The New Year for Trees
It’s deep winter here in the Catskill Mountains of New York. In the forests around my home, the smaller streams are frozen solid. With temperatures often dipping below 0ºF at night, it’s hard to imagine spring. Yet the almond trees are already blooming in Israel, and Jews all over the world have just celebrated the Jewish arbor day known as Tu B’Shevat.
Tu B’Shevat — the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat (“Tu” is an acronym for the number 15) — is known as the New Year for Trees. In the Jewish tradition, all trees are given a collective birthday, or new year, so that their age may be reckoned in allowing them sufficient time to grow before we harvest their fruit, as instructed in the book of Leviticus. To celebrate Tu B’Shevat, we have a special seder, or ritual meal, in which the fruits, nuts, and seeds of Israel and of our local region are eaten and appreciated. Special readings accompany the tasting of three categories of foods that grow on trees: those that that have a tough outside and an edible center, such as pomegranates, oranges, and nuts; those that have an edible outside and a hard center, such as apricots, peaches, and dates; and those that are edible throughout, such as strawberries, figs, and carob pods. Each of these attributes symbolize aspects of our human psyches as well. Do you tend to be tough on the outside and soft on the inside, or the other way around? My daughter argues that pomegranates fit into both the first and second categories. Think about it!
The children at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation celebrated Tu B’Shevat even more by making decorations for our seder table. I started the project by setting up tables with colored paper, drawing and collage supplies, and photographs of fruits and nuts from Israel. There were almonds and figs, pistachios and pomegranates, olives, grapes, carob, and dates. Then I added some local favorites: oranges, apples, apricots, and strawberries. These foods are ancient archetypes of nourishment, abundance, and the sweetness of life – all themes of Tu B’Shevat. We honor the trees that have given so much to us, to our ancestors, and to all of humanity.
Using the photos for reference, thirty enthusiastic students and madrechim (teenage helpers) made colorful leaf-shaped place mats, each a laminated drawing of a fruit or nut along with its Hebrew name. Pairing up words with images is a great way to anchor new words and make language learning fun. For those children who could not attend the seder, this was a way for them to contribute. Other children drew beautiful designs on the paper tablecloths. The hand-drawn place mats looked lovely arranged on top, together with plates and trays of fruits and nuts, cups of wine in shades of white, pink, and red . . . it was a festival of color!
While we were drawing, it was interesting to ponder the idea of a New Year resolution for a tree. If a tree were determined to live a good year, what might it strive to do? There are many answers to this question; I found some interesting ones in the Tu B’Shevat section of Chabad.org. The tree could strive to grow deeper, stronger roots, and to give plenty of leaves back to the earth in autumn to help nourish the soil. It might resolve to shelter the seedlings that live in its shade; or to reach faithfully toward the sun, always extending itself higher and further toward that which it can never reach, yet that which nurtures the tree every day of its life: the sun. The tree could try to bend gently in the winds of adversity, accepting what G-d sends but never breaking or giving up hope. It might promise to give fruits that are sweet, so that all who walk away from it have a smile on their face.
What are the sweetest fruits we can offer to make others smile? How can we grow deeper, stronger roots – and in what are we rooted? What should we always reach for, even if we can never reach it? Who or what do we need to shelter and protect in our lives?
These questions could take a whole year to ponder! Not a problem, for a tree.
After the seder, we used the placemats as leaves on a big paper tree. In Israel, many people plant trees on Tu B’Shevat. Here in Woodstock, we have created a beautiful tree mural instead. To me, these drawings are like luscious fruits, enticing and sweet as the faces of the children who drew them.
Thanks to all the young artists at the WJC for adding color and joy to our holiday table. It was a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. Thanks also to Dee Graziano for her assistance in coordinating this project, and to all the teachers and madrechim who lent a hand.
To find out more about school visits and arts-in-ed programs with Durga Yael Bernhard, click here.
JEWISH-THEMED BOOKS BY
DURGA YAEL BERNHARD:
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AROUND THE WORLD IN ONE SHABBAT
is a 2012 winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award.
GREEN BIBLE STORIES is available in both hardcover and paperback. This unique collection retells classic Torah tales from an environmental perspective, and was an “honorable mention” book at the National Green Book Festival in San Francisco.