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The New Year of the Trees

            On the evening of January 27th, 2021, and through the next day, Jews around the world will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. Historically, this was an agricultural festival celebrating the emergence of spring in the land of Israel. Here in the Unites States, where we’re still in the deep freeze, Jewish children will celebrate the holiday by eating fruits and nuts that grow in Israel (like olives, dates, grapes or raisins, figs, pomegranates, Etrogim (citrons), apples, walnuts, almonds, carob, and pears.)

“We’re Jewish children too!”

            When I was a kid in Jewish Day School, a platter of dried fruit and nuts was brought to each classroom, and it was the only time during the year that I would see actual carob, rather than carob chips masquerading as chocolate chips. The idea that we were brought food in our classrooms was meant to show us the specialness of the day (and it did! It really did!), because after Kindergarten the whole idea of snack time had disappeared as completely as nap time, and food in the classroom was verboten.

(a picture of a Tu Bishvat platter I found online)

This year, because of Covid, we won’t be able to share food in our synagogue school classrooms, or have our usual Tu Bishvat Seder in the synagogue, where we tend to celebrate by dipping dried fruit into a rapidly diminishing bowl of melted chocolate. Instead, this weekend, the kids at my synagogue will have a Zoom chocolate chip cookie baking lesson, and the adults will sing Tu Bishvat songs on mute and learn about the history of Jews and chocolate.

We won’t have synagogue school classes again before Tu Bishvat, so this past week I sent my students home with a list of fruit and nuts to choose from, and a copy of the two blessings they may want to say. The first blessing is a simple blessing over the fruit itself:

            Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

The second blessing is the shehechiyanu, a blessing we say whenever we experience something new, or newish. We say this blessing on Tu Bishvat if the fruit or nuts we choose to eat is something we’ve never had before, or haven’t had for a while. As a kid, this blessing was always said over the weird Carob thingy on the platter, which looked nothing like the carob chips in my trail mix.

(I found this online too, but I can’t remember how to eat it.)

But over time I’ve come to realize that the shehechiyanu blessing is much more interesting than it sounds, because it doesn’t just say thanks for this new thing. Instead, it says:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

So, it’s not just about celebrating the new thing; it’s about celebrating the fact that we survived long enough to experience this new thing. It allows us to acknowledge all of the work and suffering and fear and luck it has taken for us to get to this moment, and to bless all of it.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

We inaugurated a new president here in the United States this week, and even though the celebration was muted by Covid, and the threat of violence, the feeling of renewal and relief was palpable, and we could say a shehechiyanu for that too. We have so much recovering to do in the United States, and around the world, and most of us have had a hard time seeing anything to be thankful for lately. But the shehechiyanu blessing reminds me that everything we’ve been through to get here is part of the blessing of this moment.

It’s easy to celebrate new plants and trees and fruit when they come up in the spring, but what if we can also bless the planting of those seeds, and the turning of the soil, and the worry that nothing will grow, that comes before the spring?

I’m not a gardener, but my mother is, and this is the time of year when she starts looking through seed catalogs and sometimes starts new seedlings in biodegradable containers, so that they can begin to grow and build strength before the ground is warm enough to support them. This trust that spring will come, and the awareness that we have a role to play in planting the seeds, is part of the process of getting to spring.

One of Mom’s indoor seedlings

So, maybe this is exactly the right time for Tu Bishvat and the New Year of the Trees, here and in Israel and everywhere else. Maybe we can say the Shehechiyanu and bless the fact that we are planting our seeds, even in the winter, even with our fear and doubt still in place, because we choose to believe that, in time, something beautiful will grow.

“I’m ready to help. Again.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

60 responses »

  1. Speaking of trees, how are the pawpaw trees doing? I bet they will be happy to celebrate living long enough to see new things!

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  2. Thank you, Rachel. I love how you introduce Jewish observances I wasn’t aware of and then interpret their meaning so well for your readers.

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  3. Yes, thank you, God, for the Trees!

