Seeing the Forest Through the Trees – A Tu Bishvat Yarzheit

Planting those trees – years before the State of Israel was declared – demanded boundless belief and optimism.

1971 JNF Tu Bishvat (photo credit: LISA J. WISE)
1971 JNF Tu Bishvat
(photo credit: LISA J. WISE)
My father was part of Generation-JNF. He planted a tree in Israel to honor every occasion. No birthday, bar/bat mitzvah, anniversary or graduation was complete without a personalized certificate arriving in the mail. When he died on Tu Bishvat in 2015, many trees were planted in his memory by loved ones. The irony and poetic justice were not lost on me.
A 1971 photo shows my parents bending down wearing kovah tembels (Israel’s iconic low-rimmed fabric hat) and sunglasses beaming in the hot Israeli sun. Nestled in their hands is a tiny sapling about to be planted. Their smiles are bigger than that baby tree. Their love of Zionism was rooted in building strong foundations for future generations.
JNF Tu Bishvat 1971 (Credit: Lisa J. Wise)JNF Tu Bishvat 1971 (Credit: Lisa J. Wise)
Even after I saw the classic Sallah Shabbati scene where American philanthropists were funneled through a photo-op line to pose beside an ever-changing dedication plaque featuring their names, I held on to the belief that searching the Jerusalem Forest, we could find ‘our’ family tree.
The son of Polish and Russian immigrants, my dad grew up in the 1930’s in Paris, Ontario. The sole Jewish family in town, he attended cheder in a nearby city. Every year, the teacher would give each student a cardboard sheet with pre-cut slots in the shape of a tree. Their job was to collect dimes from family and friends and, when filled, return the tzedakah proudly to their teacher to mail off to Palestine.
Every student appreciated their hand in making a desert bloom a world away. Planting those trees – years before the State of Israel was declared – demanded boundless belief and optimism.
Everything Dad held true was encapsulated in that one act: “The work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free to take no part in it” (Rabbi Tarfon). Yes, the forest was huge; the need was great; the State was not yet ours and one tree was only a tiny contribution. But nothing mattered more than doing your part, no matter how small. Every bit counted.
After his death, Tu Bishvat could not be celebrated the same way again. The cheerful childhood holiday had vanished. Sweet songs, puffy pink almond blossom art projects, dried fruit seders and the promise of a sunshiny spring all felt a bit off. In the dead of Montreal winter, beneath ruthlessly frigid grey skies, such hopeful thinking was existentially necessary – but quite difficult to muster standing beside a frozen gravesite.
For the past six years, I strived to find a meaningful way to honor a memorial day that coincided with a bubbly holiday. I ushered in the New Year of Trees by lighting a yarzheit candle and placing it next to a photo of me and my dad hugging. My dad was a soft-spoken, distinguished, loving and wise pediatrician who continued to practice medicine right up until his death at 85.
He loved my mom dearly for 36 years of marriage until her death at 59 from lymphoma. He then gently and compassionately cared for my sister until her death at 38 from lung cancer. A pulmonologist specializing in Cystic Fibrosis, he helped parents face the heartbreaking loss of their children. He then used that courage to bury my older sister.
JNF Tu Bishvat 1971 (Credit: Lisa J. Wise)JNF Tu Bishvat 1971 (Credit: Lisa J. Wise)
Growing up in Montreal in the 1970s, weekends when my dad was not on-call were sacred. On Shabbat, we walked home from shul together hand in hand before sitting down to heaping plates of brisket, potato kugel, tzimmes and green beans. On wintry Sundays, we would wax up the cross-country skis, pack up our gear and drive to McGill’s MacDonald Campus Farm to ski together for hours in the quiet, blanketed, forest stillness. I can see the back of him, leading the way through the tracks, gliding elegantly and forging a path for me to follow.
I loved the serenity of being in those silent woods with him. There he taught me the power of simultaneously sharing space while enjoying a sanctuary of solitude. Halfway through the trail was a welcoming log cabin serving hot chocolate. Although we shared silence on our skis, we enjoyed the cozy warmth of chatting fireside over steaming mugs while our socks dried out.
This Tu Bishvat, I will whip up a batch of hot chocolate to sip with my 23-year-old twin boys on our snowy back porch, to infuse memories of sweetness and sacred silence into this year’s yarzheit. It has been a tough year – their college experience has been turned upside-down but we are beyond grateful for our many blessings. 
One son completed his military service as a chayal boded (lone soldier) in an IDF combat unit over three years ago and both boys inherited my father’s beloved library, carrying those books in their arms and printed on their hearts. I know my dad is unspeakably proud of them both...
My father was a romantic who wooed my mother with poetry, nature and music. He courted her atop Mount Royal in the springtime of 1956, bringing a basket of goodies and wine to share on the lawn while enjoying outdoor chamber music. Surrounded by blooming trees and wooded trails, he read her poetry at sunset. Their matching wedding bands had “Let me count the ways” engraved on the inside, where only they could see. She was his one true love; he never remarried after her death. His heart was old school.
This Tu Bishvat, I will take his well-worn pocket poetry book off the shelf, turn to a favorite yellowed page, and read aloud to the trees in my backyard at sunset. I will bring my husband (and best friend) of 30 years - who had Covid in March - to this intimate reading. I will give thanks for undying love.
A yarzheit by any other name is still a yarzheit, no matter what holiday it falls on. My mom died on Rosh Hodesh Iyar and, six years later, my sister died on Hoshana Raba. When I go to shul to recite kaddish for them, I am always caught off guard by the Hallel said to honor those holidays. Some years it is harder to sing praises than others. I have a hunch this year will be tough. Since no Hallel is sung on Tu Bishvat, I am off the hook. But the holiday still joyfully heralds hopefulness and the promise of brighter days to come. My dad would love all that optimism and aspiration.
Before you can open your mouth to sing Hallel, you must have faith in your heart to plant a tree. Even in the darkest, deadliest, most diseased winter, we must believe that, somehow, we can make a future desert dream bloom beautifully. Then we must act and bury those tiny seedlings in the dark ground beneath our feet.
This Tu Bishvat, I will plant trees in Israel in my father’s memory. I will label them with extra love. I will trust that they will grow strong. And I will draw strength from his courage – and that ring of trees – to face future treatment for my rare blood cancer, which is progressing slowly but surely. I will say a prayer of healing for our aching world. I will dream of walking through the peaceful, hopeful Jerusalem Forest of tomorrow, searching for our family’s deeply planted roots, ever reaching toward the sun.
Lisa’s heart lives in Jerusalem while the rest of her resides in Philadelphia where she is working on an essay collection about family legacy, loss, laughter and living fearlessly with third-generation lymphoma. lisajwise.com