Here was my dilemma when I woke up on Monday, Jan. 21, 2008 in Maale Adumim, a little bit east of Yerushalayim (where Martin Luther King Day is not even a blip on the radar screen): that evening was Tu B’Shvat, and the fans across The Pond were no doubt awaiting something scintillating from me, and I had almost nothing to say. How could I write about a holiday which isn’t even a holiday in any real sense of the word? Not that it’s like American Kwanzaa, which somebody actually did make up. Tu B’Shvat is real, but until “recently” (a relative term in Jewish history) it was no big deal.
Originally, Tu B‘shvat, the new year for the trees, was no more than a date that you would have been marked off on the calendar on your refrigerator – except that they probably didn’t have calendars or appointment books back then in the days of the first and second Temples – so you could keep track of what year you could begin eating the olives or date palms growing in your backyard and if what you were bringing for your agricultural tax was from this year’s crop, or last year’s, or next year’s.
So there had to be a day on which the agricultural new year started (not the same as Rosh Hashana), and for fruit trees, the new year began on the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat, which corresponds to sometime in January or February. If you are standing here in The Land, the reason why this date was chosen is obvious: the early-bird almond trees begin to blossom (sort of like the first crocuses in your yard in New Jersey.) But there wasn’t much of a festivity; just like nobody I knew back in The States threw a big bash to celebrate the beginning of a new fiscal year.
However, as we began to resettle our ancestral homeland, Tu B’Shvat began to evolve into something like a Jewish Arbor Day. Trees get planted (in non-Shmittah years), hikes are taken, ecological concerns are raised, and – no surprise – people eat. For several weeks before, there is a run on fresh and dried fruits, nuts, all the bountiful products that are grown in this country – now that we have come back to plant in it and care for it – although we’re not doing too well on caring for it. I remember the usual half-hearted attempts in Zionist circles in America to mark this occasion: a few figs and dates along with a piece of bokser (carob), a dried, hard, black, inedible, nasty, string-like thing that you would chew on and wonder why anybody would eat this of their own volition. May I let you in on a little secret? As far as I can see, nobody here eats that; at least, in all my wanderings and shopping forays, I never saw it being sold. Eating bokser – like having two days of “yuntif” – is your punishment for remaining in Exile.
So what else could I consider writing about as I sat down at the computer that January morning? I should mention that I am taking a “hafsekah” (a break) from ulpan, having climbed a good several miles up the Everest of mastering our ancient mother tongue. Instead, I am at the computer from three to seven hours every day. In addition to the long hours I put in on these entries (everything I send out has been gone over three times: the first version is what I think I’m trying to say; the second draft is what I actually want to say; and the final version is what the text itself needs to say), I have taken on two additional projects. The first is to prepare articles for some commercial websites, for which I would get paid on a commission basis for what was sold from the site. I began by delivering two pretty good articles on Pesach preparation for a website that sells seder plates and other related paraphernalia. However, it’s been almost two weeks, and the guy still hasn’t put the articles up – although he assures me he will. This may have been a total waste of my time, but that’s how it goes!
Much more interesting and rewarding is the second project. Shortly after we arrived here this past summer, we were joined by Mordechai and Orly Friedfertig (who lived for a few years in Teaneck before they moved to Buffalo where he was a pulpit rabbi.) R. Friedfertig began working for Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, translating work by R. Shlomo Aviner – one of the pre-eminent dati leumi (national religious) rabbis in Israel – and making them available in e-mail format. One Shabbat at Mussar Avicha where we both hang out, I told R. Friedfertig that the material he was distributing was excellent, but it was diminished somewhat by the number of mistakes and typos in the text, as well as by some English which was, in my words, “less than graceful.” No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I was appointed editor for the weekly parsha sheet – at the same salary as I am receiving for writing these posts to you! (Rav Aviner’s material can be obtained either on the “Shabbat Shalom” section from the Orthodox Union website or directly by e-mailing RavAvinerfirstname.lastname@example.org). Several weeks later, I wondered out loud if any of the 100 or so books that Rav Aviner has written were or would be available in English. Funny I should ask! The yeshiva had received some money to prepare an English language version of Rav Aviner’s commentary on the Haggada. It would definitely need editing………….
