Even after four years of living in New England I am still awed by the dramatic change of seasons and stunned by the harsh winter climate. I suppose it is something to which I will never completely adjust.
Growing up in California, the Jewish New Year for the Trees-Tu B’Shevat -which falls every year during January was a grand celebration. We sang songs, we planted, and we celebrated the day outdoors. This time of year in Israel, winter is loosing its edge, and Tu B’Shevat is a time to plant and demonstrate pride in the land. But where I now live, in Massachusetts, it’s different.
I remember how strange I felt teaching about Tu B’Shevat my first winter here. Tu B’Shevat is a holiday of trees, of planting. How odd it seemed to celebrate it in the midst of a frozen, white landscape. I showed a Tu B’Shevat video produced by the Jewish National Fund and pointed out the green landscape to my wide-eyed, third grade students. “Look! That’s what it looks like in Israel now, the hills are green, the sky is blue, things are beginning to come back to life,” I said, as their mouths dropped open in amazement.
Climate is indeed powerful, and defining. And so it is no wonder to me that the holiday of Tu B’Shevat remained dormant during the years when Jews no longer lived in the land of Israel but rather lived in harsh winter climates. The holiday has undergone a renaissance with establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
The holiday of Tu B’Shevat is a post-Biblical one-one of the four “New Years” mentioned in the Talmud. The holiday was originally created for tax purposes-an ancient Jewish version of April 15-as well as to fulfill the mitzvah or commandment of orlah-which forbids picking fruit from a tree before its fourth year. The observances associated with Tu B’Shevat are negligible, although a custom arose in Eastern Europe of eating fruits associated with the land of Israel. It wasn’t until the Jewish expulsion of Spain in 1492 and the subsequent return to Israel that Tu B’Shevat began to flourish as a holiday.
There, in the land of Israel, and in particularly in the northern city of Sefad, Tu B’Shevat became a harbinger of spring. The Jewish mystics drank four cups of differently shaded wine and ate many different fruits and nuts as part of a seder or ritual meal. These foods of the Tu B’Shevat seder were closely identified with the land of Israel, the life-giving powers of the earth and the approaching spring. With the rise of the modern state of Israel in 1948, Tu B’Shevat took on the added meaning as a day to commemorate the blooming of Israel’s desert with newly planted trees.
Although the New England climate is not exactly conducive to outdoor activity on Tu B’Shevat, the holiday has still become all the more powerful as a symbol of Israel and a precursor to a much-awaited spring. The sky is gray, the earth is white, yet the arrival of this holiday is an ideal New Year’s celebration; a time of renewal and reconnection, to the cycles of the earth, the balance of nature, and the enduring hope of spring.
Jill Suzanne Jacobs wrote this article for Jewish Family & Life!-www.jewishfamily.com. Ms. Jacobs is the Jewish family educator at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton, Massachusetts.