Urban Tu Bishevat

-Post by Aileen Heiman, Director of Youth Education and Family Programming at Park Slope Jewish Center, Brooklyn, New York, and former Center City Philadelphia resident

As far as the Jewish holidays are concerned, Tu Bishvat is a low hanging fruit in terms of observance. Originally established in the Talmud as the date for counting the age of agricultural crops for the purpose of biblical tithes, the holiday evolved into a kabbalistic practice in the 16th century and, in the 20th century, a celebration of Zionism and the connection between the Jew and the Land. When I was younger, I associated Tu Bishvat with the blue JNF Tzedakah boxes, planting trees in Israel, and an afternoon snack of dried fruits and nuts at Hebrew School. Most recently, Tu Bishvat has become a Jewish Arbor Day, a celebration of trees, nature, and the Jewish values associated with caring for our planet. Whether one chooses to observe through a spiritual, national, or ecological lens, this is a holiday that is fairly accessible for Jews across the spectrum.

A year ago, a seed was planted as part of a Facebook feed when Miriam (Steinberg-Egeth) asked, “How do you explain to an urban kid why all of her Tu Bishvat books show kids living in giant detached houses and planting their own trees in spacious backyards?” Where was the book about the child who lived in Center City and wanted to throw a Tu Bishvat party in Rittenhouse Square? Where was the story about the children who planted something in their community garden in place of a backyard? As more families choose to live in urban settings, Jewish children’s literature is going to need to catch up.

With the depth of practices associated with the holiday throughout history, it struck a few of us as odd that so many of the children’s books about Tu Bishvat centered on planting trees. I suppose that with a nickname of “the birthday of trees” it would make sense to some that planting a new tree would be the appropriate celebratory practice, but the reality is that the essence of Tu Bishvat is not about new trees, but is actually about celebrating the ones that are already there. This year, in addition to whatever dried fruit you might be eating, take some time to celebrate all of the places in our neighborhoods where we can celebrate nature, greenery, and growth. Look at the little weed breaking through the crack in the sidewalk, the community garden that will host the local farmer’s market once the frost thaws, the trees that make our streets look like works of art when the snow glistens on them in the moonlight, and the tomato plant that sits on the neighbor’s fire escape. Together we will create the next generation of stories and the celebration of Urban Tu Bishvat.

For more suggestions on celebrating Tu Bishvat in an urban environment, check out this recent Kveller post