Tuesday, July 14, 2020 -
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The beauty (and taste) of Tu b’Shevat

Having grown up in an Israeli and Jewish environment, I never had to contend with informing teachers or professors about upcoming absences due to the Jewish calendar of holidays. Those holidays were factored into the structure of our school calendar and were, naturally, days off.

That is, until I began graduate school. With the High Holidays right at the beginning of the academic school year, it seemed like every other day I was approaching another professor explaining it’s another Jewish holiday and why I would be absent from class, seminar or lab.

Throughout that year, my fellow non-Jewish students basically celebrated two holidays the whole year. Me? I began noticing how every other week seemed to be another holiday on the Jewish calendar.

My Jewish friends and I began to joke about approaching our professors informing them about upcoming holidays, and just taking days off of grad school. Uh, sorry, it’s Tu b’Shevat (the 15th day of the Jewish lunar month of Shevat) next week, we won’t be able to attend class. Of course, no one had ever heard of this minor holiday in celebration of nature, rabbinically ordained as the birthday of the trees. A Jewish Arbor Day, if you will.

As children, how had we ever really celebrated Tu b’Shevat?

In school, we created a craft project, and of course there was the obligatory distribution by the school’s PTA of dried fruit snack bags.

The bokser, carob, or in Hebrew, charuv, was always the mysterious, singularly Tu b’Shevat fruit. Almonds, dried apricots, raisins — these we heard of. In some form or another we ate these foods all year. But the brown raw carob seed pods that you broke your teeth on? That was special. That was only on Tu b’Shevat. Even if you thought the flavor was weird. Even if for the first split second you confused the dark brown pod for chocolate, this carob, representing the carob tree of course, was the obligatory Tu b’Shevat snack that somehow embodied the holiday in culinary form.

While the carob tree officially begins to bud prior to Tu b’Shevat, its produce is tithed with the produce of the coming year.

The carob tree was trumped only by the shkedia,” the rustic branches of beautiful, budding, delicate, pink and white blossoms of the almond tree — Tu b’Shevat’s symbolic sign of spring, as this tree truly does begin to bud right around Tu b’Shevat.

The root letters of the word almond in Hebrew also mean to watch or to awaken. As we witness the awakening of the almond tree, we are watching the first signs of spring bloom tangibly before our eyes. More than any other tree, it’s the gorgeous branches of the shkedia which say Tu b’Shevat like no other.

Through the years, observance of this holiday has grown. In many circles it has become the Jewish version of Earth Day, or a day of environmental awareness and social action on behalf of our planet. Tu b’Shevat’s eco-friendly motif aligns well with environmental awareness. And so, it’s observance over the decades has become fairly trendy.

My observance of Tu b’Shevat has grown, too.

For as far back as I can remember now, Tu b’Shevat is a lot more than just those dried fruit snack bags from elementary school.

The Tu b’Shevat seder highlighting the four seasons and their transitions, as embodied by four glasses of ombre streaks of red and white wines, laced throughout a meal of abundant food blessings, fruit eating, and defined by an anthology of midrashim and ideas, has become a signature and quite popular celebration of the day.

Personally, I so enjoy spying new shehechiyanu fruits at market, an opportunity to invoke this special blessing upon gorgeous, colorful and tasty fruits of the tree. Bowls of huge rosy red round pomegranates, full with crimson beads of glassine — like pulp are always a centerpiece for Tu b’Shevat.

Seeing as the Tu in Tu b’Shevat is the alphabetical numeric of the number 15, as the holiday is marked on the 15th of Shevat, there is a mystical custom, which I have (most years) adopted, of eating and blessing a variety of 15 different fruits, as well as reciting a corresponding psalm from one of the 15 Shir ha-Ma’alot, “Songs of Ascent,” from the Book of Psalms.

Celebrating the Seven Species Fruits of the Land of Israel is another culinary centerpiece of the day. Wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olives and date honey.

A Seven Species Salad has been popular for many years now. A barley- or wheatberry-based salad accented by the various fruits, and dressed in olive oil, of course, works perfectly. It’s nutritious, delicious and beautiful, too. There is no bokser in sight in that recipe!

This year, Tu B’Shevat begins this Sunday evening, Feb. 8 — on a day off. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to host a Tu b’Shevat celebration or seder. In the Tu b’Shevat spirit, preempting the actual holiday with a Tu b’Shevat themed Shabbat menu could be nice as well. Think about it, it works so organically. Wine or grape juice for kiddush, challah (wheat) for hamotzi . . .

The decorative fruit platters of the day are lovely, but a full non-vegetarian meal, eaten with attention to Tu b’Shevat-themed ingredients comprised of the seven species is not as traditional, but enjoyable, too.

Following hamotzi you can start with a mushroom barley soup (for the barley), pastrami wrapped candied dates, cholent (more barley), Provencal chicken marbella, whose signature accents are olives and figs, date tea bread, almond cookies, stuffed dates, cakes of all kind (more wheat), fruit kebabs, fruit cake — the possibilities are endless.

Of course, I’m sure fruit gems and petite pastel marzipan shaped fruit confections count as Tu b’Shevat dessert too! And after all, chocolate does come from cacao beans that grow on trees . . . why, then, of course, chocolate epitomizes Tu b’Shevat fruit! I can see the chocolate bark studded with golden apricots, jeweled pomegranate seeds and pistachios unfold before my very eyes right this very moment.

The more I think about it, chocolate definitely ought to have made it into those Tu b’Shevat fruit snack bags of yore. I classify cacao beans as a fruit. Yes, most definitely, chocolate is another Tu b’Shevat fruit.

I will have to add chocolate truffles to the gorgeous colorful variety of 15 luscious fruits to bless along with the recitation of 15 Song of Ascents.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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