Meet the Jerusalem snowboarder from The Wall Street Journal’s front page

Yochanan_Katz

The curious spectacle of a major snowstorm in Jerusalem was the subject of a number of front-page photos in major U.S. newspapers. On Dec. 16, The Wall Street Journal ran a front page photo of a bearded snowboarder with tzitzit flying as he caught air in Jerusalem; the man was not named in the caption.

Some cursory Facebook and Twitter sleuthing helped me identify the subject of the photo. And that’s how I wound up having the following video chat via Skype with Yochanan Katz.

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JTA: Just to make expectations clear, I don’t think I can make you more famous than the Wall Street Journal did by putting you on the front page with your tzitzit flying. Can we proceed?

YOCHANAN: We can still proceed.

Did you know you were being photographed when you were catching air in Gan Sacher (park in Jerusalem)?

I knew after the first jump or two that I was being photographed. There were about 4 or 5 photographers out there. Afterwards, I gave them all my email address and asked them to send me their photos, and I didn’t get one photo.

Did you know who they were representing?

No, I had no idea whatsoever. They all had a fancy camera. I assumed they were freelancing.

You’re an American expat. Did your snowboard make aliyah with you? Or did you have to buy a snowboard in Jerusalem?

My snowboard came with me. I grew up from [grade] five through high school in Minnesota. Growing up, I used to go to a trash dump that they converted into a ski hill. It had a 100 ft. vertical, and my friends and I went night skiing on the ice. After high school, I went to Colorado State University, one of the reasons being to be closer to the mountains.

What’s the most air you got, aside from the ramp in Gan Sacher?

I didn’t actually build the ramp. There were a couple of other guys snowboarding when I got there. I don’t know if they built the ramp, or if the kids built it and it got taken over.

After university, I worked in Vail as a “liftee,” one of guys running the ski lift. There were a lot of big jumps at the biggest resort in North America.

Your tzitzit are kinda famous now. Do you think the beged (garment) of your tzitzit might attract sponsorship? Like from a caffeinated beverage maker? Maybe SodaStream?

I’m not sure. Nobody’s called yet. I’m sure all the guys on the lacrosse team I play for as well wouldn’t mind some sponsorship.

Did you know the other snowboarders out there that day?

No, I didn’t know them. My wife had never seen me snowboard before; I kind of wanted to show off for my wife. And my 3-year-old boy (Yaakov Meir) and 1-year-old girl (Shayna Malka). Wanted to take advantage of the once in a century snowstorm.

I saw that you also were snowboarding down the stairs in Nachlaot (neighborhood in downtown Jerusalem with many alley ways).

That was just outside of our apartment in Nachlaot. It was about 11 or 12 o’clock at night on motzaei shabbos (after the Jewish Sabbath). I went with a couple other friends of mine in the neighborhood to Gan Sacher. As I was walking back home the night before the now-infamous picture with the Wall Street Journal was taken, I was taking note in my head of how packed the stairs were with snow and I decided to try it out.

What was the reaction to the WSJ photo from friends, family, strangers …

Lots of people are very proud of me. They’re surprised to see a religious Jew streaming through the air on a snowboard; it’s kind of an oddity.

Lots of positive feedback. My parents are happy to still see me connected to snow and lots of things I grew up with.

We’ll have to unpack this another time, but I take it you’re a Ba’al Teshuva (a Jew who returns to the religious fold).

I was on a Birthright trip in January 2005. Before then, I’d never met a religious Jew in my life.

Do you feel any added pressure, now that you’re a publicly visible religious figure in popular media?

I feel pressured to try and represent the truest values of my being, and to try and express them in a way that’s true to myself and my beliefs — and hopefully to be an inspiration for other people to try and bring out their truth.

When you say truth, you mean snowboarding?

(Laughs) Snowboarding is just a part of my truth; every person has their own. It’s just something that’s unique and special, something that I hope I can bring to the world. And really to make my wife proud, who supports me. It’s also one of the main reasons I’m out there playing lacrosse.

The Israel Lacrosse Team. Is that a full time undertaking?

It’s a big undertaking. I hope to play in World Championships in July. One of the main goals in joining was to put myself in a strong place physically, to improve my skills and contribute to the team.

Random question: if Israel hosted the Winter X Games, what competitive event would you create for the occasion?

(Long, contemplative pause) Good random question.

(Resumes long pause) Ice lacrosse. Full contact ice lacrosse.

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