Fun fact: Today is the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat (literally – the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat), the new year for the trees. In terms of popularity, Tu b’Shvat is a bit of a “late-bloomer.” While today it has become a type of Jewish Arbor Day / Earth Day, it’s never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, and originally its main purpose was for determining when fruits in ancient Israel were tithed.
Although most Jewish holidays are rooted in the agricultural cycles of Israel, Tu b’Shvat feels especially connected to the land of Israel and thus, especially disconnected from our lives in DC. After all, look outside – there are no trees blooming. *womp* (Meanwhile, right now in Israel the almond trees are the first trees to begin blooming.)
This makes Tu b’Shvat the perfect lens through which to address the question: how do we connect to a religion that originated in a different place and a different time?
I’d like to suggest five different ways to celebrate Tu b’Shvat that can also serve as five different ways of thinking about Diasporic Judaism more broadly.
Connect to the land of Israel. Long-distance relationships are never fun, but Tu b’Shvat could be a yearly opportunity to reconnect with the land of Israel. This could be accomplished by looking through photographs of hikes from your Birthright Israel trip, eating a few of the seven species to remind you of Israeli produce, or donating to an Israeli environmental group.
Throw a party. For many cultural Jews, Jewish holidays are a great excuse to get together with friends and family. Hanukkah was almost 2 months ago, and Purim isn’t for another month… Tu b’Shvat may not be the holiday you know anything about, but it’s the holiday you need. So, go gather your favorite people together, eat some fruit, drink some fruity beverages, and play “Apples to Apples” – that should hold you over for a month.
Learn about, and act on, Jewish environmental values. There are many great online resources for you to explore. If you’re doing it right, that should inspire you to act – as the Talmud says: “study is great because it leads to action.” (BT Kiddushin 40b)
Host (or participate in) a Tu b’Shvat Seder. As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes in his book The Jewish Holidays: “For [the Kabbalists], trees were a symbol of humans, as it says, “for man is like the tree of the field.” (Deut. 20:19) In line with their general concern for Tikkun Olam – spiritually repairing the world – the Kabbalists regarded eating a variety of fruits on Tu B’Shvat as a way of improving our spiritual selves. To encourage this flow and to effect Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), the Kabbalists of Sfat (16th century) created a Tu B’shvat seder loosely modeled after the Passover Seder.” There are guides online that you can follow, or, like the Kabbalists of 500 years ago, you can make up your own ritual to help us feel spiritually connected to the earth.
Make the cherry blossom festival your “American” Tu b’Shvat. Unlike most cities, DC is actually pretty attuned to its blossoming trees. Instead of seeing this festival as simply a DC activity, make it a Jewish experience. There are many ways to do this. One easy way is to make a blessing on the tree. There are several examples in the Talmud for blessings over trees and/or beautiful sights. My favorite is short but sweet: “May it be God’s will that all the trees planted from your seeds should be like you.” (BT Taanit 5b)
Judaism is compared to a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). It’s not always easy to find relevance in a tradition that is over 2000 years old. But we are deeply connected – physically and spiritually – to our environment. A holiday that reminds us to mindful of this relationship feels just as necessary today as ever.