Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Mountain bikers pause at the junction of the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
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Judaism and the Art of Bicycle Riding

A mountain-biking trip brings unexpected lessons before Yom Kippur on not dwelling in fear and, instead, focusing on what we have the power to rectify.

Abigail Pogrebin
August 13, 2018
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Mountain bikers pause at the junction of the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I never planned to mountain bike with my rabbi.

Nor did I expect that our 74-year-old Native American guide would, while coaching us—or more accurately, berating us—down a steep rocky ravine, end up imparting so much Jewish wisdom.

But that’s what happened. I can’t get the words of George-the-self-described-Apache out of my head. And as Elul approaches, I’ve realized why.

First—to explain how we ended up bouncing through the brush on fat tires: Central Synagogue’s Senior Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and I decided we should find a way to mark the end of my tenure as Central’s president (three years of meetings, conference calls, emails, joy and tsuris) with some adventure that would take us out of our urban habitat.

We chose Sedona without realizing it would be 100 degrees in July, nor that, once we landed in Phoenix, we’d have to wait 90 minutes for the Arizona shuttle and then drive two hours to the inn nestled in the canyon. We signed up in advance for yoga, meditation, Ayurveda consultation, and the Prickly Pear Body Scrub. I hadn’t planned on any dusty, death-defying physical feats.

Okay, death-defying is overstating it, but there were times we gripped those mountain bikes with hair-raising certainty that we were careering into a large tree. Which was exactly what George had warned us would happen: When you panic, you can’t steer. When you grip too tight, you stop riding. When you don’t breathe, you can’t breathe.

There was one other pair of sojourners signed up for the 7 a.m. ride—two men from San Francisco. They proved to be the perfect riding comrades: wry, supportive, and as surprised as we were by how hard this sport was.

The sun wasn’t fully overhead as George—with his gray ponytail, wraparound sunglasses and well-worn bike gloves—gave us waivers to sign and explained what we were in for.

“This isn’t like the riding you’ve done in the past …

“The most important thing you can do is trust that the frame can handle the choppy terrain …

“Point your front wheel where you want to go; it will take you there …

“Don’t pedal on the downhill …

“Don’t grip the handlebars too hard, keep your arms relaxed …”

But the words that mostly ring in my head he repeated like a mantra:

“Always look way ahead of you. Never look down. As soon as you look down, you will hesitate, overthink, negotiate, get stuck. Always be moving into the future. Bike into the future.”

It could sound like a cornball, New Age command: “Bike into the future.” But it hit my ears as sage wisdom. Maybe the Arizona altitude was making me sentimental, or maybe my clergy-on-wheels caused me to hear everything through a Jewish filter, but George’s simple charge felt revelatory … and Jewish. How many times does our tradition ask us to “go forth”? How many times in our history have we had to keep going despite what’s thrown in our way? How many times has my synagogue actually pulled me toward something worthwhile?

Not to mention, George was also literally correct: Once we were out on the trails, as soon as we looked down, we were screwed—the bike suddenly spun out of control, stalled in a mud crevice or jammed its tires between rocks. When we looked ahead, on the other hand, the bikes jounced along easily, cooperatively—through whatever hazardous ground was underneath us—and we didn’t stumble.

I was the first of our group to choke. George bellowed loudly after watching me freeze and fail on my tangled vehicle: “GO BACK AND DO IT AGAIN, ABBY!” It felt like a public humiliation, but then I told myself: “He’s giving you the chance to feel what it’s like when it works. Humble yourself and go back to the starting gate.”

I dutifully walked my bike in retreat, as Angela and the guys cheered me on.

George didn’t just make me repeat the stretch I’d botched, he called out my deeper issues, though he’d just met me: “You’re too clenched,” he insisted, “too focused on getting it right. You’re not trusting the bike or the path. Keep your eyes ahead and trust that you’ll get where you need to go. Breathe all the way there.”

George made me want to disprove my cowardice. Intentionally or not, he distracted me from my own panic, and in the second attempt, I actually got the hang of it.

As we continued the three-hour lesson, I also started to see my rabbi differently. Angela is athletic, but no daredevil. Yet out in the desert, she appeared to have no hesitation, pure moxie. I’d always viewed her as intrepid—for choosing the rabbinate when she knew some would never view a Korean-American Jew as authentically Jewish; for opting to apply for the senior rabbi job when she could have played it safer by remaining our synagogue’s beloved senior cantor; for introducing worship rituals and music that might upend congregants’ reassuring routine; for sitting at the saddest hospital bedsides and standing at newly dug graves with a palliative calm; and for parenting her three children without the same angst I carried.

At lunch together later, overlooking the red cliffs, Angela asked me why I so often fixate on scary news stories—the family that died in a house fire, the pedestrian crushed by a crane. I told her I thought it was my superstition getting the best of me—a poor attempt to stave off awful fates.

“But it takes so much out of you,” she plainly observed.

It does, almost daily.

George told me that when I stopped being scared, the bike would go smoothly.

Angela told me that when I stopped focusing on tragedy, I’d carry less weight.

Both were right, though fear-shedding doesn’t come easily to me, nor to most Jews I know. We’re ingrained with worry—catastrophic thinking.

Now as I begin the stretch of Elul—that pre-Yom Kippur discipline where we take stock of our missteps, offenses, oversights, and stumbling blocks—I’m thinking about keeping my gaze out in front—focused on what I can improve or rectify, not all the reasons I might repeat the same mistakes again. Don’t look down, Abby. For a change.

Psalm 27, which we’re supposed to read daily during Elul, says, “Chazak v’ya’ameitz lib’cha, v’kavei … Be strong and give your heart courage.” As I ride the shoals of repentance during these High Holy Days, I’m holding onto the mental snapshot of my helmeted, plucky rabbi, barreling down a dry stony river bed, and George’s unsparing exhortations: “Ride into the future” … “Point the bike where you want to go.”

When I forget to do both, I’ll go back. Try it again.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.