Tu Bishvat: The Jewish people’s new year of the trees

A history of Tu Bishvat in the land of milk and honey

‘Tu Bishvat’ by Ze’ev Raban (1890-1970) (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Tu Bishvat’ by Ze’ev Raban (1890-1970)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Excitement reigned in the US Jewish community in January 1948.
The world had entered into the countdown for the establishment of a Jewish nation as defined by the Partition Plan passed by the United Nations on November 29, 1947. Rabbi Avraham Silverstone chose to capture the fervor of those heady days through the spirit of Tu Bishvat, the “old-new holiday” as he labeled it.
“Where there is life, there is hope for new strength,” he began. “The festival that has survived the hostile interference of men and nature, just like Am Yisrael’s steadfastness through the centuries, has been revived and brings us renewal once again.”
He shared with his readers a description of the communal tree planting on Tu Bishvat at Yesud Hama’ala in 1884. That settlement was founded by members of the First Aliyah, 12 families from Poland who immigrated to the area in the Hula Valley.
“Last week we planted a grove mutually with all the company, more than 1,500 trees.” A specific count was listed. “There were 708 etrogs and 100 pomegranates, 400 figs and mulberries. And we shall plant, with God’s will, other types of plantings, for aside from the large profits from the fruits, which with God’s help will be successful, we shall need also good health, for humans are one with the trees of the fields, and without them they do not have a good life.”
Even a divine purpose was noted. “We plant, as the Creator of the Universe showed us, to plant as He did for it is written in Genesis ‘And the Lord God planted a garden eastward, in Eden.’” Silverstone stressed this planting of trees at Yesud Hama’ala had dual meaning both for health reasons and to imitate the Biblical actions of God.
What was the true intent of the holiday as the rabbi sensed it 67 years ago? “Jews outside of the homeland fill up their blue boxes and their children bring dime bank ‘treecards’ to religious school to underwrite the reforestation of Eretz Yisrael, which plays a vital role in this national renascence.”
For Silverstone in 1948, he strongly believed that “in the free and independent New Judea we may look forward to a bright future for ourselves, for our land and for this delightful folk festival.”
On that Tu Bishvat in 1948 rabbis and educators recalled a most dramatic event at the end of the 19th century in Eretz Yisrael, November 1898 to be exact, when Theodor Herzl made his first visit to the homeland of his people. In his diary he described personally planting a cypress tree in Motza, just outside of Jerusalem.
With hopes of meeting German Kaiser Whilhelm II, who was also in the Holy Land in 1898, Herzl traveled from the coastal settlements of Mikve Israel and Rishon Lezion toward Jerusalem for a possible audience stopping in Motza along the way.
Herzl, and those traveling with him, entered the village to a warm welcome and reception. When the sun started to set, Herzl looked out at the land of Judea and saw “a variety of lights of brilliant colors reflected upon its hills.” He knew that he had to plant a tree here so Herzl climbed the hill and placed a young cypress tree in the earth. That tree grew quite quickly. Six years later, it stood tall and statuesque signifying to the settlers the Jewish people’s return to Zion.”
In 1901, a major step was taken at the World Zionist Congress when the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet was established. For the last 114 years tree planting has been the special activity of that agency working diligently to redeem the land. In a study of Tu Bishvat, Israeli historian Dr. Zerubavel noted how Jewish educational institutions helped the Jewish National Fund by “socializing the children to give weekly donations to the JNF blue box, teaching them (in the words of a famous Hebrew song) that every penny counts and contributes to the redemption of the land.” For 110 years this well-recognized container has been a source of inspiration for Jews, young and old, around the world.
When Henrietta Szold visited Eretz Yisrael, for the first time in 1909, she began to see the possibilities of the homeland reborn. In her comprehensive article on the trip published in the American Jewish Yearbook, she described the Tu Bishvat celebration which she witnessed. “There was the future in the processions of school children, on whose breath the world stands, as they wend their way singing to Motza, on hamisha ossar beShevat (Tu Bishvat), the Palestinian children’s Arbor Day.”
She captured their joy ”as they placed the tiny seedlings into the soil, watering them carefully and hopeful that they would grow into tall trees pushing their way against the sky.”
Szold conveyed the potential of the land by comparing it with a fast-developing American state. “Palestine has the conditions and the opportunities of California. The soils in various parts of our homeland are adaptable for all sorts of growth.”
