Growing up in suburban Washington, D.C., Tu B’Shvat was a passing curiosity to me. In the world of Jewish holidays, if I thought about it at all, it conjured a strange vertigo. For one thing, it was the only Jewish holiday celebrated neither at home nor in the synagogue, but rather in some far-off world of forest greenery. While the Hebrew School teacher duly handed out dried fruits and JNF boxes, outside my window the snow and barren trees bore witness to the absurd timing. In any case, planting trees was not in my lexicon of Jewish traditions. Jews study, they eat symbolic foods, they mourn catastrophes, and they celebrate victories. I had never seen a Jew plant a tree in order to celebrate deliverance from a foe; I’m pretty certain I had never seen a Jew plant a tree at all.
Upon making Aliyah, things started to make a little more sense. I moved to Kibbutz Ketura, in the south of Israel, where, to begin with, you can go outside in February without risking pneumonia. Every year on Tu B’Shvat, the entire kibbutz gets together and plants trees. There is not a great deal of ceremony, and it doesn’t appear to be a religious or national act at all, yet there is something powerful about the experience of walking to a plot along with everyone in your community, digging a hole next to a sapling, and placing it in the ground. It is a statement about life and about belonging. After I had children, the power of that statement was enhanced. Here I was with the next generation, planting the trees that would provide shade or fruit for my grandchildren.
Tu B’Shvat continued to grow in stature for me when I became a tour guide. I escort people all over the country, and Israel’s forests are my silent chaperone. Throughout the parks, nature preserves, and hiking trails, those JNF signs remind you of the amazing dedication that this nation has to trees. Israel is the only country that boasted more trees at the end of the 20th century than at its beginning. On Tu B’Shvat, that obsessive love of trees becomes a national festival of mythic proportions. Families, school field trips, youth movements, and even office parties are all out there in their little groups planting trees.
Attempts to understand this holiday tend to either dwell on arcane Kabbalistic ceremonies and obscure Mishnaic references, or to drift into a post-Zionist spin on trees, land, and Middle Eastern politics. For me, Tu B’Shvat is an attempt to mend my confused childhood perception that “Jews don’t plant trees.” In fact, very few people today, Jewish or otherwise, have a hands-on connection with nature, forests, soil, and seasons, and the severing of this connection has left a void. Tu B’Shvat calls to us to fill that void. The real issue is not what you do to the land when you plant a tree, but what the land does to you.
Last year, I was guiding a three-generation American family around the country on Tu B’Svhat, and we stopped to plant trees in the Upper Galilee. Tromping through the mud with our saplings in a light but persistent drizzle, I wondered whether this little exercise was worth it. The grandfather leaned over to help his grandson plant the tree, while the father took pictures and the mother beamed. The 11-year-old looked up and asked me if I could come back and take pictures of the tree every year and send them to him. Not wanting to deceive him, I gently explained that there are simply too many trees in the forest for me to reliably keep track. “Oh well,” he sighed. “It’s not about the tree anyway, it’s about the planting.” No childhood confusion for him. I knew then that the planting was worth it. Every time.