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The Modern-Day Appeal of Tu B’Shevat

The Jewish New Year of the Trees demands little of us, but offers us a chance to connect our roots with good causes, new rituals, and recipes

Jenna Weissman Joselit
January 30, 2018
Photo: Library of Congress/G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection
Photo: Library of Congress/G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection
Photo: Library of Congress/G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection
Photo: Library of Congress/G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection

If ever there was a holiday ripe for revitalization and collective embrace, it’s Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. Falling smack in the middle of winter, when the weather is usually not at its best, the age-old festival, which some scholars date to the early Middle Ages, heralds the prospect of regeneration, of sunnier days ahead. That alone should commend it to North American Jews, lifting their spirits when they sag under the weight of gloves and hats and scarves, their movement impeded by the heavy tread of boots.

The promise of a spring in our steps isn’t the only thing that renders Tu B’Shevat an attractive candidate for celebration. It asks little of us: No fasting or renunciation, no breast-beating, no synagogue-attendance, no declaration of faith is required. Instead, Tu B’Shevat comes bearing food, song, easygoing rituals, and a child-centered context in which to engage them.

The consumption of products grown in the Holy Land is the centerpiece of the holiday. Once upon a time, this meant dried apricots, figs, dates, and a brown, barklike substance called bokser. That unfamiliar item, which gave one’s teeth quite a workout, together with other dried fruits that gave new meaning to desiccation, came in an equally unattractive brown paper bag: hardly an effective way to forge long-lasting ties to the State of Israel. Not until many years later, when I became a devotee of my local health food store, did I learn that bokser had another name and another association: Known in those quarters as a carob pod, it’s thought to be both tasty and good for you. But that was still to come. When, as a wee lass, I was given this poor excuse of a goody bag, all I could think of was “yech.”

Happily, things have changed. These days, there’s no need to lose a tooth or suppress your appetite on the 15th of Shevat. Creative cooks have developed tasty and fanciful alternatives to bokser, ranging from sprightly grain salads and persimmon-laced pastries to chocolate bark.

The ritual life of Tu B’Shevat has also changed. Years ago, its commemoration was as meager and unprepossessing as its cuisine: You’d sing a few songs, dance a few listless rounds of the hora, and symbolically plant a tree in the land of Israel. There wasn’t much to it. These days, growing numbers of American Jews hold a Tu B’Shevat Seder, which, like the more familiar Passover version (but of shorter duration), welds eating, drinking, singing, and the reading of a wide range of texts—some kabbalistic in origin, others of a more contemporary ecological bent—into a bona fide ceremonial occasion.

Tu B’Shevat’s appeal resides not just in its foods and rituals, but also in its sensibility, which is nothing if not pliable. The day lends itself to good thoughts and goods deeds that bear on fruitful contemporary issues, from environmental stewardship and sustainability to our relationship with the Land of Israel. In the right hands and with the right attitude, they can be effectively combined into a wholesome, uplifting and decidedly modern practice.

Even as American Jews resolve to give the contemporized Tu B’Shevat a try, it’s worth noting that ours is not the first generation to endow the Jewish version of Arbor Day with contemporary resonance or, for that matter, to associate Zionism with cultivating the soil. In the 1960s, when the movement was in full flower, the Jewish Education Committee of New York, which, among other things, developed the curriculum for the afternoon Hebrew school, made much of Tu B’Shevat, promoting its pleasures, and those of the new State of Israel, through music and song. To get everyone in the right frame of mind, Harry Coopersmith, the organization’s music director and one of the unsung heroes of American Jewish history, produced a “33 1/3 long-playing” album called Songs for TuBishvat and Purim.

A snazzy cover in hot pink, apple green, and shiny black proclaimed its fidelity to modernity, as did its text, which wittily noted that “TuBishvat and Purim, two festivals that add zest and color to dreary winter months, find themselves groove by groove and back to back on this delightful recording.” The album’s roster of “inspiring tunes” and “rollicking folk songs” included “Shibolet Basadeh” (“Tall Corn Grows”) and “Hashkediya Porachat” (“The Almond Tree”), imprinting these two melodies on the popular imagination of those American Jewish youngsters who were first exposed to them 50-odd years ago.

At other times of the year, images of swaying stalks of corn and blossoming almond trees kept company with images of trees—or, more to the point, with the Jewish National Fund’s ongoing campaign to afforest the land of Israel with the “lifeline of nature, of mother-earth,” as one forester put it in 1947. While our Israeli relatives took spade in hand and planted honest-to-goodness saplings—evergreens rather than fruit trees were the preferred variety—we in the United States made do with paper facsimiles (and lots of glue). Still, as far as symbolic gestures go, this one went a long way, enabling American Jews, young and old alike, to feel as if they were doing their bit to restore the ancient Land of Israel.

Running parallel with tree-planting was a less well-known but equally compelling horticultural event known as Palestine Flower Day, or Yom Haperech, as it was called after the rise of the State of Israel. Held in the spring, usually during the merry months of May or June and instituted by the Jewish National Fund shortly before WWI, it took its cue from the biblical passage, citing “and the desert shall bloom like a garden” on its promotional materials.

A stylized red flower—a rose, perhaps, or maybe a poppy—adorned posters encouraging those within range to make a small contribution to the Jewish National Fund. For 25 cents, you could “buy a flower to make the Negev bloom.” If you preferred to make more of a commitment—and a bolder statement—you could also sport a small plastic lapel pin with a red flower at its center.

Between the trees and the flowers, the lively songs, and the dried fruit (OK, maybe not the dried fruit), the Zionism of yesteryear held out the possibility of renewal. For many American Jews today, that vision may no longer hold much water. Even so, in both Zionism and Judaism’s attentiveness to the natural order, there’s cause for celebration—and an incentive to add Tu B’Shevat to our annual roster of holidays.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.