Jewish Earth Day

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Alona Jasik of Berkeley remembers the moment she really understood the origin of a date, or any fruit for that matter: at her first Tu B’Shevat seder in Israel’s Judean Hills.

“I learned about opening up a date and holding it up to the light to check for worms,” she recalled. “It was a different experience than just popping it into my mouth.”

Jasik, 30, credits the Tu B’Shevat seder for helping to deepen her connection between what she eats, how she lives and how she observes Judaism.

“I really believe Tu B’Shevat is a day to inspire and influence and bring teachings into the rest of the year,” she said. “And the seder is a reminder that the simple act of eating is holy.”

Tu B’Shevat in Hebrew means the 15th day of the month of Shevat. During post-biblical times, people calculated the age of their trees for taxes and orlah (the Hebrew word for the first three years of a tree’s growth, when the fruit was considered God’s property and was not eaten) on Tu B’Shevat.

Around 400 years ago, the mystics in Safed developed a seder that transformed the holiday from one of logistics to one focused on a connection to God, the land of Israel and the Earth.

Today Tu B’Shevat has grown with the environmental movement. Seders, until recently, were a rarity in the mainstream community, but the practice has grown more popular with increasing interest in and commitment to being good stewards of the planet. People often refer to it as the Jewish Earth Day or Arbor Day.

This year, the holiday falls on Tuesday, Jan. 22. It might seem strange to celebrate trees and their blossoming in winter. But in Israel at this time of year, most of the winter rains have passed and the sap is beginning to rise in the trees.

Claire Sherman of Berkeley attended her first Tu B’Shevat seder in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yoel Kahn of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. She brought the tradition back to the Bay Area, where she has held seders since the early 1980s. This year she will lead a seder for Nishmat Shalom, a feminist minyan in the East Bay.

“This is a holiday that really connects us to the Earth,” she said. “It’s also an unusual holiday in that you can do whatever you want. It’s new, so it doesn’t have ‘baggage.’ And that really allows people to be creative and do something different.”

Observing Tu B’Shevat is a three-part task: Preparing a seder, participating in a seder and finding ways to incorporate its lessons into daily life.

The Tu B’Shevat seder borrows much from its spring sibling, the Passover seder, but there is less preparation involved.

Three categories of fruit must be represented on the seder plate: Fruits with an inedible shell but edible core (pomegranates, oranges, almonds); fruits with an edible outer flesh but inedible core (plums, cherries, olives); and fruits that are edible throughout (berries, figs, kiwis).

It is also customary to eat the “seven species” of fruits and grains that grow in Israel. So add these to your grocery list: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives, pomegranates and dates or honey.

Another goal is to serve a fruit you haven’t eaten yet this season (or ever) so that a Shehechiyanu can be recited. The prayer expresses gratitude for new and unusual experiences and is usually said during holidays and on special occasions.

Sherman recommends scouting Asian markets for interesting fresh, dried or canned fruits. She’s discovered durians, lychees, jack fruit and jujube.

Josh Miller, 33, grew up in Mountain View and now lives in Berkeley. Even though he went to Sunday school and spent his summers at Camp Swig, Tu B’Shevat was never a big deal in his Jewish life until he worked for Hillel at Tufts University, where he led his first Tu B’Shevat seder.

He has since attended or led 10 seders, and will be leading an eco-seder Tuesday, Jan. 22 in San Francisco.

“Tu B’Shevat seders are so awesome because they’re a learning experience for the seasoned Jew and newcomer,” he said.

Miller is usually in charge of purchasing the fruits, nuts and grains. Consequently, he has eaten cherimoyas, durians, kiwanos, ugli fruits, star fruits, pepinos, loquats and quince.

“I’ve tasted fruits I would have never thought to purchase were it not for Tu B’Shevat,” he said. “It’s fun to be the one in the checkout aisle buying a cart filled with exotic fruits … Sometimes I feel a bit like Noah trying to load the ark with two of every species.”

Tu B’Shevat aficionados also recommend, when possible, to buy locally grown, seasonal produce.

The next component of a successful seder is providing some kind of structure to the meal. This means finding a Haggadah or creating your own.

Because a huge variety of haggadahs are available to download online or check out from the library, seders vary widely in length, scope and level of participation.

Jasik of Berkeley does not belong to a synagogue and considers herself “flexadox.” She has been to

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eight seders in the past 10 years and is planning to host two this year — one for friends and one for teens at Midrasha in Oakland. Each seder had its own flavor and personality, leading her to believe there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday.

“For me, the seder is an opportunity to bring kavanah [intention] to my eating and the appreciation for the source of our sustenance,” she said.

Sherman was initially attracted to Tu B’Shevat because “I loved singing songs about trees and nature.”

Added Miller, “More commonly, people approach the holiday from an environmental perspective and as an opportunity to focus on the intersection of Judaism and the environment. Others explore the mystical side of the holiday.”

Nonetheless, Tu B’Shevat seders usually share common ground.

As on Passover, participants drink four glasses of wine. The first should be white, the second white with a bit of red, the third red with a bit of white, and the fourth entirely red. The four glasses represent the changes in the seasons.

Even seders that emphasize the environmental elements of the holiday usually touch on the mystical.

“The sages of Safed in the 16th century understood man as a tree of life, whose roots were in the heavens and branches extended toward the Earth, bringing us life and blessing,” Jasik said.

The three types of fruits served at a seder symbolize the kabbalistic concept of the four worlds, or levels, of life.

The kabbalists described humans as living in physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual worlds. Each category of fruit is assigned to one of these worlds, and for the highest level — spirituality — no fruit is eaten, which symbolizes that nothing tangible can represent our relationship with God.

Seders often include songs and games, and can precede a walk in the woods, planting a tree or even the seeds from the fruits you ate during the seder.

“This holiday, more than others, has a lot of leeway for the do-it-yourself Jew to add their own contributions,” Miller said. “People can pull from anything that inspires them.”

Perhaps the most important element of Tu B’Shevat does not happen during the seder, but afterward.

“Part of the holiday is recognizing that it’s not about today and it’s not about you, but about our legacy and what we want to do for the environment for the future,” said Claire Mikowski, assistant education director at Congregation Rodef Sholom.

The synagogue held its second annual Tu B’Shevat seder Jan. 13, drawing 100 participants. Mikowski said it was only the beginning of the congregation’s campaign to “green” the synagogue.

Sherman says Tu B’Shevat has opened her eyes to details around her. Years ago, she began to notice Berkeley’s many plum trees are often the first to bloom each year, just like the almond trees in Israel.

“I think Tu B’Shevat has changed me,” she said. “It’s definitely made me much more of an environmentalist, much more concerned.”

For Miller, the holiday — and marking it with a seder — has deepened his connection to Judaism.

“What I really like is that Tu B’Shevat is in total concert with the values I hold near and dear,” Miller said. “Here’s a holiday that gives me the opportunity to celebrate that in the context of being Jewish. It’s a wonderful time to remember that this very old tradition I’m connected to totally resonates with me today.”

Tu B' Shevat seders honor New Year of the Trees

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.