My Word: Trees and roots

Tu Bishvat expresses down-to-earth Zionism.

botanical gardens tu bishvat (photo credit: Courtesy)
botanical gardens tu bishvat
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s my kind of holiday. Short, sweet and environmentally friendly. It is also the most quintessentially Israeli festival. Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees.
Of course Jews in the Diaspora mark it as well, but it is like sowing seeds in the wrong soil. To truly appreciate the holiday, you have to be here – see supermarkets boasting special sections of dried fruits; know a schoolchild excited about going on a tree-planting trip; and hear songs about trees and flowers on the radio. Perhaps above all, you need to pass fragrant almond blossoms and automatically associate them with the coming of the holiday.
For some reason almond trees have come to symbolize the festival in a nutshell.
They might not be one of the biblical Seven Species, but the shkedia, as it is known around here, has a status almost rivaling that of blossoming cherry trees in Japan.
No Jewish kid gets past kindergarten in Israel without knowing the words to “Hashkedia porahat,” “The almond tree is blossoming.” And, while Christmas can come and go without very much attention, the Holiday for Trees (Hag ha’ilanot) is a big deal in the Jewish state – uniting religious and secular.
An increasing number of Israelis now hold a Tu Bishvat seder, in which fruit dishes are served and the four cups of wine (reminiscent of the Passover seder) are a combination of red and white.
Viticulture is a developing field in Israel. Long gone are the days when the country produced only sweet Kiddush wine for religious purposes. Israeli wines are now winning awards and praise from top connoisseurs.
The environment is a global growth industry. Israeli R&D is famous worldwide for its contribution to water management, alternative energy and agriculture.
Personal favorites are cherry tomatoes and watermelons of a size that anyone can pick up with ease at their supermarket (although what would an informal Israeli gathering be without sharing cold chunks of avatiah and a bowl of seeds to spit out without inhibition?).
It seems there is no end to what the fertile imaginations of scientists can come up with. An acquaintance of mine once shocked polite company with a discussion on the sex life of an Iris; she was researching the flower, hoping to develop a hardier strain. I have also met researchers working hard on stopping flies and mosquitoes reproducing.
ISRAEL BEING Israel, there is a political angle to everything. Foresters used to quip that the Green Line derived its name partly from the trees planted along it. Ironically – given the symbolism of the olive branch – there have often been clashes between Palestinians and Jews during the olive-picking season.
Sadly, too, many forest fires have been deliberately set as a form of lowgrade terrorism, literally trying to destroy signs of Jewish roots.
Fortunately, however, environmental issues also create common ground: Few things can bring Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians together like the need to solve environmental problems which do not recognize man-made borders.
Every year, political parties choose to make a statement by where they hold their tree-planting ceremonies.
But no other parliament in the world marks the Jewish New Year for Trees.
The Knesset actually celebrates its birthday on the festival (which this year falls on February 8).
Nothing symbolizes the relationship between the early state and the Diaspora as much as the blue box of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael–Jewish National Fund, known simply as hakufsa hak’hula.
Today, the organization specializes in thinking outside of the box. It’s now possible to donate via the Web and funds go to a range of environmental projects way beyond forestry and tree-planting.
Tu Bishvat expresses down-to-earth Zionism. It highlights the link of the Jewish religion and people to their homeland. Strangely, while environmentalism is close to becoming a new world religion, Zionism is out of fashion.
Tu Bishvat is the perfect opportunity for pointing out to the younger generation that it’s fine to be proud of your roots, your homeland and the unique nature of Judaism.
Biodiversity is an environmental buzzword, but in politically correct circles, peoples are expected to display a certain oneness.
Try to imagine a world in which all countries looked the same with identical flora and fauna and people all dressed alike and doing exactly the same things. Where’s the color? Where’s the flavor? Where’s the fragrance? The New Year for Trees heralding spring and rejuvenation is the time to dare to be different – to be ourselves and openly display a love of the land.
It is important to get our hands dirty and dig back into the past, while looking to the future.
The need for affordable housing obviously creates a conflict with environmental interests of preserving green areas – and even non-green areas, like sand dunes.
Just as I wouldn’t want to see housing projects springing up everywhere, care should be taken not to overly interfere with the natural rhythm of life.
We might be proud of having made the desert bloom, but future generations could look on the destruction of the Samar sand dunes in the South the way we now see the draining of the Hula swamps in the North – a mistake that can never be completely rectified.
And while attempts at preserving the Dead Sea are admirable, grandiose canal projects linking the Red or Mediterranean could end up throwing out the proverbial baby with the fresh seawater. It is not yet clear what effect the imported water would have on the unique composition of the Dead Sea.
Even eco-tourism has its drawbacks.
Building a hotel in the middle of the wilderness is counterproductive, however in tune with nature it looks.
Tu Bishvat is a great time to take a break from the hustle and bustle of modern living, enjoy simple pleasures, and make a New Year resolution to turn over a new leaf. Keep in mind, the best things in life are tree.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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