(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog: http://blog.bjen.org/ dated February 17, 2012)
I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Israel, which serendipitously coincided with the season of Tu B'shvat, the day that marks the new year of the trees. Since the times of the early rabbis, this holiday has been a sacred day on the Jewish calendar.
In modern Israel, it is a day of joy, when school children go out into the fields and countryside to plant trees, put on plays and celebrate the glories of a returning spring. Friends and family visit each other, exchanging gifts of dried figs and dates, almonds and apricots. Wherever we went, we were the recipients of the abundance of these baskets and platters of this vernal visiting.
Off a side road from Tel Aviv to Be'er Sheva, at the farm of Ariel Sharon, we saw that almond trees really do burst into blossom almost overnight. Adorned in white petals with a pinkish hue, almond trees stand, a bit demur yet all puffed up, looking like a shy but proud debutant being presented to the world in her poofy crinolined skirt. All around, the land just smiles, covered with a profusion of wildflowers.
What struck me throughout these quiet celebrations – though why it took me all this time to fully grasp this, I don't know – is that Tu B'shvat is not a holiday about trees. It is not like Arbor Day, a broad celebration of the gifts of all trees. It is, rather, a holiday pointedly about fruit trees. Non-fruiting trees are, technically, unconcerned with Tu B'shvat. For Tu B'shvat is an accounting tool, a way to determine how old a fruit tree is and which fruits are counted in which year's harvest.
Perhaps I am more sensitive this year to this fact given that I am the founder of a new organization called the Baltimore Orchard Project, which began last September and focuses on gleaning fruit from residential and other non-commercial trees and giving it to the hungry, as well as promoting the planting of more local fruit trees.
(By the way, we are looking for volunteers to help us build an inventory of all such fruit trees in the city and county, and to help us harvest and distribute the fruit in late summer and fall. If you would like to join us, please let me know! You can sign up on our website or send me a comment on this blog.)
What was stunning in Israel is the way so many people across the land (we went from Be'er Sheva in the south to Zichron Yaakov in the north) have fruit trees growing in their yards and along the sides of roadways. Teas were spiced with lemons and loquats plucked before the meal (and in one case, our host made it from fresh herbs growing in her garden).
Though Baltimore is not the climate for citrus, we are a great climate for other fruits like figs, peaches, pears, apples, nut trees, and much more. Once upon a time, here in Baltimore, it was all the rage to plant fruit and nut trees in one's yard. Somehow that fell out of favor for more exotic ornamentals.
How wonderful would it be if we could re-establish the norm of planting fruit trees in our yards. And orchards on empty city lots. How wonderful if our homes and cities were not simply sterile, ornamental landscapes but working land that enriched the beauty, the bounty and the health of our community.