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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?

Nature Poetry

My rabbi adds poetry to Friday night services. Scratch that, he adds poetry to every service he leads, but the services we go to every week are on Friday nights. I am not really a poetry person. I wrote poetry and songs as a teenager, but I felt like I didn’t belong with the other poets. I wrote poems just to get the glitchy thoughts out of the corners of my mind, not to be profound. I just wanted to say what I meant without having to think about rhythm or rhyme, or “the right word,” or what was going to impress people. So much of the poetry I was told to admire was incomprehensible. I love Mark Doty’s prose, but we spent two hours in a graduate class trying to diagram one of his poems, and I still did not understand what he was getting at.

So it was a surprise to me when I realized that I looked forward to the poetry every Friday night. That’s not to say I love all of it, I don’t. But sometimes it says exactly what I needed to hear, that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

“Mmm poetry.”

The other night there was a poem from Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, with the Hebrew version and the English translation both printed on the page. My Hebrew is clumsy, and if I’d tried to just read the poem in the original, it would have been a struggle. It was pretty and melancholy in the English, about the conflicted feeling of being in Jerusalem in 1967, where you expect joy and transcendence, and instead get grief and complication.

In the English the words were bland, plain, clear and practical, but in the Hebrew, the words themselves were onomatopoetic, they bounced. The Hebrew words were playful and full and carried some of those sprouts of joy that were missing from the plain meaning of the poem.

It wasn’t even one of the nature poems, intentionally. It was one of the “Israel is complicated” poems that we get every once in a while, because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.

There was also a poem by Mary Oliver, called “What Gorgeous Thing,” about the beautiful, and incomprehensible, song of the bluebird in the morning. She describes it as “the only thing in the world that is without dark thoughts,” or at least seems so.

“Really?”

I keep thinking that I’ll go to the library and pick up a stack of poetry books and find poems that speak to me, but I never do. I often have to re-read a poem to really get it, even on a basic level (forget about depth, or historical references, or coded language, then I’m clueless). If I like the sound of the poem, or the image it leaves in my mind, or the feeling it creates in me, then I’m in.

It helps that someone else is reading the poem out loud and I’m not just stuck with how the words appear to me on the page. We have some very good readers at my synagogue who can bring out the rhythm or pacing of the language in a way that doesn’t occur to me on my own.

For sentimental reasons, I always like when a dog shows up in a poem, but most dogs make more sense as storytellers than as poets. Cats could be poets. Cats are terse, with a well-chosen gesture or expression saying everything that needs to be said.

A genius at work.

A poet at work.

Actually, I think Butterfly might be writing nature poetry all the time, but her medium is pee, and I am too human to understand it. She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.

My nature poem!

A nature poem!

Cricket, a poem in process.

Searching for a poem…

There it is!

and there it is!

The Pop Up Camper

 

We used to go camping when I was a kid, instead of flying to Europe, or wherever the upper middle class kids I grew up with tended to go. At first we had a tent, a big blue tent that could have held a dozen people, but then my father got a deal on a pop up camper and that became our home away from home.

We stayed at campgrounds, with hundreds of other tents and pop ups and Recreational Vehicles. I’m sure there are people who go camping with no water or electricity hookup, alone in the wilderness, but that was never the kind of camping we did.

Parking the camper in our designated camp site was the kind of torture I wouldn’t wish on anyone. First my father had to back the camper in, with Mom standing outside the car to direct him more to the left or right, so the camper wouldn’t hit a tree. Then the camper had to be stopped in place with wooden blocks, and the car detached from the hitch and parked at a distance. Then we had to make sure the camper was level, with jacks at each wheel well to make up for the varying levels of the ground underneath.

I remember my father screaming at my mother, “The level isn’t straight!” even though I could see the little bubble was right in the middle where it was supposed to be.

Then we had to pop up the camper and snap in the door and attach the water and electricity and lift out the two wings for beds.

By the time we were done all my brother and I wanted to do was go home, but instead we all went out for dinner and then stumbled back to the camper to go to sleep.