After a long morning session working on one of my projects – I don’t rightly remember which one – Natania came into the office and asked me if I would like to take a walk. I was hard at work, but I decided to take her up on her offer: now that I’m not traipsing around Jerusalem every day, I have to remember to stop sitting hunched over my keyboard and get some exercise; more to the point, my daughter will be inducted into the IDF on February 10, and her future hikes will not be led by her doting daddy. Anyway, it was erev Tu B’Shvat, and this would be our chance to meet and greet Nature in Israel.
We decided to walk along the nature trail near our house, one of several such trails in Maale Adumim that wind through the waadis (these are the low areas in the valleys which can turn into short-lived but dangerous rivers during the winter rains; they would be called “gullies” in cowboy country). Our trail is hard to get to: we have to walk up to the top of the hill (where we would get the bus to Jerusalem) and keep going a little ways. Right before the huge power station, we would start going down an unmarked path all the way into the valley. A little way down, there is a small ugly blue-green station that was put there for bird watching (our little Land is right on the flight path of millions of migratory birds.) The most interesting thing about this station is the dedications, all from French Jews, in memory of Monsieur or Madame whomever, someone’s parent or other relative, all of whom were great friends of Israel. Continuing down the winding path, we kept seeing dedication plaques for clumps of trees, again all in memory of “grands amis de Israel.” We were in a miniature J.N.F. forest! There are, in fact, many trees here, although I am told that a fire a few years ago did diminish the number. As we kept going, we passed benches, picnic tables, and a little playground carefully and lovingly placed there, all with the requisite signs of dedication. But there was no one there – except for me and Natania.
We sat and rested for a while by a picnic area, very close to the little playground. I decided then and there that I wanted to meet the J.N.F. representative who convinced all these gullible Frenchies to part with their francs and honor pére or mére by building a playground which few children would ever see! There are many wonderful playgrounds, large and small, in Maale Adumim; why would a parent schlep a child down a precipice to use this one? Whoever the J.N.F. sheliach was, he’s the guy you want heading your sales force for your Frigidaire store in Katzebue, Alaska. There’s a moral to be gleaned from this about how tzedekah money is spent, and you are free to figure it out on your own.
I can’t say that the trail and the valley were strewn with garbage; that would be a very unfair and very great exaggeration. But there was just enough stuff strewn about to be noticeable, and to make you wonder how these things got there: a few overturned shopping carts, an old sneaker, a flattened and weather-beaten soda can, parts of a grill, perhaps a glove, the requisite number of old tires, and some things whose original function have been obliterated by the passage of time. Mind you, while some of the items were either lost or abandoned, they were all carried hundreds of feet down a steep incline to get to their final resting place. But how would one shoe come to be there? Did its owner hop back up the hill on one foot?
With all this, it was a glorious day to be walking, and one could believe that winter here was coming to an end, or at least to the beginning of an end – which is what Tu B’Shvat is supposed to be about. While there were no almond trees a-blooming – this being a desert – we could see the first signs of new, green growth on trees and shrubs that dotted the valley, and at least the people who paid for the trees got their money’s worth. We climbed back up the steep path, and as I gasped for breathe, I reminded myself that, only a year ago or so, we were climbing the NJ Palisades with Danny Chazin, our fearless leader. We arrived back home in time for Barbara and Natania to go to our local veterinarian to pick up “Half-Ear,” a friendly orange street cat for whom we paid to have needed medical attention for an infected ear. We have not seen him around the last week or so, and we fear that he was one of the many cats that did not survive the recent cold spell. It would seem that our amis in France were not the only ones who didn’t get their money’s worth.
Time to rest up (i.e., take a nap) before the next big event: a Kabbalistic Tu B’Shvat seder that evening. And time for an intermission. Part 2 will be coming to a computer screen near you in a few days.