Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Frozen Poetry
Throughout my neighborhood, the icicles hang down from the eaves of the roofs like colonies of bats clustered along the walls of caves. Emerging from the heavy cover of melting and re-freezing snow, each icicle begins as gently dripping water which never quite makes it to its destined place on the earth, even under the spell of gravity. The drops congeal and are frozen in the grip of arctic temperatures which transform them into mute winter sculptures.
Each morning, I look out our back window at the icicles that dangle precariously over our backyard, and I worry that one or more of them might drop on the head of someone passing through our snowy property. Though they vary in length and thickness, these icicles are not the stale-ice-cream-in-the-box variety, those tiny and delicate crystals you find on your old food in the back of your freezer. They are long and pointy, and somewhat forbidding. When they gleam in the rare sunshine that dares to show its face in the February sky, they look almost like those ominous swords the hero-warriors carry around in fantasy novels. Like the snow, the wind chill, and the endless, ghostly whistling of cold air around our walls and windows, the icicles often box me in mentally with this feeling that winter is a relentless enemy massed at the gates of my happiness.
One recent Saturday afternoon, the color of the neighborhood was what the rock group, REM, once called headache grey, a consistent description of many winter days in Albany, New York. Because I do not drive during the Jewish Sabbath, which coincides weekly with Saturday, I walked to the home of some friends to enjoy the last hours of the holy day with them. During the week, they had mentioned to me that water from melted icicles had seeped into one of their windows, and that they had spent that week dealing with the problem. Far less melodramatic and nonplussed about such things than I am, they casually mentioned to me what they had done to fix the leak, and the conversation moved on. As the sun began to set, we looked out their back window at their kids deliriously whooping it up with some friends, as they kicked around in the snow and gingerly examined a huge icicle which was easily the size of a spear used to hunt elephants. While gazing at these simple yet wondrous gifts that can come out of hiding on a wintry Sabbath day, one of my friends said with quiet contentment, “I really love the snow.” Thinking about my walk to their house earlier that afternoon through the silent, white streets, I realized that when I shift my seasonally affected focus, I love it too. My friends and I noted how ominous and potentially dangerous those huge icicles appear to be, and how much damage they can potentially wreak for homeowners. “But you know,” we all concluded, “They are actually quite beautiful.”
Obviously, the kind of bitter cold and nasty weather we have experienced in the region can be debilitating, at times to the point of extremity. People are who not as lucky as we are to have a real roof over their heads will not reflect so lovingly upon the snow and the icicles under the roofs of others. Nonetheless, the snow and the icicles provide us with a kind of frozen poetry that suggests nature’s mysterious, ineffable beauty in crystalline verse. On that quiet, reflective Sabbath afternoon, I recalled how to read that poetry which celebrates winter, instead of merely viewing myself and my surroundings as the victims of extended frostbite. I closed my eyes and imagined God tracing the words elegantly in the snow, using the tip of an icicle as a pen.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.
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