Every Tu B’shvat, the 15th of Shevat, my religious school teachers would hand out those blue metal boxes adorned with the map of Israel and a Star of David. I would fill the box with loose change scavenged from my parents’ night table drawers. I would dream that one day I would visit our family’s forest, planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), in Israel.
I lived in the Midwest so Tu B’shvat occurred during winter months. While my teachers praised the JNF and its efforts to turn the Israeli desert into a green oasis, I was shoveling snow off of my driveway. As a child, I was confused, why were we celebrating trees when our trees were barren? I couldn’t think beyond my reality and picture this magical place of Israel and supposed lushness. My teachers, perhaps to connect Tu B’shvat to my secular world, explained the holiday as the Israeli “Arbor Day.” Perhaps more on-point, they could have related Tu B’shvat to the “birthday” of trees.
Tu B’shvat is the holiday that divides the old and new year for all trees, no matter when the tree was actually planted. According to Jewish law, fruit may be eaten off of trees after the end of the third year, and the land also needs to rest, or have shmita, during the seventh year. How do you count the age of all of the trees throughout the entire world? Everyone starts and ends the year on this one day, on Tu B’shvat.
In addition to filing the JNF boxes, we made and painted seed pots that sprouted, hopefully, in the Spring. The Safed kabbalists, the originators of the first Tu B’shvat seder, celebrated with much more fervor as they dined on thirty fruits symbolizing the ten Sephirot. These divine attributes, for example understanding, beauty and kindness, spiritually connect our world to G-d. Modern tradition is to highlight twelve (wheat, olives, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, citron or citrus, apples, walnuts, almonds, pears and carob), corresponding to the twelve possible permutations of G-d’s four letter name.
I am partial to serving carob during Tu B’shavat as a healthy way to introduce sweets to my guests. Carob, a fruit grown in pods, is low fat, high fiber and a perfect alternative for chocolate lovers who want to avoid caffeine. This tiny fruit packs a powerful health punch with its high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols, the micronutrients that prevent diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. The carob tree is the main character in the Talmud story of Honi and the Carob Tree that illustrates the importance of planting for this and future generations. This is a perfect story to relate to the more tangible theme of Tu’ B’shvat as a way to inspire positive action and mindfulness about the environment.
This focus on environmentalism is heightened today with our government naysayers about global warming. As the diversity of tree species shrinks due to extinction, it is a loss for nature and the ecosystem that the trees support. The same rings true for population, which thrives on diversity. I was reminded of the importance of diversity in nature and our human population while reading the book Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. The tale, told in the voice of a wise old oak tree Red and his furry and winged friends, depicts the events that happen after a Muslim family moves into an unwelcoming neighborhood. Applegate’s story seamlessly threads the interdependent themes of tolerance and diversity with nature. In this story, nature, through the tree Red, finds its voice loud and clear. Perhaps we the people could use Tu B’shvat as a time to listen.
1/4 cup of coconut oil
1/2 cup of tahini (Soom is my preferred tahini)
1/4 cup of carob powder
2 tbsp agave syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup of carob chips
1 to 3 tablespoons of water, as needed
Using a blender, combine coconut oil and tahini. Add carob powder, agave syrup and vanilla extract. Continue blending, adding water as needed. Add carob chips. Serve on toast or fruit for a healthy snack.