Tu B’Shevat Plants Crucial Symbolism in Israel
IsraelThinking About Tu B'Shevat

Tu B’Shevat Plants Crucial Symbolism in Israel

The celebration just before the declaration of the modern Jewish state in 1948 was especially important.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Artist Zeev Raban is shown in 1930.
Artist Zeev Raban is shown in 1930.

Excitement reigned in the U.S. Jewish community in January 1948.

The world had entered the countdown for the establishment of a Jewish nation as defined by the partition plan approved by the United Nations on Nov. 29, 1947. Rabbi Avraham Silverstone chose to capture the fervor of those heady days through the spirit of Tu B’Shevat, the “old-new holiday,” as he labeled it.

“Where there is life, there is hope for new strength,” he said. “The festival that has survived the hostile interference of men and nature, just like Am Yisrael’s steadfastness through the centuries, has been revived and brings us renewal once again.”

He shared with his readers a description of the communal tree planting on Tu B’Shevat at Yesod HaMaala in 1884. That settlement was founded by members of the First Aliyah, 12 families from the Russian Empire who immigrated to the area in the Hula Valley.

“Last week we planted a grove mutually with all the company, more than 1,500 trees.” A specific count followed. “There were 708 etrogs and 100 pomegranates, 400 figs and mulberries. And we shall plant, with G-d’s will, other types of plantings, for aside from the large profits from the fruits, which with G-d’s help will be successful, we shall need also good health, for humans are one with the trees of the fields, and without them they do not have a good life.”

Even a divine purpose was noted. “We plant, as the Creator of the Universe showed us, to plant as He did, for it is written in Genesis, ‘And the Lord G-d planted a garden eastward, in Eden.’”

Silverstone stressed that this planting of trees at Yesod HaMaala had dual meaning — to support health and to imitate the biblical actions of G-d.

What was the true intent of the holiday as the rabbi sensed it 70 years ago? “Jews outside of the homeland fill up their blue-boxes, and their children bring dime bank ‘treecards’ to religious school to underwrite the reforestation of Eretz Yisrael, which plays a vital role in this national renaissance.”

Silverstone in 1948 strongly believed that “in the free and independent New Judea we may look forward to a bright future for ourselves, for our land and for this delightful folk-festival.”

On that Tu B’Shevat in 1948, rabbis and educators recalled a most dramatic event at the end of the 19th century in Eretz Yisrael — November 1898, to be exact, when Theodor Herzl made his first visit to the homeland of his people. In his diary he described planting a cypress tree in Motza, just outside Jerusalem.

With the hope of meeting Kaiser Wilhelm, who visited the Holy Land in 1898, Herzl traveled from the coastal settlements of Mikve Israel and Rishon Lezion toward Jerusalem for a possible audience and stopped in Motza on the way.

Herzl entered the village to a warm welcome and reception. When the sun started to set, he looked out at the land of Judaea and saw “a variety of lights of brilliant colors reflected upon its hills.”

He knew he had to plant a tree there, so Herzl climbed the hill and placed a young cypress tree into the earth. That tree grew quickly, so that “six years later it stood tall and statuesque, signifying to the settlers the Jewish people’s return to Zion.”

In 1901 a major step was taken at the World Zionist Congress when the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet was established. Tree planting has been a special activity of JNF, working diligently to redeem the land.

In a study of Tu B’Shevat, Israeli historian Yael Zerubavel noted how Jewish educational institutions helped JNF by “socializing the children to give weekly donations to the JNF blue box, teaching them (in the words of a famous Hebrew song) that every penny counts and contributes to the redemption of the land.”

When Henrietta Szold visited Eretz Yisrael for the first time in 1909, she began to see the possibilities of the homeland reborn. In her comprehensive article on the trip in the American Jewish Yearbook, she described the Tu B’Shevat celebration she witnessed. “There was the future in the processions of schoolchildren, on whose breath the world stands, as they wend their way singing to Motza on Hamisha Osher be-Shevat (Tu B’Shevat), the Palestinian children’s Arbor Day.”

She captured their joy “as they placed the tiny seedlings into the soil, watering them carefully and hopeful that they would grow into tall trees pushing their way against the sky.”

Szold captured the potential of the land by comparing it to a fast-developing American state: “Palestine has the conditions and the opportunities of California. The soils in various parts of our homeland are adaptable for all sorts of growth.” She stressed that the “success of the reforestation work already underway may well offset the dearth of wood in the country.”

As World War I ended and the British Mandate was established, the Palestine Restoration Fund, Keren HaYesod, called for a $10 million campaign whose goals were the purchase of land in Palestine, the preparation of Palestine for Jewish settlement, and the maintenance and development of work in progress in Palestine.

An attractive propaganda poster was commissioned by the New Palestine journal of the Zionist Organization of America for the campaign. Through 10 poignant illustrations, the planting, developing and striving by those living in Eretz Yisrael brought home the message “Let us rise up and build.”

In 1928 an artistic depiction of children planting on Tu B’Shevat in the vicinity of Jerusalem underlined the authentic meaning of the holiday.

Zeev Raban, a leading member of the faculty of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, drew a series of pictures capturing the celebration of all the Jewish festivals in Eretz Yisrael. They appeared in a little book, “Hageinu” (Our Festivals), published in New York under the sponsorship of Jewish educator Zvi Scharfstein. The goal was to show the world the “Jewish home” in Palestine and the “Hebrew home” in Jewish communities as they existed at the time.

Raban’s illustrations in “Hageinu” capture the celebration of the Jewish holidays and Shabbat in varied locales in the Jewish homeland. Yom Kippur, for example, is observed in the Istanbuli synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. On Shavuot a procession of children, from Yemenite to Ashkenazi, carries bouquets of flowers. Lag B’Omer is depicted on the shores of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). On Shabbat a mother lights the candles as her children encircle her.

Batsheva Goldman-Ida, the curator of a Raban retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art 20 years ago, explained in the catalog how the artist used as models children he knew, including his own. For example, in the illustration for Shabbat, his daughter Ruth is shown in a 1920s frock and red shoes ordered from Paris.

Raban, who trained in Europe, joined the Bezalel faculty in 1912 at the invitation of the director, Boris Schatz. In that pre-World War I period, he experienced the spirit of the growth of the land as a result of the initial aliyot. Even though the draconian rule of the Ottoman Turks was ever present, the Jews in Palestine laid the foundation of the cultural renaissance of the mandate period.

Once the British took over with Lord Samuel as the first high commissioner, the 1920s became a time of constant growth in the Jewish homeland. Goldman-Ida explained the role played by Raban:

“The body of his work took form parallel to the historic events (leading to the establishment of the state). His is not the work of a hermit or a recluse; on the contrary, Raban was a propagandist … actively involved in creating the ethos of the emerging country. His artistic motifs were to become those of a majority Jewish culture.”

When we look at the colorful Raban drawing of children planting in the vicinity of Jerusalem with the Tower of David in the background, we observe the delight of the 1920s on this soil. The boys are wearing pith helmets to protect them from the sun. Their spiffy ties create a most fashionable outfit. Their dress is similar to that of the Jewish Palestine Guides, those important pioneering figures.

The poem in Hebrew facing the illustration has a beat most fitting to Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees:

To the field! To the field!
In pairs we go out together!
Each of us with tool in hand
A miniature gardener
Let us go out — let us go out
Into the field let us move!

This year as we watch the young and the old marching out to plant — to make the soil blossom and bloom — we can again be inspired by Tu B’Shevat, a day on which we plant for the future as others have done. No matter how difficult it may be, hazorim bedimaa berina yikzoru: We will reap in joy.

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