The magic of Tu Bishvat in Jerusalem

Ahead of Tu Bishvat, ‘In Jerusalem’ enjoys some adventures in urban gardening

Jerusalem urban gardeners use every inch of balcony space available to plant and grow in all seasons. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem urban gardeners use every inch of balcony space available to plant and grow in all seasons.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I was born with a black thumb and a serious case of seasonal hay fever. As a child growing up in Queens, New York, the landscape architect for our community created mirrored green areas that made our houses all look the same. We had small, shared grassy plots in front of attached houses and larger rectangular backyards. Pine and oak trees lined the streets, their leaves turning brilliant shades of vermilion each fall that provided us with crunchy entertainment on our walks home from school while the shed pine needles gave my dad hours of aggravation.
My parents utilized their garden areas sparingly; in the summer my dad would set up the sprinkler or fill a kiddie pool with cold water so we could run around and beat the heat, while my mother would hide mini chocolate bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey’s Kisses in the front yard during birthday parties so my friends and I could fill cartoon printed plastic bags with sweet treats during our kosher chocolate version of an Easter egg hunt. Each week, our backyard was tended to by a team of Israeli gardeners who would mow the lawn, and keep the grass trim and tidy. In the fall, they raked the leaves. One of our neighbors had a weeping willow tree. Its fuzzy branches would scratch at our dining room window. Before Sukkot, we would gather the aravot for use alongside our lulav and etrog. Poured into the concrete and serving as a divider between my house and our neighbor’s, a beautiful red rose bush would bloom each year, its flowers and thorns shooting between the black iron bars on our front porch. My mother, also a seasonal allergy sufferer, would leave the rose bush to do its own thing, never pruning flowers to fill vases in our home.
I was a city girl through and through, spending more than a decade working in Manhattan’s concrete jungle where my only exposure to nature came on summer weekends where I’d seek out the sun on a patch of grass in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. When I moved to Israel to pursue an MA in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University in 2006, my friend Jeff bought me a cactus as a housewarming gift. It was cute and small, the terracotta planter tied with a bright pink bow. I thanked him for his gift and then placed the cactus next to the television set in my living room and ignored it for the better part of the year. The amount of green in my new surroundings though was jarring. I started noticing that most balconies in my neighborhood had planters filled with flowers, herbs, and fruit and olive trees. Lemon and orange trees grew in ceramic pots, drip irrigation systems set on timers hissed and sputtered each morning and again at sunset. I became used to the sound during my evening walks to the beach. When I started dating an Israeli who became my husband, we would travel to his parents’ Jerusalem home where my mother-in-law grows apple, lemon and pomegranate trees, and has an affinity for fresh flowers.
I kept my black thumb and flower allergy a secret from my husband while we were dating, accepting bouquets of roses and tulips with gratitude but then placing them to die a slow death outside my kitchen window. As we got to know each other, my husband would tell me stories about his childhood foraging on his way home from school. He would use stones to break open and eat pine nuts, chew on the tangy lemony stems of the wild wood sorrel, and drink the sweet nectar of honeysuckle. His foraging stories were foreign and horrifying. What kind of person, I wondered, walks around the neighborhood eating from random trees and bushes?
I SOON discovered that here in Israel, my husband was not in the minority. After we got married  and settled in Baka, I couldn’t help but notice  our new neighborhood’s abundance of fruit and olive trees. Looking outside our living room window one day, I saw a man climb up on our neighbor’s fence to pick figs. As spring turned to summer, I noticed bikers of all ages stop at a berry tree on Ephraim Street to pick the purple berries and leave with stained fingers. In the summer, nocturnal bats feast on fruit and berries. Our contractor would scale our tree to pick passion fruit growing over our front walk.
The cactus didn’t survive past our first year of marriage, but I did finally fess up to my flower allergy. Slowly, the surrounding environment started to change me, and I started thinking about our eating habits. Over time, we left behind the cholent and potato kugel fare of my youth and adopted a healthier diet. When our first daughter was born, I nursed her and made my own baby food. We started incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into our meals, while I collected vegetarian and vegan cookbooks by Yotam Ottolenghi.
Each Tu Bishvat, we would join one of my husband’s relatives with a proper garden and watch as they planted a new fruit tree or bush. Then we would celebrate the holiday by eating dried fruits and nuts. My black thumb my constant companion, I started dreading Tu Bishvat once the children began gan. Proudly, they would present me with cut plastic bottles filled with dirt and a droopy flower to mark the new year of the trees. Gingerly, I place these Tu Bishvat flowers and plants on the kitchen windowsill, where they would die days later. With three children, I have murdered more Tu Bishvat plants and flowers over the years than I can count. One year, I sent the kids to plant their Tu Bishvat shrub in my in-law’s garden, so they didn’t have to bear witness to another horticulture homicide by their mother’s black thumb.
By the time my eldest was in third grade, I desperately wanted to have a green thumb. I wanted to be one of those women who walk to their kitchen herb garden to snip sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and parsley for use in a recipe. I wanted to grow windowsill cherry tomatoes, and make sour dill pickles from homegrown cucumbers. I wanted to forage through the olive trees of Baka in September and brine olives to enjoy over the year. In short, I wanted to be an urban gardener.
Fortunately, I discovered, living in Jerusalem is a great place for a budding urban gardener and I’m not alone! Walking throughout neighborhoods in Jerusalem, you’ll find an abundance of balcony and walkway gardens. Jerusalemites without their own garden use their balconies and windowsills to grow flowers and herbs. Last year on Tu Bishvat, I successfully planted basil, parsley, louisa, zaatar, thyme and a lemonquat tree on my balcony. During the summer, I added a cherry tomato plant and planted radish and cucumbers.
