When I was growing up in New York, Tu B’Shevat often felt like a make believe holiday. With it falling in the dead of winter, one really had to strain one’s imagination to believe that the day marked the start of a new year and growth for trees.
In school, we celebrated the day with rounds of the only appropriate song we knew, “Tu B’Shevat Higiya – Tu B’Shevat Is Here”) and a snack of dried Israeli fruits and nuts. (Do any kids actually like carob?)
In Israel, on the other hand, Tu B’Shevat is observed as a very real holiday. I got to learn all about its religious, historical, and cultural significance thanks to my son’s weekly Beit Midrash Sadeh (Nature Study) class. (A perk of online classes: I get to join too!)
Religiously, this day is important in Israel, as any fruit that grows starting on Tu B’Shevat is considered part of the new year’s crop, which is relevant vis-à-vis the special Israel-based mitzvot of ma’aser and terumot. My son’s teacher explained to the kids how these special mitzvot were observed historically and how they are observed today in Israel.
The holiday has also assumed historical and cultural resonances. In the late 19th century, when the first aliyah arrived in Palestine, the land was a barren desert. Through hard work, sacrifice, and belief (not to mention a whole lot of hashgacha pratis), the land was transformed into the lush beautiful country we all enjoy today. Tu B’Shevat celebrates the efforts of these Zionists and our continued commitment to growth and improvement of the land.
In a typical year, schools often take a tiyul (trip) on Tu B’Shevat to forests and allow the children to connect to their Zionist “roots” by planting their own trees here in Israel. Due to the pandemic, however, plans changed, and to celebrate the holiday, my son’s school organized an online Seudat Amenim Muziklit (A Musical Amen Meal).
For those unfamiliar (as I was) with this term, a Seudat Amenim Muziklit involves people taking turns saying each of the different blessings over foods and those listening responding amen together.
While it sounds like a simple kita alef experience, I have to tell you, it is so much more. Over Zoom, 300 families gathered together, each with their own festive spread of blessings. (We had chocolate chip cookies, grape juice, grapes, peppers, and bamba.) Before each blessing, the school’s rabbi explained the importance of the blessing and kavanot to keep in mind when we respond amen.
Many of these revolved around bringing refuot to cholim and safely returning to school. Then one child would be chosen to recite the blessing, following which all 300 plus families would unmute themselves and shout amen together.
In between each blessing, the one-man band (who played a saxophone, keyboard, clarinet and other instruments I could not identify), led the school in Tu B’Shevat songs. While we began with the classic “Tu B’Shevat Higiya,” the music evolved to a genre I had not previously associated with the day. We began to sing modern-day songs – some by religious musicians and others from secular pop bands – which spoke of the special connection between Jewish people and the land of Israel.
Our favorite song from the party (which we’ve been constantly playing in the background at home ever since) is “Shevet Achim V’Achiyot – A Tribe of Brother’s and Sisters” composed by Idan Raichel. While the song is a musical collaboration of over 35 Israeli singers from different backgrounds, its message of “one land and one people” unites them all. The chorus loosely translates as follows:
Here [in Israel] is home,
Here is the heart
And from you I’ll not depart
Our forefathers are our roots,
And we are the flowers,
We are the melodies
A tribe of brothers and sisters!
While we may not have been able to plant a tree (sadly, no forests are within our one kilometer), we found our own way to make the land bloom. We purchased a gardening kit from Hachammama shel Elizabeth, a local art and garden therapy center, to start our very own “vegetable garden.” It was so much fun to “work the land” from the comfort of our own porch! Hopefully we will soon be able to enjoy peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce.
Wishing everyone a quick and warm end to their winter season and a very happy New Year!