From seedlings to start-ups

Perhaps that’s the real essence of the holiday of Tu Bishvat. It’s not enough to just talk about it, you have to experience it.

 A winding road: The roundabout, manipulative nature of political discourse. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
A winding road: The roundabout, manipulative nature of political discourse.
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Growing up in northern California and having a birthday that falls around Tu Bishvat, I’d often get a birthday card featuring a cartoon of an Israeli boy wearing a “kova tembel” (pioneer hat) standing next to a small sapling. Above the picture the card would read: “In honor of your birthday, a tree has been planted in Israel.” And then you’d open up the card and on the inside it said: “Your day to water it is Thursday.”
Jewish holidays, even the minor ones, are all about “doing” something. I am reminded of the Nike company slogan: “Just Do It.” But what does one do on Tu Bishvat? The most common answers are plant trees and eat (dried) fruits. I suppose many of us will sample some kind of Israeli dried fruits this Tu Bishvat, but for most of us adults, our tree planting days stopped once we got out of grade school.
Or so I thought. After I came on aliya, some 20 years ago, my first job in Israel was at the Isracard credit card company in Tel Aviv. One cold January day, our supervisor announced that there was going to be a company tree planting event in honor of Tu Bishvat the following day. She needed three volunteers from our department to go on the trip.
I looked around and saw that nobody had volunteered, so I didn’t either. (One of the first rules you learn in Israel, mainly from the army, is to never volunteer for anything.) So, the boss picked three people to go and we all went back to work.
As luck would have it, it rained the next day and the tree planting trip was postponed indefinitely.
Nobody was too disappointed. But then, some two months later, I walked into work a bit late one morning and was accosted at the door.
“You’re going tree planting today!’ my co-workers informed me.
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
“Tree planting. It’s happening today. Since you came late, we volunteered you.”
So, I boarded the bus along with dozens of other employees from other departments. I wondered if they too had been “volunteered.”
The tree planting itself was fun (as was the barbecue they made for us!), but one memory sticks with me from that day. After the JNF representative unveiled the sign that dubbed our section as “The Isracard Forest,” he approached me, as I was the only one in the group who sported a kippa, and handed me a card. He requested that I read “The Tree Planter’s Prayer” for planting trees in Israel.
I agreed and stood behind the JNF podium as the Isracard company photographer snapped numerous pictures of me. The next day those photos appeared on the walls of the company (and in the company newsletter), which caused me some embarrassment, but also some envy among those who had not volunteered to participate.
And I read the prayer in a solemn voice: “Heavenly Father... Give dew for a blessing and cause beneficent rains to fall in their season... and these saplings which we plant before Thee this day, make deep their roots and wide their crown that they may blossom forth in grace among all the trees in Israel, for good and for beauty... and bless this land that it may flow again with milk and honey.”
How was it that I was fortunate enough to plant a tree in the land of Israel? When I woke up that morning I never imagined that’s what I’d be doing.
And even though I tried to maintain a low profile while doing it, the JNF (and Isracard) had other plans.
But now as I look back at it, I don’t believe I have gone tree planting in the two decades that passed since that day. Coupled with the fact that we are in the middle of a shmita (sabbatical) year, I doubt very many will be planting trees in Israel this Tu Bishvat at all, which I suppose is just as well because I will be busy at work all day this Tu Bishvat anyway.
But something occurred to me as I pondered Tu Bishvat this year. I may not be physically planting trees in Israel, but I am doing something equally rewarding. For the better part of the past year I have been working for a Tel Aviv-based PR company whose goal is to help startups get media coverage for their new products and apps in both the Israeli and foreign press.
Although we work with both large and small clients from all over the world, for me personally there is no greater satisfaction than helping a small Israeli startup get its product and name out to the big world for the first time. But the work involved is more than just writing press releases and pitching stories to reporters. In fact, it’s quite similar to what we generally do on Tu Bishvat – planting seeds and helping the sapling, or in this case, the startup, grow by taking good care of it.
My first client was Kobi Bodek, a cheerful young Israeli entrepreneur who had been backpacking through Thailand when he met some other tourists there and started chatting with them. They told him how what started out as a short holiday had turned into a much longer extended stay because they were able to find local seasonal jobs (helping out on a farm, bartending, being a nanny, etc.) in exchange for room and board. The idea immediately reminded Kobi of the kibbutz volunteer system that existed in his native Israel. When he returned home, Kobi set up a website platform, which he cleverly called KeyBoots, where both “Keys,” local businesses looking to hire seasonal workers, and “Boots,” young people on holiday willing to “strap on their boots” and work in exchange for lodging, could find each other. The slogan of his platform, “Don’t Just Visit, Live It!,” made clear that the only way you can really get to know a culture was not to be a tourist, but to experience it from the inside.
My favorite Tu Bishvat story recounts how Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his student Rabbi Yitzchak Meir to speak at their Tu Bishvat seudah (festive meal) of fruits from the land of Israel.
Rabbi Meir chose to discuss the tractate which teaches that Tu Bishvat is the new year for trees, and gave a lengthy and complicated discourse on the subject. When he finally finished, The Kotzker Rebbe replied, “If we were in the land of Israel, we could just go out to the fields and look at the trees.
We would then understand what ‘new year for the trees’ really means, and we would not need scholarly learning on the subject! For there, in the land of Israel, Tu Bishvat does not say ‘darshuni’ [expound upon me], but ‘asuni’ [Do it!].”
Perhaps that’s the real essence of the holiday of Tu Bishvat. It’s not enough to just talk about it, you have to experience it. And the same holds true when it comes to Israel, the “Startup Nation”: Don’t just visit, live it!
The writer has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar- Ilan University and works in PR at Blonde 2.0.