As a child in Louisville, Kentucky, Tu B’Shevat was celebrated in the typical ways. Crafts, snacks, and some environmental messages, and planting parsley that would grow by Passover ─ trying to connect the dots of Jewish identity together. But I will never forget the first time Tu B’Shevat hit home: on a family trip to Israel in my late teens with my Grammy Esther. As we drove through Tel Aviv, she suddenly burst with excitement, “Oh my goodness! I think I planted those trees! I remember planting those trees right there!”
She went on to tell us that growing up as a Palestinian Jew, every child, school, and family took part in the planting of trees, keeping alive a tradition that seemed as ancient as the soil in which they were planting – a tradition that continues until today. Born in 1924 in Rovno, Poland (now Ukraine), she was a Tu B’Shevat baby, celebrated each year alongside the birthday of the trees of Eretz Yisrael. Her father Shraga brought the family to the Homeland when Grammy was only 9 months old, and she grew up among the newly planted trees blossoming through Jewish pioneering and passion. At 99 years young, Grammy Esther is proud of her history and connection with this land, even speaking to her Sabra descendants in Hebrew, helping them to feel close to her even though she lives so far away.
Living almost 18 years in Israel, I feel my life is intertwined with hers and the legacy her parents set forth all those years ago. My kids know the stories about the trees Savta Esther planted in Tel Aviv, just as we have been planting our own every year since they were born. I make sure they understand we wouldn’t have this holiday without the land and the history that inspires us daily, and that the two cannot be separated.
Tu B’Shevat has a particular beauty to it, as it goes beyond religious beliefs or practices. It is a celebration of the connection of the Nation and the Land through the tangible symbols of her fruits; a celebration of renewal after the harsh winter. It allows even those of us who have no personal relationship with Judaism’s theology to feel inspired, especially when it stirs the nostalgic warmth we feel when thinking about the trees of Israel that we may have helped plant over the years. Whether literally or figuratively, the seeds we sow in our lifetime are a transformative part of our family’s history, individually and collectively as the Nation of Israel.
In a world where extremism is encroaching upon us from every direction, this type of connection is exactly what we need. It is a chance to return to the simplicity of our roots, an informal and fun way to express the Jewishness so many feel, even if they cannot explain why. As we move farther away from the memories that helped formalize Tu B’Shevat as a part of Jewish life, it becomes even more important to share those tales taught by our predecessors and to revive the depth of meaning that is imbued in the holiday.
Our nostalgia is the answer. It is crucial that the Jewish ancestral connection passed down to each one of us is relayed to the next generation. We must not allow anything to damage our ancient heritage and destiny. Whether hosting a seder, cooking with family, reading an article, or planting a tree, let’s take this time to raise a glass of Israeli wine and celebrate a connection that has withstood the test of time, distance, destruction and exile. Tu B’Shevat is a chance to remind ourselves of the renewal that each one of us also needs to carry onward ─ that of the roots that bind us, that of the trees of our biblical homeland, that of the ancestors who walked the land before us.
Everything you need for your Tu B’Shevat Connection is at your fingertips at www.israelforever.org.