Party on &mdash Judaism is also about fun

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The small pink and white blossoms peeking through the trees near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park reminded me of Tu B’Shevat, the original, biblical “Arbor Day.”

“How soon is Tu B’Shevat?” I asked my mother, hoping the answer would be “soon.”

“Tu B’Shevat?” She repeated, going to grab her Jewish calendar to check. “I’m pretty sure that passed.”

It was true — Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar, had already come and gone a few months ago, taking with it the traditional feast of nuts and dried fruits, the festive songs and the once-a-year opportunity to celebrate our connection to the earth and the botanical world, in a Jewish way.

Tu B’Shevat, fondly known as the “New Year for Trees,” is not the most famous of Jewish holidays. It lacks the solemn air of the Yom Kippur fast, pales in human significance to Rosh Hashanah (which, unlike Tu B’Shevat, is a new year celebration for people, not trees) and is not as widely observed as Passover, when we eat bitter herbs and restrain from chametz, or leavened foods, for eight days.

Tu B’Shevat doesn’t involve fasting or sitting for long hours in a synagogue. It is a simple, joyful celebration that takes place just after the early blooming trees in Israel begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. It is a holiday that, as a child in Israel, I loved to celebrate.

After missing the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, I thought of all the other holidays I’ve pushed to the side. Sure, I’ve been making the token trek to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, passing on bread and pasta on Passover, and listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. But what about the “little guys” — holidays such as Purim, Lag B’Omer and Tu B’Shevat? Why are we so preoccupied with the High Holy Days and the more “serious” of Jewish festivities? Weren’t all Jewish holidays created equal?

Or were they?

I decided to call Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of the Chabad House of Berkeley to find out. In addition to leading that congregation, Ferris also does comedy.

“Each holiday is special in its own way,” he said. “Every yom tov [holiday], we say, ‘This is the most important holiday,’ and then of course we say, ‘But wait, you told me the last one was the most important.'”

Ferris explained that while it is true that Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of connecting to HaShem, each Jew is touched by a different yom tov.

“There’s a twice-a-year Jew who comes only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said. “People feel that those are the most important holidays, but I would say they should come on a Purim, or a Tu B’Shevat.

“You don’t need to be too top-heavy on Yom Kippur,” he added. “You need to be well-rounded — you can get your vitamin M [which, as I found out later, stands for mitzvot] from many different sources,” he said.

Ferris referred to those other holidays, including Tu B’Shevat, Purim and Lag B’Omer, as yamei simcha, or days of happiness.

“We forgot how to have fun,” Ferris said. “Enjoy life — but in a kosher way — that’s what you’re here for.”

I took his words to heart. Why shouldn’t I celebrate the holidays I love — regardless of their status of popularity — with just as much enthusiasm and devotion as I have for the High Holy Days? Holidays that remind us of the happiness in life are just as important as the ones that remind us of the struggle, the bitterness and the oppression we have lived through.

The next yom simcha on the Jewish calendar is Purim, next Thursday night and Friday, March 24 and 25, and I don’t intend to miss it.

Back in Israel, I loved wearing costumes and going to Purim parties, eating oznei Haman (the delicious cookies shaped like Haman’s ears) and hearing stories of the legendary Queen Esther.

So what if it’s post-biblical? So what if you’re supposed to eat instead of fast, make noise instead of be quiet?

“In Judaism, you can move, you can dance, you can party,” Ferris had told me.

Next week, I intend to do just that.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].