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  4. As usual, so thoughtful and socially aware and able to draw in so much history and make it relevant to now. You are amazing, the way you think things through so carefully and fully.

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  5. OMD, Ellie, how did you get your legs all grass stained?! Bet your Mom had a time getting that washed off.
    I am helping the synagogue prepare for a Zoom celebration of Tu Bishvat and knew about the fruits and such. I did not know about those prayers, and will have to ask the Rabbi how to pronounce the second one. I like your explanation of the deeper meaning of the holiday.

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  6. I enjoyed your post and the interesting tradition that resonated so well with you over the years.

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  7. This was wonderful, perfect in every way at this time and a joy to read. Thank you Rachel!

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  8. What a lovely thought. I do hope that this spring will bring not just fruits and nuts to sustain us, but genuine peace and freedom from the scourge of COVID. Even in the dark days of winter we have new beginnings to look forward to.

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  9. Wonderful to know more about this important observance.

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  10. Always interesting to read of your religious traditions, and how well you put them into the context of everyday life.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  11. Something for all of us to celebrate and enjoy.

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  12. “the weird Carob thingy on the platter”, I got these not so long time ago! We went out for a walk with my family and we found a carob tree ( I never saw that anywhere else before ). Suddenly my father grabbed one from the tree and started eating it. I found it super weird but still trusted him and tried it. It is really surprising how it taste like chocolate ! A mix between chocolate and dates. Basically you can eat it all, you just have to take off the seeds that are inside. Thanks for your post, it was nice reading you!

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  13. Rachel, thanks for the lesson. I learn something new every time I visit your blog. Keith

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  14. This coincides with my ex’s birthday, now a very old man. I sent this along to his kids/grands as a way to bring something interesting to read at the virtual birthday cake table. Thank you, Rachel.

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  15. “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

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  16. “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” A beautiful blessing and a beautiful post, Rachel. ❤

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  17. Another great post. I remember eating carob in religious school. It was always one of my favorite fruits. I think I just chewed on it an spit out the seeds. Attempts to share this treat with my kids floundered. None of the stores around here carried them and when I finally did get some, they weren’t impressed. It didn’t taste as good to me either. Either my taste changed, or it was a bad batch. Oh well.

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  18. This was such an encouraging post. Thank you, Rachel. I plan to share about shehechiyanu in my wives care group. We celebrate courage, stamina, and steps toward healing- even wearing party hats and toasting! You are a blessing and have taught me so much about Jewish culture. Thank you, again.

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  19. Another wonderful learning moment for me! Thank you, Rachel.

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  20. I am reading a Pulitzer Prize winner on trees, “The Overstory,” and trees now seem to be cropping up in everything I read–including your post:). What a beautiful (and yummy) holiday to celebrate. The Jewish faith has so many gorgeous symbolic facets and I love learning more about it.

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  21. Thanks for this post, Rachel. Interesting how Tu Bishvat almost coincides with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day (27th). The shehechiyanu blessing is indeed very apt: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” The Jews will always be God’s beloved, chosen people and Israel God’s priestly nation. Blessings! 🌳🌳🏞️🇮🇱

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  22. Lovely post, Rachel. Thanks for introducing me to a new holiday, so closely tied to other rituals all around the world and through time….

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  23. Such a good post! So hopeful!

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  24. My bf is half-Jewish and had no idea about this holiday. =)

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  25. Beautiful blessings. Thank you for sharing them. God bless.

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  26. Very insightful … I love the idea of being grateful for the things that brought us to a blessing … not just a the blessing itself. Having been raised in farm country, the blessing of a good harvest comes from a lot of dirt, manure (fertilizer), weeding, and sheer hardwork … but without it all, we wouldn’t have the final blessings.

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  27. what a happy, hopeful post!Just like yoy!😊🤗How did she get her little white feet so dirty!? i guess i should be glad Kleo’s paws are mixed up colors! She hides her dirty feet well! Keep up the lovely writing!

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  28. Thank you for sharing blessings so relevant to this life we are living.

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