And it’s yet another Jewish New Year, this time in celebration of nature. Nice, huh. Today Tu B’Shvat is referred to as the New Year of the Trees, but its celebratory roots are in 16th century mysticism and the arrival of springtime. That’s got to seem pretty crazy in late January, especially if you’re anywhere on the East Coast right now and buried in the weekend’s massive snowfall. Over here in the Barcelona hills, the ground may still say winter but the almond and mimosa trees have already been in full bloom for two weeks. Granted they’re way ahead of schedule this year, but it is normal for daffodils to push through the earth in February, and to see and feel springtime well on its way to returning.
In my early childhood, we were taught at religious school that Tu B’Shvat was about the greening of Israel. Maybe they passed out some prunes, I don’t recall. What I do remember is being around seven and paying a couple of dollars to sponsor a tree, asking that the tree be planted in honor of my pet canary, and receiving a certificate with his name on it. “In Honor of Ralph” it read. A certificate, neatly typed, acknowledging that my contribution to the natural world mattered. I was satisfied with my first civic act; I’d done my part for Israel and for the planet, and immortalized my little bird at the same time. He in turn must have seen my gesture as encouragement to take to the trees himself; the following summer, Ralph escaped one sunny afternoon while I was cleaning his cage. He flew straight up into a tall pine, burst into glorious song, and took off. I spent hours searching for him, but he quickly vanished into the wilderness. Who could resist the tall, scented pines of the Adirondacks? Not me, and certainly not a caged canary. And who wouldn’t want to fly as far as they could away from jail? I was heartbroken (I really, really loved that little bird), but I understood his yearning and couldn’t fault him for leaving his loving captor. That night the temperature plummeted, and I went to bed worrying terribly that Ralph might freeze to death. In the morning I continued my search to no avail. I never saw or heard him again. But I began to think about the cruel irony of keeping a bird behind bars. Some time after that I found a smooth little stone with the same coloring and peculiar marking as Ralph. I held onto it for years, a reminder of my little bird with his beautiful song and his need to be free and at one with nature. Ah, youth.
It’s a shame they didn’t teach us more about this holiday when I was young, and I don’t get that, frankly, because it’s really lovely, and holds the kind of message a child can easily grasp and warm up to.
The traditional Tu B’Shvat celebration centers around a mystical Seder developed by Kabbalists in the 16th century to consider the presence of God in the natural world and the relationship between humans and nature. This Seder is divided into four sections representing the four seasons. Four types of wine are drunk, and fruits are consumed, also divided into four categories: hard on the outside, or thick skinned, or soft but with a hard core, or soft inside and out. These are compared to four stages of existence, and also four different modes of being in relation to others. In short (very short), it’s a way of seeing ourselves reflected in nature and vice versa, that we’re part of the same package. Speaking of packages, this Seder comes with a fifteen course tasting meal. (And you thought the tasting menu was a modern contrivance).
That’s it in a nutshell. That, and the trees. Without them we’re nothing.
The holiday’s a quickie, but eating fruits and nuts is one of life’s great pleasures any day of the year. My favorite snacks year round are some of the fruits of this holiday: dried apricots and walnuts, figs, prunes, dates, hazelnuts. Ever since Ralph I’ve got a special fondness for pine nuts, too.