Sarah, a pale, hollow-eyed rebbetsin (rabbi's wife), sways over her prayer book, her shayll (wig) slightly askew on her scalp.
Covered modestly in a long, high-buttoned dress, she mouths the Hebrew sounds earnestly in my direction. At six years old, however, I'm easily distracted from my lesson by her many children tumbling about her house, and my insatiable curiosity as to what, if anything, lies undemeath her shayll! Later, in a gym across town, a world-class rockclimber named Alex apes the graceful movements of a primate as he swings from hold to hold, his shirtless torso glistening with sweat. I gaze at my climbing mentor with rapt attention, my own climbing-shoed foot poised painfully over a tiny outcropping on the rock. Even at my young age, I'm struck by the realization that Alex has achieved his level of skill through the same single-minded, obsessive devotion to his sport that Sarah displays in her devotion to Judaism. Although they have followed greatly different paths, they have much in common. Every aspect of their lives, from the foods they choose to eat, the rituals they perform, their relationships to others, and their work, is intertwined with their particular form of worship.
The differences lie in their individual interpretations of these aspects. Food plays a fascinating role in the lives of both my climbing coach, Alex, and my Hebrew teacher Sarah. The strict compulsive preparation of kosher ("proper; fit") meals in Sarah's home is particularly mystifying. The Hebrew alphabet and holiday stories take a back seat to my chance to peek at the rich chaos of Sarah's ultra-orthodox kitchen. The complicated dietary laws aside (no shellfish; no pork; no mixing of meat and dairy), there are the ritual hand-washings before meals, the different prayers for each food group, and aftermeal prayers.
Oy! It's a wonder I ever risked a Shabbos meal in Sarah's home, but the lure of matzoh-ball soup and fragrant noodle pudding was irresistible. Ironically, the dietary expenmentations of my fun-loving climbing ccach, Alex, are no less "religious" in practice. One unsuccessful diet, a strict regimen of brown rice and sweet potatoes, led to vanous nutritional deficiencies.
Just when I had concluded that Alex was a vegetarian, he switched to a steak and roast-beef diet ever in search of the perfect muscle/weight ratio that would allow hio body to soar across jagged boulders. Well, maybe there was some logic to those menus, but what about the vacuum-dried bovine brain supplements, or the shark cartilage pills? My parents expressed alarm when they learned about our "dumpster diving for discarded bagels" expeditions, which occur outside a Noah's Bagel Outlet. I believe that the attractive price of these doughy gems, rather than the nutritional benefits, are the draw for hungry climbers like Scott! The calendar cycles, daily activities and rest days are equally important to my devoutly committed mentors. Sarah's prayers, charitable activities, and care of her six (now ten, and counting…
) chiidren are altered by the seasons, month-long holidays, and weekly frenzy before Shabbos, a day of utter, obsessional "rest" (even the carrying of an infant on Shabbos is hotly debated by rabbis…).
Similar to Sarah's religious practices, Alex's daily weight-lifting schedule, finger exercises, and climbing workouts are just as "set in stone". Like Sarah, whose livelihood is earned with religious tutoring, Alex remains true to climbing.