Next a date, which, though sweet, has too rough a texture; then a chocolate raisin, wrinkled and familiar. To my five-year-old son Josh, this is Tu B’Shevat—some odd, asymmetrical fruit.
We are in the Jewish Community Center’s child care wing, where Josh goes three days a week while I work. Today is Tu B’Shevat, and when I come to take Josh home, his class is tasting Israeli fruit and learning about the holiday known as the New Year for Trees.
Josh doesn’t quite understand it, and I’m not exactly sure I do, either. It seems to have something to do with rotating crops, and as trees can also be crops, I assume they need some rotation too, or at least a fallow time. Since we’re in the midst of winter here in Minnesota, it seems easy enough to be fallow.
Yet in Israel, the trees are probably starting to run with sap, and, I imagine there is greenery poking its head out of the ground. Years before my son was born, I was in Jerusalem, planting a tiny sapling. I look at Josh, who is utterly done with dried Israeli fruits and signaling that he’s about to run off unless I start dressing him. I kneel to put his coat, scarf, hat and boots on, wondering what he will remember about this holiday.
I celebrated Tu B’Shevat as a child in Hebrew day school, though I don’t think chocolate raisins had been one of the fruits we ate. At Josh’s age I knew next to nothing about Eretz Yisrael, and when told, it seemed as exotic as fairyland to me, a made-up country floating somewhere next to the castles I saw on The Wonderful World of Disney. The idea of people fighting, dying, or even living normally there never occurred to me; if it was home to anything it would have to be magic, like a dream.
The stories I heard about our ancestors cemented this; Abraham and Sarah serving angels in their tent and having a child in old age; Jacob wrestling with an angel; the parting of the Red Sea, Lot’s family turning into pillars of salt; Joshua blowing his horn while the walls of Jericho fell around him. Years later I stood in a Jericho courtyard, listening to an archaeologist say that some scientists believed the walls were quite weak; but it wasn’t until then that I began to apprehend the difference between the myths I‘d grown up with and reality.
There is nothing like Israel to change the way you look at it; but still, somehow, it comes out mythically, or at least seems to when you’re visiting. The outsized biblical figures from my youth towered over childhood like so many skyscrapers; yet when I arrived in Jerusalem, riding on a bus through the hills of the city’s olive groves, it felt as though I’d traded one fairytale for another.
Here was a place where passion was palpable, where people, whatever their differences, seemed engaged with one another and themselves. For a woman who’d grown up in a place where most of us spent our days staring at TV screens, that in itself was a reason to stare.
My journal, day one:
The hills are arid, ancient, worn to patience; they look for no unexpected kindness from those who walk them. Yet kindness comes in unexpected ways. The land is dotted with lush green terraced gardens, rows of olive trees and the stone houses that appear almost to be rising from the ground instead of squatting on it, as so many American houses do. It is lovely to see mountains again.
One can almost feel the history, pouring out of trees and rocks and heartbeats, and they have kept it alive, whatever else they might not have done, so that to see it, you have only to open your eyes. I feel that I have been asleep for a long time and only just realized what it was to be truly awake.
As we drive home over snowy roads, I remember the feelings I had my first week in Jerusalem; the city’s music, stones and air, all conspiring in a rush of heat and sensuality to knock out every other thought, life, relationship I’d ever had; to sweep me up into a lush, provocative now.
Day 3: They live on the edge of life here, and so they live more fully, because they are aware of death and take nothing for granted.
Josh and I are home, and I am pulling leftovers out of the refrigerator to make a casserole. Josh is clattering around the kitchen, doing everything he can to get underfoot. My usual M.O. is to turn on the television, but tonight I think, no. If we were in Israel I wouldn’t turn on the TV; I would find some other way to engage him while I cook dinner, and it wouldn’t be by tuning him out.
I reach underneath the sink and pull out three pots, then pull open the drawer to find a spoon. “Here,” I say, “bang on this and make some music.” Josh takes the spoon and begins banging as though he’d rehearsed it a thousand times.
The symphony continues; bang, crash, bang and boom, and listening to it, I begin to understand. We are alive, Josh and I, like the fruits of Jerusalem. The trees, figs, noise and clatter tell us we are alive, and we cannot take it for granted.
We are here for a short time only, every day a kind of Tu B’Shevat; saying you have to keep blooming, every fruit is a first fruit, and you can’t be fallow too long. Behind each winter, spring is coming, and the stories won’t wait; they are here, like the two of us, waiting on dinner—and the dawn.
- (Photo: HarvardPJA)
Filed Under: Being Jewish