Tu Bishvat – the New Year of the Trees of ‘Am Yisrael’

Henrietta Szold first described Tu Bishvat in 1909 as the ‘Palestinian children’s arbor day.’

Tu Bishvat (photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN)
Tu Bishvat
(photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN)
Excitement reigned in the US Jewish community in January 1948. The world had entered the countdown to the establishment of a Jewish nation as defined by the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947. Rabbi Avraham Silverstone chose to capture the fervor of those heady days through the spirit of Tu Bishvat.
“Where there is life, there is hope for new strength,” he wrote in an article in the Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion. “The festival that has survived the hostile interference of men and nature, just like Am Yisrael’s [the Nation of Israel’s] steadfastness through the centuries, has been revived and brings us renewal once again.”
He shared a description of the communal tree-planting at Yesud Hama’ala on Tu Bishvat 1884. That settlement was founded by members of the First Aliya, 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,” read the account, which Silverstone quoted from a letter one of the settlers sent to a friend in the Galilee. “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.”
Silverstone stressed that this planting of trees at Yesud Hama’ala had additional meaning as an imitation of the biblical actions of God: “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.’” The Tu Bishvat activities of Diaspora Jews were an important part of this goal, he said: “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.”
On that Tu Bishvat in 1948, rabbis and educators eager to build interest in the upcoming establishment of the Jewish state recalled Theodor Herzl’s first visit to the homeland of his people in November 1898, when, as Herzl described in his diary, he personally planted a cypress tree in Motza, just outside Jerusalem.
IN 1901, the World Zionist Congress took a major step in establishing Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. For the last 114 years, tree-planting has been the distinguishing activity of that agency in its diligent efforts to redeem the land.
In her 1995 book Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition, Israeli historian Dr. Yael Zerubavel noted how Jewish educational institutions helped the KKL-JNF 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 more than 110 years, this familiar container has been a source of inspiration for Jews young and old around the world.
When Henrietta Szold visited the Land of Israel 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 she had witnessed.
She recalled “the processions of school children, on whose breath the world depends, as they wend their way singing to [Motza], on Hamishah Oser be-Shebat [Tu Bishvat], the Palestinian children’s Arbor Day.”
Szold captured the potential of the land by comparing it with a fast-developing American state: “The experts say that, barring size, [Palestine] has the conditions and therefore the opportunities of California.... The soils in various parts are adapted for all sorts of crops.” She suggested that the success of the reforestation work already under way could “offset the dearth of wood in the country.”
As World War I ended and the British Mandate was established, Keren Hayesod – then known as the Palestine Restoration Fund – called for a $10 million campaign with the goals of purchasing land in Palestine, preparing Palestine for Jewish settlement, and maintaining and developing work already in progress there. The Zionist Organization of America’s journal The New Palestine commissioned a poster for the campaign. Through 10 poignant illustrations of the planting, developing and striving by those living in the Land of Israel, it brought home the message, “Let us rise up and build.”
IN 1928, artist Ze’ev Raban’s depiction of children planting on Tu Bishvat in the vicinity of Jerusalem further brought out the meaning of the holiday. Raban, a leading faculty member at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, drew a series of pictures portraying the celebration of all the Jewish holidays in Eretz Yisrael. They appeared in a little book called Hagenu (Our Festivals), published in New York under the sponsorship of Jewish educator Zvi Scharfstein.
In the series of books Scharfstein commi s s ioned and issued, he called artists such as Raban to provide i l l u s t r a - tions of the m o d e r n Jew of the 1920s. His goal, which he fulfilled, was to show the world the “Jewish home” in Palestine and the “Hebrew home” in Jewish communities as they existed at that time.
Dr. Batsheva Goldman Ida, the curator of the Raban retrospective that the Tel Aviv Museum hosted in 2001, explained in the catalogue how the artist used children he knew, including his own, as models for some of his drawings.
For example, in his illustration for Shabbat, his daughter Ruth can be seen in a contemporary 1920s frock, wearing red shoes that had been ordered from Paris.
Raban, who trained in Europe, joined the Bezalel faculty in 1912 at the invitation of 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 that emerged in the Mandate period.
Once the British took over, with Lord Samuel as the first high commissioner, the “vibrant” ’20s became a time of constant growth in the Jewish homeland. Goldman Ida explained the role Raban played: “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.”
The colorful Raban drawing of children planting with the Tower of David in the background portrays the delight of the 1920s on this soil. The boys are wearing pith helmets to protect them from the sun, and their spiffy ties create a fashionable outfit. Their dress is similar to that of the Jewish guide in Raban’s noted 1920s tourism poster, who is also dressed in a helmet, a white suit and a tie.
According to Goldman Ida, one of the children in the drawing, a girl with pigtails, is modeled after the sister of one of the “Yordei Hasira,” the 23 Hagana commandos who went missing at sea in a 1941 sabotage attempt against Tripoli.
The children’s evident joy in planting resounded in Jewish communities all over the world. 
The writer lives in Jerusalem. Tu Bishvat is the 50th yahrzeit of Sara Hene Geffen, the savta rabba of the Geffen girls.