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Tu Bishvat: Interfaith Friendly, Jewish in Nature

Republished January 12, 2011.

My family never really celebrated Tu Bishvat, though I do have faint recollections of making little tree-shaped hats in Hebrew school to mark the occasion. As an adult I've noticed that Tu Bishvat seders are catching on among environmentally-minded Jews like me, so I decided to throw one to see what they were like.

Since it was my first time at a Tu Bishvat seder, I was on equal footing with many of our guests who were either not Jewish or were but didn't know their Tu Bishvat from their Lag B'Omer. Those that were Jewish were excited for the opportunity to experience a new tradition, and those who were not jumped at the offer to participate in such a colorful holiday, though no matter how many times I repeated it, many of them could not pronounce its name.

all about the food
You can see that Aaron's Tu Bishvat seder was all about the food from this photo he took of the table.

Regardless, the seder was a huge hit, and I strongly recommend having one, especially if you're looking for an activity that is interfaith-friendly but still Jewish in nature (emphasis on the nature). I can't think of any other Jewish holiday that would be easier to participate in or more attractive to someone from another faith. Who doesn't want to hang out, have a few drinks and talk about fruit?

I was raised in a Reform congregation and my girlfriend grew up in a more religious evangelist Christian household. Her dad was also the pastor of their church. As adults we're both religious pluralists, a position which is never more apparent than at the gatherings we often hold at our apartment. I went to Brandeis (also know as "Jew U"), she went to Gordon, a non-denominational but very much Christian college, and our parties are often a 50-50 blend of alumni from both institutions. We were curious to see what it would be like to have that same crowd at a religiously themed event.

Fortunately, Tu Bishvat isn't "religious" in any way that might be off-putting. There is no reference to the holiday in the Torah, meaning there are no commandments governing its observance. What I gathered from my research is that, like many Jewish holidays, it all comes down to food.

Tu Bishvat is a holiday that focuses on trees, and is know as both the "Jewish Arbor Day" and the "New Year for Trees." The date coincides with the blossoming of the first fruit trees in Israel, hence we celebrate by consuming various foods that come from trees and/or Israel, such as figs and pomegranates. Given my personal food ethics, I also wanted to incorporate local, seasonal fruits from New England, where I live.

Luckily one of our guests was wild foods expert Russ Cohen, who contributed toasted shagbark hickory nuts and homemade chicory ice cream, both of which were fantastic and included ingredients made from foraged foods. We also popped a bottle of West County Cider's Reine de Pomme, a hard cider made entirely in-state, and we drank pine tea brewed from needles gathered in the woods behind the house. You might not be able to find locally grown food at the supermarket during a New England winter, but that doesn't mean that it's not out there.

Of course there were Israeli tree goodies as well, such as stuffed dates, flatbread topped with goat cheese, caramelized shallots and more dates, salad with a pomegranate reduction vinegarette and roasted sweet potatoes glazed with palm sugar. I also wanted to have something in season from my childhood home in South Florida, so I decided on broiled grapefruit. (Though warm, splotchy, burnt grapefruit would be a more accurate description of the result.) My girlfriend may not be Jewish, but she can make picture perfect challah from scratch and by heart, so we had to have those, and a chef friend of mine who helped devise the menu whipped up a lemon curd and banana cream pie. The pie was so popular that everyone accidentally ate the parchment paper it was served on, mistaking it for part of the flaky, orange blossom water crust.

Like many Jewish practices, with Tu Bishvat you can go as deep as you care to. There are established prayers associated with the holiday, such as saying the shehekhianu blessing on new experiences for eating a fruit that you haven't had in a while. In the spirit of inclusivity, we decided on a simple combination of feasting and discussion.

It's no wonder that Tu Bishvat gains popularity as environmental awareness grows. Many are attracted to the themes of gratitude and stewardship inherent in the holiday, and both were topics of conversation at our seder. Russ, the wild foods expert, told us how he has planted cherry, peach and apricot trees on his own volition around the Boston area, and suggested that everyone else do the same. Once the ground thaws, I fully intend to. He also shared a Chinese saying that seemed perfectly appropriate for the occasion: "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

The seder was a huge hit, and everyone expressed their desire for it to become an annual tradition. Regardless of your religion, there's little not to like about Tu Bishvat.

The only downside came after the seder had ended, when I received a call from some of our guests who were stranded on the side of the highway. They had hit a pothole and blown a tire while looking at a particularly beautiful tree.

Hebrew for "15th of [the month of] Shevat," both a date and the name of a holiday celebrated on that date. A holiday that falls in January or February, it's the New Year for trees. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew term for a unit of dry measure, it was used to measure barley and is sometimes translated as "sheaf" (as in, "sheaf of barley"). Omer now refers to the period of 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. Today, instead of bringing an omer of barley to sacrifice, the days are counted ("counting the Omer"). It's also a period of semi-mourning, when traditional Jews will refrain from partying, dancing, listening to live music, or cutting their hair.
Aaron Kagan

Aaron Kagan is a freelance writer living in the Boston area. He blogs at http://teaandfood.blogspot.com/.

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