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August 21, 2014 | 25th Av 5774

Tu BiSh'vat

January 19, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

Tu BiSh'vat week is finally over. Tons of dried fruit and nuts have been purchased and consumed. Tree planting ceremonies and school assemblies and the newly popular Tu BiSh'vat sedarim have been held all week. Our own youth group held a seder for the community last night, using blurry photocopies of one of the colorful Tu BiSh'vat haggadot that have been published in the past few years. Our youth director, who is a bit weak in the area of liturgy, creative or otherwise, seemed to have picked an odd combination of passages to be read, and the singing was thin, and the progression from white to red wine/juice got lost since all we had was one color -- but there was a great selection of dried fruits on the table. And today, the day after Tu BiSh'vat, I arrived at a school in Karmiel to teach an inservice class only to find the teachers happily involved in their own Tu BiSh'vat party, replete with several different recipes of fruit cake, and baked apples.

So you thought it was a one-day holiday? Or maybe you thought it wasn't a holiday at all, but just a technical date mentioned in the Mishnah, marking the beginning of the tithing year for the fruit of trees? Well, actually... For most of Jewish history, it is true, nobody paid much attention to Tu BiSh'vat. Even when the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century found mystical significance in the different types of fruit, creating a Tu BiSh'vat "seder" for eating the various fruits according to their meanings, most of the Jews of the world remained unaware of this practice, and the day remained a non-holiday.

With the establishment of the Zionist movement and the Jewish National Fund, a new and brilliant synthesis was created: the linking of Tu BiSh'vat with the planting of trees in Eretz Yisrael. Suddenly the technical "new year for trees" took on a whole new meaning, one which addressed an important educational need, especially for the growing urban population of pre-state Palestine: how do we instill in the children of proletariat and the bourgeoisie of Tel Aviv and Haifa, of Hadera and Tiberias, the love of and rootedness in Eretz Yisrael? The answer: a massive educational effort, with annual marches and plantings, pageants and campaigns, in schools and in youth movements -- a major event in the annual calendar of the Yishuv, described with great emotion in the media and memoirs of the time. Tu BiSh'vat was the Yishuv children's holiday, celebrating our return to the land in all the meanings of that phrase.

Over the years, this romantic, pioneering symbolism of Tu BiSh'vat has waned, as even kibbutzim have turned from agriculture to industry, and leased their fields for shopping malls -- not to mention the discovery that not all of the "reclamation" efforts of earlier years were environmentally wise. Meanwhile, about thirty years ago, Na'ot Kedumim, the biblical botanical park, developed a modern version of the kabbalists' Tu BiSh'vat seder, as an educational tool; I remember adapting it for my Hebrew school classes in the 70s. Now, in the past five years or so, there has been a surge of interest among the secular public in traditional and quasi-traditional forms of observance, and various movements and cultural organizations and educational institutions have published modern haggadot for the Tu BiSh'vat seder, assembling songs, readings, and art work on themes of ecology, nature, tree symbolism, and our bond to the land. And community centers and synagogues and schools have made these sedarim into significant communal events.

In a way, I suppose, this evolution of Tu BiSh'vat over the past century is a reflection of the Zionist dream of normal, organic development of a culture that integrates traditional Jewish sources and practices with the real-time experience of life in our land in a modern world.

The way I see it, any tradition that involves eating dried apricots is ipso facto worthy of preservation.

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