She stressed that the “success of the reforestation work already underway may well offset the dearth of wood in the country.”
As World War I ended and the British Mandate was established, the Palestine Restoration Fund, Keren Hayesod, called for a $10 million campaign whose goals were: the purchase of land in Palestine, the preparation of Palestine for Jewish settlement and the maintenance and development of work already in progress in Palestine. A most attractive “propaganda” poster was commissioned by the New Palestine journal of the Zionist Organization of America for the campaign. Through ten poignant illustrations, the planting, developing, striving by those living in Eretz Yisrael brought home the message ”let us rise up and build.”
In 1928 an artistic depiction of children planting on Tu Bishvat in the vicinity of Jerusalem underlined the authentic meaning of the holiday. Ze’ev Raban, a leading member of the faculty of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, drew a series of pictures capturing the celebration of all the Jewish festivals in Eretz Yisrael itself.
They appeared in a little book Hageinu (Our Festivals) published in New York under the sponsorship of the well-known Jewish educator, Zvi Scharfstein. In the series of books commissioned and issued by Scharfstein, he called upon a group of artists – Raban being one of them – to provide illustrations of the modern Jew of the 1920s. His goal, which was fulfilled well, was to show the world the “Jewish home” in Palestine and the “Hebrew home” in Jewish communities as they existed at that time.
The book, Hageinu, illustrated by Raban in a most exciting fashion captured the celebration of the Jewish holidays and Shabbat in varied locales in the Jewish homeland. Yom Kippur, for example, was being observed in the Istanbuli synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.
On Shavuot there is a procession of children from all the various edot, Yemenite to Ashkenazim, carrying the bouquets of flowers. The Lag Ba’omer observance was depicted on the shores of the Kinneret. Shabbat is captured with a mother lighting the candles as her children encircle her.
Dr. Bathsheva Goldman Ida, the curator of the Raban retrospective held at the Tel Aviv Museum 20 years ago, explained in the catalogue how the artist used as models for some of his drawings children he knew plus his own. For example in the illustration for Shabbat, his daughter Ruth can be seen in a contemporary 1920s frock wearing red shoes, which had been ordered from Paris.
Ze’ev Raban, who trained in Europe, joined the Bezalel faculty in 1912 at the invitation of the director, Boris Schatz. In that pre-World War I period, he experienced the spirit of growth of the land as a result of the initial Aliyot. Even though the draconian rule of the Ottoman Turks was ever-present, the Jews in Palestine laid the foundation of the cultural renaissance which was to be in the mandate period.
Once the British took over with Lord Samuel as the first High Commissioner, the “vibrant” Twenties became a time of constant growth in the Jewish homeland. Dr. Goldman Ida explained the role played by Raban.
“The body of his work took form parallel to the historic events [leading to the establishment of the state]. His is not the work of a hermit or a recluse; on the contrary, Raban was a propagandist ... actively involved in creating the ethos of the emerging country. His artistic motifs were to become those of a majority Jewish culture.
“When we look at the colorful Raban drawing of children planting in the vicinity of Jerusalem with the Tower of David in the background, we observe the delight of the 1920s here on this soil. The boys are wearing their pith helmets to protect them from the sun. Their spiffy ties create a most fashionable outfit. Their dress is similar to that of the Jewish Palestine Guides, those important pioneering figures. In Raban’s noted tourism poster of the 1920s, the guide is also dressed in his helmet, his white suit and tie. A few years ago the World Zionist Organization reproduced this poster in the wonderful series of notable posters which were reissued.”
According to Goldman Ida, one of those depicted, the girl with pigtails, is modeled after the sister of a member of the tragic drowning episode of the “Yordei HaSra” in 1941. The happiness expressed as the children are planting resounded in Jewish communities all over the world. “With the assistance of sites close to his heart, Raban created an intimate and moving picture of life in that era.”
The poem in Hebrew facing the illustration has a beat most fitting to Tu Bishvat – the New Year of the trees – a century ago.
“To the field! To the field!
In pairs we go out together!
Each of us with tool in hand
A miniature gardener
Let us go out – let us go out
Into the field let us move!”
Tu Bishvat falls this year on February 10. As we watch the young and the old marching out to plant – to make the soil blossom and bloom – we can be inspired by the message of Tu Bishvat, a day on which we plant for the future as others have done before. No matter how difficult it may be – hazorim bedima berina yikzoru: We will reap in joy!