The human spirit: You don’t have to eat the fruit

Before Earth Day, there was Tu Bishvat.

Tu Bishvat (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
Tu Bishvat
(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)

Generations ago in Eastern Europe, our ancestors preserved their precious citron, the etrog, from the fall holiday of Succot to celebrate Tu Bishvat. Back in Connecticut where I grew up, Tu Bishvat was the season of jawbreaker carobs. How so many Israeli carobs succeeded in crossing the Atlantic without being caught by agricultural inspectors remains a mystery. Although we knew that Tu Bishvat was the so-called “New Year of Trees,” it didn’t mean much until I moved to Israel, where the budding and blossoming of the first trees in winter is a source of joy and where the age of the trees – calculated according to the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat – really matters. It’s also a time to pause and appreciate. Who could have imagined how in such a short time our land that’s half desert would come back to life under the loving care of creative farmers and horticulturists? We’ve come a long way since dried carobs. First there were oranges. And then, despite our dearth of water and arable land, we were exporting pomelo, pomegranates and peaches. A new apple, the anna, was invented here by a horticulturist who named it for his daughter. We’re among the top growers of loquat. According to the UK Daily Mail, “Sharon fruit,” the Israeli seedless persimmon, is the best-selling exotic fruit for the country’s on-line grocer Waitrose.

And along with the success of our fruit trees, the so-called “minor holiday” of Tu Bishvat has blossomed into an exuberant national celebration. The great sage Shammai thought we should celebrate Tu Bishvat on the first of the month. His opponent Hillel’s opinion is that we celebrate on the 15th, but the holiday, like Purim, seems to last several weeks. Not a mall, supermarket, sidewalk peddler misses the chance to display almonds, papaya and figs. Every recipe corner features fruity entrées and desserts. On the Shabbat before Tu Bishvat, at my synagogue, a family wrapped raisins and nuts to pelt the celebrants on the bima.
Ever since 1892, when teacher Ze’ev Jawitz took his pupils in the 10-year old town of Zichron Ya’acov to plant trees, Israeli schoolchildren have spent Tu Bishvat out in the fields with trowels and saplings. The remarkable 112-year old Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund indeed turned Tu Bishvat into an environmental awareness day before such ideas were fashionable. It’s become a national day of greening and conservation. It’s typical to find a sign tacked up on a post in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem announcing the inauguration of a community compost site on the Friday after Tu Bishvat.
There are several prominent talmudic sources for Tu Bishvat, and the Safed kabbalists added fascinating glosses for the meaning of each fruit. I’d like to add another one for the popularity of Tu Bishvat. It’s refreshingly non-coercive.
No one forces you to eat fruit. Although having a Tu Bishvat Seder has become more common, you don’t hear anyone obsessing or panicking. The holiday is a pleasure even without the eating.
SO THERE’S the lesson there. Package what you have to offer and then offer it.
But never pressure any person to accept your offering, be it material or spiritual. My friend Channi Canterman makes a practice of this every other Friday morning.
Channi is one of those devoted women who have made a mission of handing out Shabbat candles on Friday mornings.
Her stake-out is Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall, the avenue of chic shops and trendy cafés linking the new and Old City. The upscale shopping and dining there is popular with both Jews and Arabs. Lots of young couples like to come for a romantic stroll and tourists mix with locals.
A plastic bag holding simple tea lights didn’t seem to fit such a setting, thought Canterman. With the support of tourists from Canada who had spent Passover Seder with her family, Canterman arranged to import fancier candle sets. The Canadian family wanted to honor the memory of their grandmother Sarah, a Holocaust survivor whose biblical namesake was the first Jewish candlelighter.
The green metal boxes look like they might contain mints or gourmet chocolates. But inside are four scented candles, a necklace and matches.
A brochure in Hebrew shows girls and women lighting candles with the suggestion of “Discovering Inner Serenity.”
On Thursdays, Canterman – who is never afraid to gild a lily – wraps the boxes in lemon-yellow ribbons with a green-and-yellow checkerboard bow.
Then she heads to Mamilla, often with her kindergarten-aged daughter in tow.
She never asks women if they’d like to light Shabbat candles. She simply offers them a gift from “Chabad Talbiyeh,” the neighborhood where she lives. It takes Channi about four hours to wrap these on Thursday, but 150 of them are grabbed up in 30 minutes at the mall.
Who wouldn’t want them? Well, Rotem Zahy for one. She’s a young sabra who manages a luxurious clothing store in Mamilla. She’d had enough of religion being pushed towards her. She didn’t want candles, wrapped or unwrapped. Every time Channi came by offering a gift of candles, she shook her head. “I didn’t grow up like that,” said Zahy. “I told her I was simply not interested.”
Canterman tried not to let her disappointment show. She shrugged and went on.
Then came a Friday last fall when it all changed. Zahy saw Canterman coming down the avenue, and went out of the shop towards her. Could she please have candles? “The General Security Services had revealed a thwarted terrorist plot to blow up the mall during the holiday season,” said Zahy.
According to confessions, several of the mall employees were planning to place a bomb in a ribbon-wrapped box in a trash can.
There was a trash can in front of the shop where Zahy worked.
“It’s not that I was sure that those candles had saved us,” said Zahy, “But I was feeling grateful at having escaped an attack, and wanted to be part of the light by being one of the lighters. I asked myself why I was being so stubborn about not lighting.”
Her roommates were worried that she was going to go “all religious” on them.
“I felt a little embarrassed at first telling them I’d decided to light candles,” said Zahy. “But they got used to it and even look forward to it.”
“No one likes to be told what to do,” says Canterman. “It’s fun giving away gifts. A little like planting seeds.”
Not a bad thought for Tu Bishvat.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.