Tall tales: Celebrating four local trees on Tu B’Shevat

Tu B’Shevat, or the Jewish New Year of the Trees, is a chance to acknowledge all that trees provide: abundant shade, improved air quality and, of course, delicious fruits. While not a biblically mandated holiday, in recent years Tu B’Shevat has become a centerpiece of the Jewish calendar with its own set of rituals and traditions, such as a seder that highlights fruits of the Holy Land, among them figs, pomegranates, olives, grapes and dates.

Though the roots of the holiday are ancient — marking the time of year when Israel’s rains subside and the cycle of fruit production begins anew — the idea of appreciating trees has cultural resonance today. This is especially true in California, where the 4-year drought presents a mortal threat to the state’s tree supply.

on the cover: Madrone tree in the Oakland hills. photo/tom levy

Parched and unhealthy trees have become susceptible to bark beetle infestations and are in grave danger of dying off en masse. According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than 12 million once-healthy trees have already fallen victim to the drought and its attendant environmental changes. A recently released study by the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., found that as many as 58 million California trees have suffered severe canopy water loss since 2011. This could lead to greater wildfire damage and cause long-term ecosystem changes, according to the report.

The threat is so severe that last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. “California is facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history,” he wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “A crisis of this magnitude demands action on all fronts.”

Action takes many forms. In the Jewish community, Tu B’Shevat brings an awareness of the role trees play in our lives and on the planet. And while the holiday is one of celebration, it is also a time for learning and reflection.

In appreciation for all the gifts that trees bestow, in this issue we profile four Bay Area trees that have special Jewish significance in the community.

The ‘alone time’ madrone

In the Oakland Hills, a sprawling madrone tree with reddish-orange bark and a majestic canopy that provides shade and respite on hot days plays an important role in youth programs run by Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that promotes an earth-based Judaism.

As part of the Sunday program B’hootz — Hebrew for “outside” — children in kindergarten through fifth grade learn and explore in the Roberts Regional Recreation Area. Among other activities that use the natural world to teach Jewish values, the students engage in hitbodedut, or “being alone,” a Hassidic practice championed by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).

photo/tom levy

Legend has it that Rebbe Nachman would send his adherents out into a field to spend time in nature and speak their prayers aloud. Wilderness Torah has also adopted this meditative spiritual practice for its youth program B’naiture, a two-year rite of passage for preteens in sixth and seventh grades.

“The kids spend time alone in nature, and we invite them to find special places in the forest to cultivate a long-term relationship,” said Aya Baron, youth programs director for Wilderness Torah. “This particular madrone tree called to so many kids that we needed to find a way to share that spot, because it had such a powerful draw and lure.”

The tall madrone tree, situated off the top ridge of the Manzanita Loop trail, offers a breathtaking view of Mount Diablo, and its bark is cold to the touch. “It’s cooler than other things in the forest,” Baron said. “The kids call it a refrigerator tree.”

Known for their medicinal value and tasty red berries, madrone trees once were central to the indigenous Pomo people’s diet. According to Baron, the Pomo people not only used the tree’s bark for making tea, but also its hardwood for carving and crafting.

“It was a tree that people who lived here for centuries had a deep relationship with, but many of us who live here now don’t know much about,” Baron said.

Last Tu B’Shevat, Wilderness Torah hosted its annual seder in the park. Baron recounted the story of one fifth-grade girl who had attended the B’hootz program and forged a particularly deep relationship with the madrone tree. She went out to spend some time alone with it, and when she returned from her meditation, Baron said, she carried a missive.

“She came back with a message, which we elected to share with all of the adults, about how to be a shomeret, or guardian, of the tree and its well-being. The message was that the tree sees a lot of people, and it trusts her because it sees her regularly. The tree needs a reciprocal relationship, and it appreciates the way she spends time with it.”

Baron, who described the much-loved tree as “the grandmother of that part of the forest,” said it continues to inspire Wilderness Torah’s staff and students.

