Friday, February 14, 2014


Why does the snow have this weird, atavistic effect on me almost always? I sit in my nice warm study and look out my double-pane glass windows at the snow falling…and, instead of reminding myself how fortunate I am to live in a nice warm house with an intact roof and cable TV, somehow I find myself imagining—wistfully!—my great-great-great-times-ten-thousand-grandparents sitting in their Pleistocene cave by a roaring fire wearing mastodon pelts—I imagine these looking something like my mother’s mink stole, except much, much larger—and watching the very same snowy scene unfolding outside the cave’s rocky entrance. Did they wonder what their great-great-great-times-ten-thousand-grandson would look like or in what kind of cave I would live? Did they imagine me snuggling up with my pet glyptodon, or whatever glyptodons would eventually evolve into, and watching it snow while I wonder about them and their lives? (This is a fantasy—glyptodons were actually armadillos the size of cars and my Pleistocene ancestors certainly would not have had the insight to imagine the world’s fauna evolving over countless millennia from the animals they knew in their world into the ones that exist today.) For some reason, I find that a satisfying fantasy…and not a silly Flintstone-y one at all taking place in make-believe, cartoonish Bedrock either, but a more realistic one featuring ancestors actually sitting in a cave somewhere snuggled up in wooly mammoth stoles, grunting at each other in their proto-Neanderthal language, and watching it snow. Is that experience encoded somewhere in my DNA?  I suppose it could be! (How could I not have had Pleistocene ancestors? Mustn’t we all have?)

But even without the abstruse genetic theorizing, the snow has always called to me. I like to walk outdoors in it. I especially like skating in outdoor rinks that are surrounded by snow-laden trees. I’m sure I’d like skiing if I wasn’t more afraid of killing myself. (Why do I always think of Sonny Bono when I think of skiing and not, say, Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me? No need to answer!)  I even like books about snow! I read Orhan Pamuk’s book, Snow, a few years ago and loved it, for example, but more evocative is a different recollection, one from my childhood: I remember my father reading some children’s book version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Snow Image to me when I was a little boy (we had very eclectic reading tastes at the Cohens’ and young people’s versions of the classics were big on Dad’s list) and being less, not more, upset than my dad when the little girl melts at the end. (Does anyone read that kind of thing to children anymore? If not, they should!) But on a day like today I don’t feel like reading about snow any more than I feel like shoveling the driveway. (And you can trust me that I don’t feel like shoveling the driveway at all.) And so, stuck indoors, I turn to fantasy.

Snow pops up in our classical literature in unexpected places. There was Benaiah ben Yehoyada, David’s general and personal bodyguard, whom Scripture recalls, among other things, as once having killed a lion with his bare hands in a pit filled with snow. There’s King Solomon’s caustic observation that honor becomes a fool exactly as much as snow suits the sultry summer.  There’s Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days seated on his fiery chariot throne garbed in garments “as white as snow.” That passage is cited over and over in later rabbinic literature, but far more familiar to readers will be the famous line from the Eishet Chayil (which was originally part of the final chapter in Proverbs) that notes that a woman of true valor has no fear of the snow because she makes sure her kids only go out into it wearing bright scarlet outfits, thereby (I’ve always assumed) not needing to worry that they might become lost in all that frozen whiteness.

But for me personally, the passage that comes to mind always when it begins to snow is the 147th psalm. It shouldn’t be unknown to at least some readers: it is, after all, part of the preliminary morning service every single day of the year…and with no exceptions at all. Still, it somehow retains its obscurity even despite such liturgical prominence. (Could that have something to do with the number of people present each morning for the so-called “Chapters of Song” that begin morning worship? It could!) Still, it is a remarkable poem, one of my personal favorites. And so, on this snowy, frigid morning, I’d like to travel with you all back…not to my Pleistocene great-times-a-million grandma, but merely to old Jerusalem.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the poet as an older Levite. Many of his poems have become classics, yet the need to write, to compose, to produce remains strong even in his older years. His wife is ready for him to retire. So are his children, each of them all grown up now and married, each the parent of his or her own children. But the need to compose, to write…it remains as strong as ever with this guy.  His world view, in fact, is shaped by the relentless need to find new subject matter, new things to write about, new topics to focus through the internal lyric prism that has served him so well over all these many years. And so, a bit bowed by the years but nowhere near broken by them, our Levite gets up out of bed one morning to find the city covered in snow.

