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A down-to-earth, ‘Avatar’ Tu b’Shvat

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Celebrating Tu b’Shvat this year on an alien moon called Pandora? Why not?

As seen in “Avatar,” the 3-D, billion-dollar grossing movie, it’s definitely a place where trees are revered.

In the film, bluish people called Na’vi worship ancient trees. Here on earth, a Jewish people who have a “navi” or two of our own (navi in Hebrew means prophet) will celebrate Tu b’Shvat, the New Year for Trees, on Jan. 30, expressing in song and seder a kind of tree love as well. Why?

Trees represent a commitment; planting one is just the beginning of a long-term relationship. Isn’t this a kind of love?

Certainly the day has become a rallying point for caring for trees and the environment by Jewish green forces, like the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. But before the greening of the holiday and the fear of rising seas, there was unequivocal, Earth-solid tree love. Like the Na’vi, is tree love part of our roots?

Cedars of Lebanon were harvested as building materials to help construct the Temple. For the daily sacrifice practiced there, a secure supply of wood was necessary. Both Iron Age wealth and military might were dependent on charcoal as a heat source for smelting silver and forging weapons.

The Torah includes an edict against destroying trees even in warfare (Deuteronomy 20:19). The love verses in Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, metaphorically compare a couple’s young love in the imagery of trees:

“Like an apple tree among trees of the forest,

So is my beloved among the youths,

I delight to sit in his shade …” (2:3)

Not a shock, since we are a people whose default metaphor for Torah, for ultimate knowledge and life, is “etz chayim,” the tree of life.

On Tu b’Shvat, we behold the lovely shekadia, the stately almond tree, and her white blossoms that we praise in song.

Yet tree love aside, how many of us would plant one in front of our homes?

‘Tu b’Shvat Tree’ from Posters of Israel, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Two years ago I went door to door trying to persuade my neighbors to allow a city-funded group to plant free trees on the parkway in front of their homes. Though many were happy to have the tree, I discovered many others who had a rustling ambivalence toward them.

Some of the objections: Trees need to be watered; their limbs and roots block views and sewer lines; and their leaves and flowers drop sap on cars.

Additionally, trees need to be trimmed, watched over in wind, and protected from disease. And as in “Avatar,” zealous developers see them as obstacles.

So why the love affair? Trees are a lot of work. What do they give us in return?

Shade, fruit, sense of place, cleaner air: We know about all that. Danish modern furniture, olive wood Shabbat candlesticks from Israel: We know about that, too.

Trees give us hope — like the ancient horse chestnut tree that brought Anne Frank some happiness while she was in hiding from the Nazis. In her diary on May 13, 1944, she wrote about the tree for the last time: “Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and even more beautiful than last year.”

The tree is now diseased and requires special care, but its descendants, saplings, will be sent out around the world to more than 200 schools and locations, including 11 locations in the United States that showed, according to a piece in The New York Times, “the consequences of intolerance” — racism, discrimination, and hatred.

Trees bring us understanding and friendship between neighbors. My parents always had a fig tree growing in their backyard in Anaheim, Calif. In the 1990s, their neighborhood and area saw the arrival of Lebanese and Palestinian households. The local newspapers even began to describe the adjoining commercial area as Little Gaza.

As it turned out, the Lebanese family who moved in across the street planted its own fig tree. My father, Murray, died last year, and after his death I discovered that he and the neighbor had a wonderful relationship, exchanging fruits in their seasons and news of their families.

Trees give us a sense of time and a touch of the eternal. Somewhere in the White Mountains, near Bishop, Calif., lives a tree named Methuselah. Named for the oldest living person in the Bible, it’s a Bristlecone pine, among the oldest living things on earth.

In the 1950s, the forest service did a core sample of Methuselah and estimated its age at 4,789 years. It was growing long before Moses.

I visited the Bristlecones one year, gnarled, twisted, ancient. If something can live that long, then so can our traditions and memories.

We love our trees. Unlike the Na’vi in “Avatar,” we don’t sit around cross-legged and pray to them. Yet we do have a bond, a connection to our memories and humanity.

This Tu b’Shvat, sans spaceships and 3-D specs, create your own special effect: Pick up a shovel, dig a hole. and plant something that will grow into the future.


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The Jewish Slandered

Bridgegate motives revealed

Christie supporters say the new finding proves their contention that what was initially reported as a traffic study blocking three lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge was simply a mishearing.

“It was a truffle study,” said a Christie confidant.

“Truffles, not traffic. Chocolate truffles, of course.

“We had heard that the shalach manot may have fallen off the truck, so we dispatched policemen to look for them. We knew people might be inconvenienced, but it was a small price to pay to permit the governor to enjoy a festive Purim, however belated.”


The Jewish Slandered

Yeshiva students call for renewed focus on day school education

The Jewish Slandered

SLI targets shuls with new pilotless project


The holiday kiddush


My gang of pals always called me Dunderhead. Was it because I refused to study? Well, that wasn’t the only reason. Truth is I didn’t want to study. Who does? Did they dub me Dunderhead on account of my wooden head? Maybe. Truth is I was a numbskull. Nothing penetrated, my teacher complained. I had to work my head to the bone before I understood anything.

But, on the other hand, my memory, knock wood, was pretty weak too. I couldn’t remember a blessed thing. In one ear, out the other. Absolutely nothing sank in.


Considering ‘Next year in Jerusalem’

On a recent trip to Jerusalem, my son decided that his favorite color was gold. Whenever he’s asked why, he replies with a wry smile befitting a 5-year-old.

“Jerusalem is the city of gold, of course,” he says.

When we told him our family was moving to Israel this summer, he was quite pleased.

“Ima, will we live there until I’m a grown-up?” he asked.

That’s the idea, we nodded.

While I know what my family will mean when we reach the end of the Passover seder this year and say “next year in Jerusalem,” what do these words mean for those not making the trek to the Holy Land anytime soon? Are we being disingenuous? Or, as the rabbis encourage with every other part of the Haggadah, are we expounding, embellishing, interpreting, and reading ourselves into the story of the Exodus from Egypt?


Love, marriage, motherhood

And other uncomfortable seder table talk

We had just closed our Haggadahs to begin the dinner portion of the Passover seder when the conversation abruptly, yet not surprisingly, turned to my singlehood.

There is a curiosity to some about a single, childless woman in her early 40s, and a guest at the table, a married mother of three, couldn’t hold hers in. The Four Questions all single women of a certain age know by heart were about to begin:

“You’ve never been married?” the woman asked as the youngest of her three children tugged on her sleeve and she sat him on her lap.

“No,” I responded, hoping my frank, curt answer would shorten the conversation.

No luck.

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