Outgrowing my balcony space, I discovered community gardens in my neighborhood. There’s one in Gan Chorsha on Barzilay Alley off of Efrata Street, while Mizmor L’David synagogue has a community garden off Nachum Shadmi Street. Amanda Lind, coordinator of Community Gardens for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), told me there are 70 community gardens across the city. Since 1999, under her tutelage, local residents have created 70 beautiful, sustainable gardens across the city.
Urban gardening in Jerusalem is a grassroots program supported by both the municipality and organizations including SPNI. According to Lind, “Community gardens are a pluralistic place where people can meet people of varying beliefs and be equal. In a community garden, everyone can just talk to each other about plants. There really isn’t any other place where you can do that.”
While my personal interest in urban gardening was wellness based and grew from a desire to live a more sustainable, healthier lifestyle, others embrace urban gardening as a way to connect with the land, for therapeutic purposes, and even as a fun, free activity that the whole family can enjoy.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and director of The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and both Jewish Eco-Seminars and their Eco-Israel Tours branch, runs a range of tours and programs across Israel. This non-profit organization offers a plethora of eco-focused programs including a sustainable food tour of the Mahaneh Yehuda market, trips to the Hula Valley and a program at Ein Sataf that looks at the land through Bible teachings. Last week, the program hosted a rabbinic panel at Ramat Rachel for an exclusive vegan Birthright tour focused on food, animal welfare and veganism. Another popular offering for tourists is Eco Israel Tour’s Jerusalem Eco-Volunteering, where participants experience first hand how locals are changing the face of this city by volunteering in a local community garden.
“The growth of community gardens in Jerusalem is a significant ecological development,” said Rabbi Neril. “It’s one of the brightest areas of sustainable behavior in Jerusalem. People are choosing to grow their own food in a communal setting and compost their food waste. These are actions people can take that are very practical, that have significant benefits to the environment and their personal health. Community gardens are a key way of connecting us to the food that we eat. The Bible talks about connection to our food, and we can reclaim this in our time.”
URBAN GARDENING in Israel as a Torah-observant Jew comes with challenges, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the laws of the land. Last year, when my niece came to visit me over the summer, I gave her a tour of my balcony garden. While showing her my planters full of herbs, she informed me that some of my plants were too close together and therefore I was in violation of the prohibition of kilayim (the mixing of species). I was proud of her that she knew about those laws and, upon further research, replanted my louisa and zaatar in separate vessels. However I lost my parsley while trying to replant it. When it came time to harvest our cherry tomatoes, I looked up the tithing laws of teruma and maaser online, picked four tomatoes, said the blessing, and separated one tomato from the bunch. Then I wrapped it up and handed it to my husband to give to his cousin Eitan, who is a Levite. When he came home from work that evening, I asked him what Eitan thought about the cherry tomato. His response was that he was “pretty sure it didn’t work that way,” and so I stopped picking tomatoes and kept looking for practical halachic resources online.
This Tu Bishvat marks the second of my three-to-four-year Orlah period for our lemonquat tree. Fortunately, I have at least two more years of not being able to eat the fruit of that tree to learn the right laws.
BEYOND THE CONNECTION between working the land and Bible teachings, and the sustainable benefits of urban gardening, is an emotional, therapeutic aspect to gardening. Abi Moskovits, an Efrat resident who spent 11 years as a high school English teacher, left teaching because she was burned out. Wanting to do something in the helping profession, she enrolled in a teacher’s college in Beit HaKerem where she’s currently getting a certificate in gardening therapy.
As part of the curriculum, Moskovits is learning how to merge botany and psychology. “I’m learning how to tend the garden, to plant and cultivate seeds, and then there’s the idea of caring for something else and learning empathy through the process. We’re taught to believe in yourself and invest in this right now so that we hopefully see the results in the future,” said Moskovits. “I find it all very powerful. We have the power to create change, to create something that sustains people, to beautify their worth.”
Currently, Moskovits is interning at a local school, where she’s applying what she’s learning to help kids build their self-confidence and feel empowered through gardening.
“Eventually, I want to work in a school, to bring gardening therapy to children with social issues and self esteem struggles,” she said. “When you give back to the school, you give back to the whole community.”
I connect to the therapeutic benefits of urban gardening; I focused a lot of time and effort on improving my balcony garden during my cancer battle last year. More than the important benefits of clean, organic eating that my body craved during chemotherapy, emotionally I needed to be surrounded by life – to know that I could still care for and successfully grow something living while fighting the cancer cells eating away inside me. Each day, with the emergence of a new basil leaf or the yellow flower that heralded the start of the cucumber, it was a small victory for me of life over death.
As my Uggs sank into the mud at the Mizmor L’David community garden, I surveyed the strip of land that I was recently charged with cultivating. Cherry tomatoes out of season overrun the small patch of earth, their vines twisted and snarled with weeds and what looked like patches of untended green onion. A fig tree and rose bush, stark and stripped during winter, will need to be removed and replanted on the garden’s perimeter before the spring. There was a lot of work to prepare the ground for planting, and to bring my vision of neat rows of kale, parsley, bok choy and tomatoes to life. Crouching down with my spade and placing my hands on the damp earth, I closed my eyes, breathed in the scent of nature and got to work.