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Tu B´Shevat: The Trees of Life

BOSTON, Jan. 21 — A story in the Talmud teaches that if you are in the middle of planting a tree when the Messiah arrives, you must first finish planting that tree and then greet the long-awaited redeemer. Tu B´Shevat is the new year of trees, an arbor day with touches of mysticism and holiness. Some traditional sources actually compare the holiday to the coming of the Messiah, saying that just at the moment when things are overwhelmed by the bleakness of winter, the sap rises on Tu B´Shevat to herald the arrival of spring. Yet on Tu B´Shevat — literally the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat — throughout the Diaspora trees are somnolent, trees are awakening, trees are blooming. To me they represent the various states of Jewry; they represent past, present and future. A Sephardic story relates that children would wake up at dawn on Tu B´Shevat in the hope of glimpsing angels encouraging each tree, each fruit, even each blade of grass to grow by hitting them with a hammer. A Ladino poet wrote a song sung at some Tu B´Shevat seders in Greece and Turkey about the trees prevailing upon God to have their own new year. The fifteenth day of Shevat can also be a celebration of the Eytz Chaim — the Tree of Life. Many of us have practiced a kind of Sunday School Zionism, having trees planted by proxy in Israel for our kin. Together and separately the Bolton-Fasman clan must have a little corner of its own forest somewhere deep in the Negev. But there´s another kind of Eytz Chaim that intrigues me — the way two disparate families come together and bloom into a single life. A few years ago my husband received an elaborate computer printout of his family tree assembled by a distant cousin. He and his father spent hours trying to fill in the missing branches. And then one day we got a call from a man with the last name Fasman who had seen my by-line in a newspaper. No one was sure where he fit into the family tree. He was a little unsure himself since his father had been orphaned at an early age. But we met and welcomed him onto our tree of life. When I was a little girl my father told me how very old the trees were. When one had to be cut down in our front yard we carefully counted the rings on the stump. One hundred twenty five, the actual age of the tree. It was older than anything I could imagine. I had the same excited yet eerie feeling the first time I hiked through a redwood forest. How could anything be that big, that beautiful, that ancient? Surely it must have been the redwoods that campaigned the most convincingly for a new year of the trees. In the midst of terror and war we continue to celebrate the greening of Israel. First the Jews wandered helplessly in the desert and then thousands of years later they made it bloom. In Nomi Eve´s celebrated first novel, The Family Orchard, generations of an eccentric family lovingly cultivate orchards outside of Tel Aviv. This living tree of a family moves the story along with mystical encounters and sheer fantasy among groves of mango, apple and grapefruit trees. Trees in these orchards have "silvery" branches, transparent like x-rays. People etch their very souls onto bark. One character, Eliezer, pictures "his family, all five of them, their outlines stamped into the soil—mother and father in the middle, sons on either side." It sounds like a description of all of them buried side by side, deep in the earth. Life and death converge at that moment; the way they mingle when a tree, at its most blazing and brilliant, begins its annual death. On the Jewish Theological Seminary´s Web-site there is a list of citations of trees mentioned in the Bible. The most celebrated of these is the burning bush, the representation of God when the Lord first appears to Moses; it is even that institution´s logo. "And the bush was not consumed." It may be a prevalent image, but it´s among the most resonant in Jewish literature. Throughout the millennia Jews were not consumed by the fires of the Crusades, the Inquisition or the Holocaust. In this second new year celebration on the Jewish calendar we celebrate the Jewish reverence for life, our hope for redemption, even our own resilience, all the while still planting trees in some of the harshest of landscapes.