the neighborhood of my youth – the old South Side of Chicago – who would have descended to their basements, retrieved their power saws and gone to work!

We sit here in the dark and cold by our yahrtzeit candles (three days without electricity and heat) fortifying ourselves with the old/new Jewish solutions of Slivovitz and Jack. We are strangely happy on this endless Shabbat, for as much as we Jerusalemites love to see ourselves as the center of all things – just look at almost any medieval map of the world to prove this truth – we prize even more our specialness, our splendid isolation. It’s tough to live in Jerusalem – it’s expensive, noisy, and everyone is smart, competitive and nosey. So if we are here, and we are all here by choice, it is because we congratulate ourselves as being a special breed.

But more so we feel special because this isolation is a strange confirmation of Jerusalem’s Holiness, its unique status. Kedushah is after all a state of being elevated and separate. And Jerusalem is the city of kedushah. It is not supposed to be easy to get to Jerusalem. Pilgrims of old always had a difficult time getting up here. The roads were windy and winding, the weather blusterous when it wasn’t sunny and scorching, and the path blistering. Deep down, we Jerusalemites feel that modern day pilgrims should emulate those who made aliyah li-regel, going happily up to Jerusalem for the holidays, and sing the Psalms of Hallel every torturous step of the way. Standing on the heights of Jerusalem we often feel that the country and the world need us and not the other way around.

This combination of solitude and a sense of superiority is even more corrosive than the 200 tons of coarse salt that the city is laying on the roads. Isolation can and often does breed contempt and fragmentation, not just with those beyond the Jerusalem Mountains but mainly those within. Jerusalem can claim the title of most self-isolated city, with divisions between Arab and Jew, Religious and Secular, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and seemingly infinite self-isolating divisions within each of these tribes.

And yet this is where, ironically and beautifully, the pure white layer of snow leads to a thawing of the frozen heart. Small but precious anecdotes of human warmth abound even within my own family.

On Thursday my daughter and son-in-law, taking a brief stroll on the Tayelet Promenade encountered a young Muslim mother with her two tiny children. They had just made a miniature snowman, which they were carrying replete with requisite eyes, nose, mouth and arms. Impulsively the family offered the snowman to Hannah and Eitan who joyously received it. All were happy and giggled;

A Landes snow golum
Pardes students with their snowman, credit: Judy Gerstenblith, Pardes Year Program 2013-14

Earlier that day, my wife Sheryl, a cold war Midwest warrior, saw an Arab car around our corner stuck in a drift. She quickly gathered armfuls of broken branches to put under the wheels for traction. As their wheels spun and the car jumped free, the men got out and showered Sheryl with blessings in Hebrew and Arabic;

My son, walking home late Friday night in the blizzard from dinner with friends, was encountered by a van of young teens (Arabs? Jews?) who stopped and pelted him with snowballs. With Shabbat on and the eiruv down, he could not return fire but gave them a wide grin, which was enough for them to wish him a warm and friendly Shabbat Shalom, and head off for the next target. And then, more seriously, there were those, who having to abandon their cars, were taken in by strangers.

I have no such stories of my own, but other things thaw as well. Trudging through the snow on Shabbat from our freezing home to my mother’s for a terrific hot cholent, I found myself joyously singing Shabbat zemirot — something that this frozen Kalte Litvak, cold, cold Talmud student of Lithuanian descent, never does — each song mysteriously ending with the refrain “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” from the Dean Martin cover of that classic song. I was reminded of the last big snowstorm to come down, well over a decade ago. While walking near the Jerusalem Theater on Erev Shabbat I spied an enormous reclining snow nude, anatomically correct. The material was frigid but the maiden was hot. I spied the two artists, brothers hiding their peyot under their berets, students — I learned — of some of Western Europe’s finest postmodern philosophers. They had given up all of that on their aliyah, and these Talmud study partners, as they became increasingly frum, isolated themselves from their former lives. Encountering my recognition and astonishment, the older one smiled slyly, and warmly confessed, “but we are still… French! The snow made us…”

If you dig under the cold, massive snow around you, you can create a place of heat not only for yourself, but for the unexpected guest. This is also true of the often isolating structures of meaning we build for our lives… with just a little hollowing out, the frigid walls can become inviting places of warmth and friendship. And so it happens in Jerusalem, our isolated and holy Snow City on the mountain.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of Yashrut, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. Yashrut includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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