Some people think out of the box - the Blue Box that is. Nothing symbolizes the relationship between the early state and the Diaspora as much as the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet Le'Yisrael box, known simply as hakufsa hak'hula.
Many families had their own way of raising money for planting trees in Israel long before the word "environment" - or "eichut hasviva," as they now say around here - had come into fashion. When my Mum heard my siblings and I singing Christmas carols that we had learned at our non-Jewish schools, a seed of an idea was planted. For every carol we were caught singing, we had to put a penny in the Blue Box.
As I later traveled around Israel as environment reporter (a budding journalist, as a colleague put it), I sometimes used to wonder how many trees in the forests (ye'arot) were planted because of my inability to shut up. These are the Christmas trees (etzei ashuah) of a different kind.
I was reminded of them this week as my son returned from his school singing Tu Bishvat songs. No Jewish kid gets past kindergarten here without knowing "Hashkedia porahat," "The almond tree is blossoming." And, indeed, the New Year for Trees is very in tune with nature and the seasons. While Christmas can come and go without much attention in the Jewish state, the Holiday for Trees (Hag ha'ilanot) is a big deal. This year, following the agricultural sabbatical, it is really a growth industry. Last year, the main activity was choosing the national tree (olive or zayit) and national plant (cyclamen or rakefet) as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations. This time, people are getting their hands dirty but doing their souls good with some planting of saplings (shtilim) - a very real expression of putting down roots (shorashim). Consider them hedge funds that will survive the economic crisis. When the heat is on due to global warming, trees can warm the heart while lowering temperatures.
Of course, Israel being Israel, everything is political: JNF staffers like to quip that the Green Line (hakav hayarok) derives its name from the trees planted along it. The olive tree is fought over as a symbol, as if the olive branch (aleh zayit) had no meaning, or was merely a fig leaf (aleh te'ena). Forest fires aren't so much an arsonist's weapon as low-grade terrorism. And not only is the country dealing with a drought (batzoret) of threatening proportions, but this year a lot of extra work has to be done to help rehabilitate the forests of the South. The announcement that a Kassam fell in "an open area" (shetah patuah) is reassuring to the local population, but often leaves foresters silently weeping like a willow (arava bochiya).
Sometimes it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. Among the Hebrew bloopers that readers tell me, I received one reflecting another side of life in our strange land: A kibbutz volunteer in the North grew ever more panicked about an imminent sniper attack after hearing two farmers discussing hayoreh - which she mistook to mean "the shooter" or "sharpshooter" instead of the biblical reference to the first rains - a term very much in use by modern agriculturalists and discussed in the evening weather reports on TV.
Such is our love affair with trees that many are popular names. Family trees (ilan yuhasin) spout the obvious Ilan and Ilana (a fancier word for tree than the humble etz); there's Erez (cedar) Oren and Orna (pine), Alon and Alona (oak), Dekel, Dikla and Tamar (all date palms), to name but a few. And, of course, there is the ever popular Shaked (almond) - an evergreen, namewise. If you're shaken by the thought of it, you're probably mispronouncing it. Make that Sha-ked.
Naming a baby girl for this tree might seems nuts unless you actually get to see how worth singing about they are every spring. (And these along with the carob (haruv), terebinth (ela), cypress (brosh) and eucalyptus (eckaliptus) were all among the favorite trees mentioned in last year's competition.
In Ephraim Kishon's wonderful satire Salah Shabati, the JNF officials were portrayed as ordering the plaques of donor's names to be switched every time a foreign dignitary paid a visit. JNF staff today insist: "Lo dubim ve lo ya'ar" (neither bears nor forest) - a talmudic phrase meaning it's not so. In other words, Kishon was barking up the wrong you know what.
In any case, donor's plaque or not, now is the time to stop beating around the bush. Make a new year resolution to turn over a new leaf, and help plant a tree. And may we all be rewarded with the most important one of all: The tree of life - etz hahaim.