It doesn’t snow that often in Jerusalem. It did this year, and with a vengeance. But most years…not so much or even not at all. In other words, snow—then as now—was both a huge problem for Jerusalemites…but also an unexpected treat. For children, it was something to play in. For shopkeepers, also then as now, it was a something to shovel away. For photographers (only now), it was something to record on film, then try to sell to tourists. But for our Levite (only then)…it was a challenge. He had begun a poem that was going well, one that focused on the notion that, despite all the contractors and workers in the municipality’s employ, it was only right to acknowledge God as the city’s “true” builder, as the divine source of its wellbeing. Choosing cleverly to play that thought off against God’s “other” roles in the poet’s conception—as Healer of the wounded, as Consoler of the downhearted, as Maker of the countless stars that twinkle in the nighttime sky not as astronomical marvels per se but as signs of God’s watchful, benevolent presence even during nighttime hours when the lonely and dejected often feel their worst—the poet has begun what has the potential, he thinks, to be a great poem. Moreover, the poet’s half-done ode to God’s enduring presence in the world featured other interesting juxtapositions—the one, for example, that features God both as the humbler of the unjust…and also as a God who watches over the chicks in a raven’s nest. 

And then the poet woke up, fully intending to finish his poem and send it over to his editor for a final work-through…and saw, instead of ravens’ nests in the trees across the courtyard, a wall of snow falling from the sky and covering his city. And so a progression of ideas suggested itself, one that worked both as an ode to God’s endless protectiveness and the slightly unnerving manifestation, at least on that specific morning, of God as the Maker of snow and winter storm.

The poet brews a pot of whatever Jerusalemites drank in the mornings. Not coffee, I don’t think. (I believe coffee was first cultivated in the fourteenth century CE.) Maybe some sort of herb tea. At any rate, the pot is brewed. The Levite’s wife is off to the shuk to buy some bread and some ḥummus before the weather gets even worse. And the Levite, our poet, sits down to write.

“O Jerusalem, praise God,” he begins. Then he hesitates and starts over, this time trying for a bit more emotion by including a list of reasons for the gratitude he is trying to inspire: “O Zion, laud your God,” he begins again, “that God Who has fortified the bars on your gates and blessed the children in your midst, Who has made peaceful your borders and satisfied you with the choicest wheat, Who sends divine speech to earth…”  He looks up and re-reads what he’s written. It’s good, he thinks. It will, at any rate, go over well with the choirmaster…and nothing gets published in old Jerusalem unless it has already been set to music, unless the Levitical choir has already begun to sing it in public, thereby whetting the public desire to purchase copies to take home and enjoy privately and personally. But then...he suddenly looks up and the scene unfolding outside his window arrests his attention.

It’s snowing. But it’s not just snowing. It’s a remarkable scene, one he barely recalls seeing before. The flakes are huge and fluffy, and appear to be floating on the air before they fall to the ground. There’s wind too in the air, and the downy flakes are revolving around unseen axes in some sort of meteorological pas de deux with unseen columns of wind that serve as the invisible partners of the entirely visible snow.  And so, taking a long draught of his herbal tisane, he looks out at the storm and continues his paean to God. “...Who covers the  earth with snow as though it were a blanket of wool,” he writes. Then, liking where this is going, he moves forward.  “And Who scatters frost on the ground as though it were ash, Who hurls chunks of ice to earth as though they were mere breadcrumbs—and who can withstand the cold God sends to earth?”

The Levite looks up for a moment. This is just where he wants to go—framing divine beneficence with the terror that divinity might almost accidentally inspire when, even for just one morning, the gloves are off and the full force of God’s power is briefly on full display. 

The poem needs a conclusion.  But how exactly to wrap this up…that is a different question. It needs to be uplifting, even stirring—our poet knows the rules!—but it can’t be maudlin or, worse, silly. It needs to inspire…but in just the right way. And so the poet looks out again at the swirling columns of snow and thinks of…of all things…spring. “But it is also God Who sends a word to melt all the ice,” he writes, feeling reassured by his own confidence, and Who sends a warm wind that makes the ice into flowing water. Furthermore, it is God Who reveals this power totally to alter everything with a single word to Jacob, just as the divine statutes and laws were once revealed to Israel—and these, the poet imagines, is “something God does not do for other nations, peoples that consequently do not  know the ways of God as does Israel.”

He sits back. The fire is burning inside, but the air outside is frigid. How he’s going to make his way to the Temple for choir practice, he has no idea. They haven’t invented galoshes yet. The average Jerusalemite’s idea of a winter coat is a toga made of slightly thicker wool than its own springtime version. He hasn’t left the house, and he’s already cold. But his poem is good…and he knows it. He sits back to read, then to re-read, what he’s written. He likes what he’s written, but something is missing, some final statement that, without gilding the lily, will wrap up the poem and make it both memorable and publishable. For a long moment, he considers his options. And then, finally certain that he has it right, our Levite adds one single word at the bottom of the page: “Hallelujah.”

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