Deeper Roots: What Tu B’Shvat Taught Me as a Child and as an Adult

By Melissa Hoffman

I learned to sing this song when I was 6 years old:

Hashkedia porachat

V’shemesh paz zorachat

Tziporim merosh kol gag

M’vasrot et bo hechag

Tu Bishvat higia

Chag la’ilanot

Tu Bishvat higia

Chag la’ilanot…

The almond tree is blooming

A golden sun shines forth

Birds on every rooftop

Announce the arrival of the holiday

“Tu Bishvat has come,

A festival for the Trees

Tu Bishvat has come,

A festival for the Trees…”

Even though it’s hard to imagine new growth and greenery in New England at Tu B’shvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat or January 26th, 2013), around the world children in Jewish communities will learn to sing songs like this, honoring the natural cycles of the land and its anticipated rebirth in the spring. In the Middle East, the holiday marks the awaited beginning of a new growing season, and many celebrate the holiday by eating foods found in Israel and planting trees as a way to symbolically bind themselves to the land. Here, in the US, we also usher in the holiday by affirming our relationship to our earth and committing ourselves to protecting its natural systems, even as we utilize its resources for sustenance. In large part, this comes with an overall understanding of what is available to us and how we manage our food choices. As our options for food growing, purchase, and preparation grow increasingly complex, it can be equally difficult to navigate the choices we have as people. Some, too, may have wondered standing in the local market: “How did this product get here? What impact did the process have on the land and other life while getting from the soil into my cart?”

For all of us, we are intimately bound to and dependent on natural systems and agricultural areas, even if most of us don’t often see them. How can we renew our commitment to the earth, when so many of us live lives apart from the processes that keep us happy, healthy, and able to function? How can we forge a path to what sustains us, while making lasting connections to the earth in balanced ways?

After learning the song, our teachers would lead us outside the classrooms, allowing us to take in our surroundings. We’d grab a handful of earth. We’d plant trees. We’d keep singing about a land beckoning us to come outside and notice it. Our path today also starts with awareness. The Hebrew word we tend to use for a “steward” of the environment is pakid. Its root, p.k.d or pakad, a commonly found biblical verb, often means to “remember” or “take notice.” In understanding our connection to the earth, we open ourselves up to feeling part of a larger community, and to exploring sustainable, just choices; as Aldo Leopold, the famous ecologist and environmental philosopher put it, we become “ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, and otherwise have faith in.” In March, we will have a chance to enjoy a multi-sensory, educational experience of our natural and social ecologies as they relate to food and Judaism. At the Boston Jewish Food Conference we will explore together the systems that keep our bodies thriving and our communities afloat – we will delve deeply into the connections that we have as Jews to our surroundings, and challenge ourselves to reflect upon and learn about the choices available to us as human growers and consumers.

Each day, we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding and attune ourselves to our world’s sounds, movements, and cycles. This Tu B’shvat, we can all begin to see ourselves as part of the productive organic framework of our planet and our local community. We can create a platform for intergenerational justice – a set of traditions that to teach and pass on to our children as we do our prayers and songs. In his book, The Way into Judaism and the Environment, Rabbi Jeremy Benstein writes, “first we are to open ourselves up to what the world does to us, for us, and only then can we confront what we do to the world in return, [and] our responsibility for it” (pg. 22). Join us on Sunday March 3 at Tufts Hillel at the Boston Jewish Food Conference this year to learn, do, discuss, and develop our own awareness, and to ask: what is our own allegory of a Jewish sustainable food practice?

Registration is now open for the Boston Jewish Food Conference.

Melissa Hoffman is a Jewish professional and soloist living and working in the Boston area. A California native, she made her first real snow cone in 2010, and enjoys dogs and recreational punning.