Tuesday, April 23, 2019 -
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Tu b’Shevat on Shabbat Shira

WHAT a joy to welcome the Shabbos bride and Tu b’Shevat together.

There really is something wonderful about the conflation of these two beloved traditions under the cover of this full moon.

And it is not just any Shabbos this week. It is Shabbat Shira — the Shabbat of song or praise, when we read about the miraculous and dramatic miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. Hence, “shirat ha-yam” the Song of the Sea.

So it is that another custom has taken hold for this particular Shabbos. The song “feed the birds” from Mary Poppins becomes a bonafide Jewish custom.

Back in the desert, it was the birds who ate the manna when it was controversial, thereby protecting the dignity of Moses and G-d. Now we pay tribute and appreciation to these adorable, melodious creatures by scattering bread crumbs for them to eat.

Between the Song of the Sea of Shabbat Shira, the chirping birds and “Tu b’Shevat higia chag la-ilanot” — the popular Tu b’Shevat song of our childhoods — it’s a pretty rocking good time of a Shabbos.

Ah, Tu b’Shevat. A splash of brightness in this otherwise dreary and cold season. With all the vivid jewel toned colors of the fruits, it is a cheerful reminder of a bright and colorful spring yet to come. The sap will soon be flowing and the unsuspecting trees will soon be blooming.

SOMEWHERE among a motley crew of boxes in storage in Jerusalem lies my hand crafted Tu b’Shevat seder booklet I compiled many years ago.

The tradition of experiencing four worlds as represented by the four seasons, accompanied by all the luscious and symbolic foods, the poetic midrashim — and let’s not forget the wine sipping — is a Tu b’Shevat tradition I so enjoy.

Then there are the “shehechiyanus” to recite on the tasting of new fruits.

There are the fruits of Israel, the seven species to partake in: wheat, barley, pomegranate, dates, figs, olives and grapes. To this day, these mostly make up the bedrock of Israeli Mediterranean cuisine in our land of milk and honey.

Pomelo, persimmon, annona are not biblical fruits of Israel, but still provide special tastes I could only find in the busy Jerusalem souk; they are some of my Israel fruit lovelies.

The orange persimmon in Israel is bruised on the inside, oozing a honeylike sweetness. And the pale yellow translucent sections of the pomelo are like a child of the orange and the grapefruit. Not quite sour, not quite sweet. Oh! And the oranges! The kumquats! The citrus! It is  almost like walking through citrus groves.

I LOVE creating and arranging fruit mosaics in edible modern art collage style, or more organic designs bursting with the vibrant colors and various shapes and textures of swaths of fruits, not to mention the veined leaves, especially the huge and thick, almost hand shaped, forest green (with a slight sheen, gorgeous and artistic) fig leaves, arranging them just so.

Yellows, oranges, blues, pinks, reds, greens and golds.

Then there are the nuts to tuck in and be cradled by the enormous and meaty deep-flavored and sweet medjool dates that are themselves cloaked in little paper white frilly mini cupcake holders, like little bassinets.

And we won’t get into my obsession with the rimon, the pomegranate, this time.

If you want to come as close as you will to biting into the land of Israel and tasting it, you can savor the authentic taste of the seven species with a “shivat ha-minim salad.” It is, I dare say, much more than the sum of its parts.

One night when I lived in Jerusalem I was walking back home from a friend’s very late into the night, the wee hours of the morning, really. As I was walking down Ussishkin Street I suddenly heard chatter and laughter and banging, where the night time streets are usually very mellow and quiet.

I followed the voices and next thing I knew I was standing on the threshold of Yaakov’s fruit boutique in Shaarei Chesed. How could I have forgotten! It was the night before Tu b’Shevat. Yakov, surrounded and immersed by gorgeously plated and clear cellophane wrapped fruit platters, was standing behind a beaten wooden counter in an apron, banging seeds into a crater-size stainless steel bowl of half cut pomegranates.

AND so, Tu b’Shevat it is. And Shabbat Shira. The Jews have been redeemed. The sea has split. Moses and the people have sung their praise. More miracles continue at Mara and Meriva, until the very end of the Torah portion where things shift and we are left with a most powerful image.

No longer tough conflicts being resolved by direct miraculous intervention, the Jews are attacked by Amalek. With Joshua leading, the Israelites are in battle, fighting their evil attacker.

Then this: Moses is sitting on the top of a hill, where he is visible to the people fighting in battle. His hands are raised toward the heavens. When Moses’ hands are raised upward the Israelites prevail in battle. When Moses’ hands weaken and begin to falter, the Israelites are defeated. So it goes back and forth. Up, down. Win, lose.

Aaron and Hur come to Moses’ side to help.

They each sit on one side of him and help support Moses’ arms in a continuing a sustained ascent upward.

What a touching and poignant picture. I think this image tells us a lot about prayer.

Sometimes when the words fail, it is just looking upward, lifting our hands toward the heavens that is our connection, our prayer.

Sometimes our lips don’t move, but it does not mean our hearts are silent.

And then we can just lift our hands and our face upward to the heavens. This, too, is a prayer. This, too, is a response.

Perhaps, it might even be the ultimate prayer. Especially when it is articulated with the helping hand and support of a friend at your side.

Happy Tu b’Shevat and Shabbat Shalom.

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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