On Guitar and Almond Trees: A Tu B’Shvat Story

almond tree shiraOne of the jobs I do in Israel is teaching guitar lessons at a community center in Gush Etziyon. While it’s a schlep from Jerusalem, it is a job that I enjoy doing. Music, like many skills, is something by which you only progress via practice and I was annoyed that a student wasn’t progressing. I thought about telling her to consider coming back to the guitar when her fingers were a little bit bigger. Guitar is an instrument that can be played using chords (essentially, a combination of notes) or by pressing on (or leaving open) individual notes on the strings. For “Sarah” it was becoming apparent that she was not going to feel a sense of accomplishment playing guitar using chords. This was slightly irritating for me, as a teacher, because it would require more effort on my part. As I was mulling over this issue on my way home, I passed a blossoming almond tree. As a writer, I envision meaningful articles in mundane events, and I try to find within those events inspiration that I can share with others–and also get paid for it. It’s a win-win.

Probably one of the most irritating things for Minnesotans is when folks such as Floridians complain about how “cold” it is. We tell them that cold is walking across the U of M campus in January, in hundreds of layers, and being unable to feel your fingers and toes, and wondering if your ears are still attached to your head. For better or for worse, the weather is probably our most controversial topic. In the Mediterranean climate of Israel, summers are hot and dry and winters are rainy and cold. As a Minnesotan, I never thought I could describe another climate as freezing, but winters in Jerusalem are not for the faint of heart, and the lack of insulation in homes means that it’s almost impossible to ever feel warm. Often, I sleep in my big down coat and I still wake up shivering.

Winter, is, obviously, relative. For some, winter is the complete destruction of all plant life and, with the exception of a few brave squirrels, the disappearance of members of the animal kingdom for many months. For others, winter is the blooming of cool weather flowers. If we Minnesotans saw plants and greenery in the winter, we would probably flock en masse to the cabin. In Israel, kalaniot, decorate the green hills during this time of year. The truth is, however, that winter, although often harsh, is essential to nature.

One of the most fascinating classes that I took at the U was Horticultural studies. I had to fulfill my biology requirement and I stumbled upon this class. I have always loved plants and I thought it would be fun to learn about plant propagation. Located on the St. Paul campus, Horticultures was the class to which I most looked forward. I enjoyed this class so much that I’ve decided that when I retire, I will become a florist. I learned many fascinating concepts in this class, but the idea that most intrigued me was that seeds go through a process of dormancy: a period in which seeds, because of unfavorable conditions, do not germinate. For some seeds, animal stomach acid causes the breakdown of the seed coat. For others it’s forest fires. And of course, the extreme cold helps many seeds to become the beautiful summer foliage that Minnesotans live for. The point is that a seed cannot take root without some form of hardship.

In Israel we just celebrated Tu B’Shvat. This holiday arrives in the middle of meteorological winter. It is still very cold and winter is still not over. So what exactly, then, is Tu B’Shvat?

On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, we turn to plant life and say: “We know how you feel. You’re cold. You barely made it through winter and your branches are bare. You want to give up, but don’t. Look at the almond tree. It’s blossoming, not after, but through the winter. From this tree, learn to hope. Learn to utilize the winter to make spring beautiful. Appreciate the winter even if it is sometimes unbearable. Look at the almond tree and believe that through your death will come about new life.”

What is Tu B’Shvat? It is a holiday that celebrates progress. Winter isn’t over and spring hasn’t arrived, but that doesn’t matter because life isn’t just about monumental accomplishments. We can’t appreciate a beautiful garden if we fail to recognize the grueling process of its cultivation.

And, we can’t appreciate beautiful music if we can’t hear the hours of perfecting practice that were invested to turn notes and chords into a song.

As I walked to the bus stop from my guitar lesson and I saw the blossoming almond tree, I stopped and realized that my student needed a new method to learn guitar. Her fingers are small and she wasn’t going to enjoy this wonderful instrument if her little hands couldn’t make the chord shapes. Sarah was going to have to learn a different way to play guitar. Yes, it is more work on her (and my) part, but hopefully one day when Sarah gives a concert, or plays for herself, she’ll appreciate the difficult process that was her journey to music. She’ll look at a blossoming almond tree in the middle of winter and she’ll be thankful that she belongs to a tradition, and lives in a country, whose national anthem speaks of hope and rejoices in progress and not just the final product.