Mom says that Delilah, our dog, slept on the floor of the camper at night, but I’m not sure she’s right about that. There were three beds set up, one for me, one for my brother and one for my parents, and it seems strange that Delilah would have been inside the camper with us and yet not sleeping on my bed, where she often slept at home, at my feet.

"We're going where?"

“We’re going where?”

"I'd rather drive than pull, just saying."

“I’d rather drive than pull, just saying.”

During the day, we hung a rope between two trees to attach Delilah’s leash to, so she could swoop along the length of that rope, with an extra six feet of leeway. She wasn’t much of a barker, but she looked intimidating to strangers, which was what my father was going for. She was a statuesque black and brown Doberman Pinscher, with the forced ears and snipped tail of a dog meant to fight. But she was a scaredy cat. If someone came to our house, she would bark, as required, but slowly back her way up the stairs and out of sight.

For the most part, there is a dog-shaped hole in my memories of camping.

I don’t think Delilah could have enjoyed camping. She was a home body by nature. She liked sleeping at the foot of my bed, exploring her backyard, and resting in a ray of sun for a nice long nap in the afternoon. She was also a fan of dinner time, when table scraps magically fell to the floor, where she was waiting.

"I'd like my dinner, and a pillow, and a couch of my own."

“I’d like my dinner, and a pillow, and a glass of Chardonay.”

She wasn’t used to being on a long lead, or even a leash for that matter, because we rarely took her for walks at home. We’d just let her out in the back yard, either in her private run, to poop and pee, or with us in the rest of the fenced in yard, to play.

Maybe Delilah came with us on the nature walks we took at the campground. Mom would take me and my brother out while our father grumbled to himself in the air conditioned camper. Sometimes we’d find wild strawberries or raspberries, sometimes we got lost in the woods, sometimes we saw mushrooms and met very old trees. The idea was to leave the people-world for a while and smell and hear and see different things. The air was cooler and the birds had more to say when they weren’t drowned out by the sounds of humans and cars.

"Time to smell the... what are these exactly?"

“Time to smell the… leaves?”

Delilah and my brother, waiting for snacks.

“My brother loves me, and he smells like peanut butter.”

The smells of the campground itself depended on the time of day. In the morning there was often the pervasive smell of bacon. In the heat of the day the air smelled of plastic, and freshly cut grass, and chlorine from the swimming pool nearby. Towards evening there were campfires, with baking potatoes and hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks.

I liked the sound of rain on the canvas of the camper more than the sound of the rain on the hard plastic roof; splotch was more comforting than plink. And I loved the wet dirt smell of the rain hitting the trees around us.

I’ve tried to imagine taking Cricket and Butterfly camping. We could never use a tent, because no tent would hold Cricket. She’d be busting out of the sides and digging through the fabric of the tent to freedom (you should see what she’s done to my sheets). It would also be a good idea to have more sound baffling than a tent could provide.

I could also never leave them tied to a rope outdoors, the way we left Delilah. I would be very worried about someone coming by to steal my babies, or at least trying to steal them, and suing me when Cricket ripped off a few fingers during the attempt.

And I could never leave the girls alone in the camper. Butterfly would pee on the bed, and Cricket would scratch the door down, or chew through the canvas walls.

The girls wouldn’t mind a campfire, though. And bacon for breakfast would be their idea of heaven.

I wonder what Delilah would have thought of Cricket and Butterfly. I think she would have been protective of them, the way she was with her own puppies. Maybe she could have kept Cricket in line, with a look, or a growl, to get her to quiet down.

Cricket, in need of much training.

Cricket, in need of much training.

And she and Butterfly would have snuggled together for warmth, with Cricket harrumphing from a safe distance.

I could have found room for all three dogs on my bed in the camper, and maybe that’s what would have made me feel safe. I was usually so lonely on those trips, with no idea what to do on my own, and my brother only reluctantly spending time with me.

Maybe if I could fill all of the beds in the camper with dogs, instead of people…I’d be willing to go camping again. But probably not.

The campers!

The campers!