I grew up in the warm climates of Los Angeles and Miami Beach. I studied two years as a Rabbinical student in Sydney, Australia. Even when I lived for 11 years in Oxford, England as Rabbi at the University it rarely got wintery cold. So living in the northeastern United States is quite a challenge during the winter months and I'm writing this column while another foot of snow falls outside my door.
Man, has this been a brutal winter. The snow, the slush, the ice, the freezing rain. What the heck are people doing living here?
I survive the winters through three things. The first is a natural fireplace. I love real fires. I love the soothing sound of crackling wood and I love being warmed by their glow. I also love ordering my kids to make one for me.
The second is a warm robe. I decided this year to splurge on a nice one. What was I thinking for the first 43 years of my life. They say that a man needs two things in life. A good woman and a good lawyer. Add to that list a warm winter robe and you're set. Yes, I've become Lionel from Charlie Brown. Oh warm, life-giving robe. How spending are your wondrous pleasures.
And the third and most critical is skiing. If making lemonade out of lemons is the best way to turn a challenge into a blessing, then nothing tells nature to go shove it better than using all that snow to go skiing.
I discovered late, when I was about 25-years-old. I was living in England and was invited to a lecture in Geneva. From there my wife and I went to the slopes an hour away and on my first plunge down, convinced the poles were given to slow your speed by shoving them into the snow while moving at high velocity, the pole fired up like a missile, hit me in the chin, and nearly severed my tongue (fortunately for humanity it did not). When I walked to a local clinic, my wife holding my tongue in place, and heard the doctor say he had to put a needle through my tongue and switch it back together, I knew that G-d was punishing me for my sins. All that gossip had finally caught up with me.
Through the process of cognitive dissonance I first thought that the Doc had to be kidding. I was in absolute denial. Surely the man jests. But then I remembered that a joke has not been cracked in Switzerland since the first millennia. G-d's retribution had caught up with me. I held my wife's hand like a little child screaming as if I was in labor. The tongue survived and I have not gossiped since.
Overcoming my trauma, I was back on the slopes a few weeks later and persevered with my skiing. Within about three years I learned to get handily down a mountain, even if the technique I used was a little unorthodox, like yelling for help and flagging a snow mobile (Don't expect to see me on the Olympic downhill. I have but one tongue to give for my people).
Skiing provides, in one pristine package, all the things I adore. From fresh mountain air, to awe-inspiring mountain vistas, to being fully immersed in the beauty of nature, (not to mention an electric chairlift to indulge my indolence), it is the perfect antidote to the sedentary existence that can engulf so many in winter.
As my children got older I made sure to teach each of them to ski early. It was a simple process of gluing cut pieces of plastic to the bottom of their shoes after it snowed and pushing them down our inclined driveway. Dodging cars proved slightly more challenging. But slowly they learned.
Being in the New York metropolitan area, I feared that we would not find a good place to ski and that the steps outside our front door would be a life-long purgatory. I was therefore astonished to discover that just an hour from our home there was a broad and beautiful mountain resort with terrific skiing called Camelback in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. There my younger kids learned to fly down mountains while the older ones took to the terrain park doing jumps and all kinds of things that no force on earth could make me attempt (I like my tongue just the way it is). The Poconos are some of the Northeastern United States' most picturesque mountains and some of the most beautiful scenery east of the Appalachians. In the summer we hike them, cool off in the natural waterfalls, and have a blast at Camelback's water park on the same mountains where winter skiing is held. But the winter is when the place really comes to life.
Skiing is not the expensive sport it is said to be. You don't need all the fancy clothing or expensive skis. My son prefers to ski in simple jeans. And you can rent equipment at bargain basement prices for the entire season and at Camelback the half day pass, which is what we end up using anyway, is itself a bargain.
I am not enamored of ski resorts that have cut down all their trees, creating a bald and barren mountain. I love feeling that I am in a pristine Alpine setting and at Camelback the mountains look like mountains.
Immersing children in nature is fundamental not just to their physical but also spiritual and psychological well-being. As our children become couch potatoes, especially in the winter months, we often focus on how this contributes to childhood obesity and laziness. But we overlook how it also contributes to a constrained mental outlook and a character of artifice. Is it really conducive to a child's spiritual development to beat someone up with a lead pipe in a video game? But being surrounded by nature makes you feel more natural. Being surrounded by real beauty makes you shun contrived appearance. I have seen how much my children have benefited from being outdoors: from our camping and RV'ing to whitewater rafting to hiking and cycling, there is nothing more beautiful than being outdoors. And there is simply no excuse not to get your kids out in the winter months.
In my book Parenting with Fire I argued that the best kind of parenting is becoming a camp counselor, creating activities that constantly engage your kids.
So if you find yourself zipping down the Poconos on skis and a red blur whizzes right by you, you can safely assume it's me, especially if the blur is followed by a bunch of kids pretending not to be related to the guy right in front of them.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a renowned child-rearing expert and the author of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children, and Parenting with Fire, both of which were launched on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He has just published Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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