“We continue to allow the tree to be a teacher for us in how to be guardians of the Earth, instead of abusive toward the Earth,” Baron said. “And how to allow our program, and our interactions with nature, to nourish the world around us.”

Saving the city’s urban canopy

Growing up in a Jewish family in southern New Jersey, San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener learned about the importance of investing in trees.

“When I was a kid, I remember we would donate money through the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel, and so from early on, I learned the value of trees,” Wiener said. “I learned that for the State of Israel to be as strong as it can be, it needed, among other things, more trees.”

Uncle John’s tree in Golden Gate Park photo/audrey soffa

That Jewish value has stuck with him, and since his first of two terms as a supervisor representing a district that includes the Castro, Upper Market and Noe Valley neighborhoods, Wiener has made it his mission to revitalize San Francisco’s diminishing urban canopy.

For the last several decades, the city has shifted responsibility for the care of street trees to property owners. Wiener, who announced last summer that he is running in November to replace Mark Leno in the state Senate’s District 11, hopes to return that responsibility for San Francisco’s long-neglected tree population back to the city and to build, rather than deplete, its urban forest.

“We have a declining urban forest because the city, for 30 or 40 years, has refused to invest in trees and dumped them on property owners,” Wiener said. “We’re trying to shift that dynamic and get the city back into the business of caring for our trees.”

According to a piece by Wiener on the website Medium, the Department of Public Works cares for less than a third of the 105,000 street trees, and [according to Wiener] DPW receives a small fraction of the funding needed to maintain the urban canopy — which, surprisingly, is the smallest of any major American city, with just 13.7 percent coverage, vs. 24 percent in New York City.

Wiener also points out that the Recreation and Parks Department, responsible for oversight of the park system’s 140,000 trees, is only able to engage in proactive tree maintenance around once every 75 or so years. While some park trees receive the attention and care they deserve, many do not.

One particular Monterey cypress — which, according to Wiener, was planted in Golden Gate Park more than a century ago by John McLaren, the park’s first supervisor — does indeed receive the love and care it deserves. Known as Uncle John’s tree, Wiener named it as among the trees he loves most in San Francisco. “Every tree should be cared for as well as Uncle John’s tree,” Wiener said.

The supervisor said San Francisco’s neglected urban canopy is a result of how budgets are decided. “Trees do not do well in the budget process, when they’re competing against public safety, health, homelessness and other important needs,” Wiener said. “So we’re hoping to go to the ballot next year with a modest parcel tax.”

The proposed tax would transfer the responsibility for tree care back to the city and would create an Urban Forest Fund, which would provide dedicated funding for the maintenance of street trees and for fixing any problems or damage they cause.

While the environmental impact of San Francisco’s declining urban forest is certainly not as severe a problem as deforestation in the Amazon or in Canada’s boreal forest, Wiener notes, he believes the issue is no less important.

“Particularly as we grapple with climate change, it’s more important than ever to protect and expand all of our forests,” he said, “including our urban forests.”

Fig love

While the South Peninsula’s JCC has changed names and moved numerous times in the last three decades, one thing has remained constant: the presence of a fig tree — and not just any fig tree.

Fig tree today at Palo Alto JCC photo/kyla reznik

When the Oshman Family JCC opened its new, permanent facility in Palo Alto in 2009, a fig tree was planted that was the descendant of a tree that had grown at two previous locations. “The fig tree is central to the identity of our preschool,” said Mimi Sells, chief marketing officer of the JCC. “It’s part of the DNA of this campus.” The  preschool’s logo is an illustration of the tree.

Debbie Togliatti, who started teaching preschool at the JCC 30 years ago and is now its gardening specialist, made sure to take four or five of the fig tree’s cuttings to replant when the center moved in 2002. “That tree grew tremendously,” said Togliatti, who has woven gardening into the preschool’s curriculum. “The kids could climb on it, and we got several crops of figs.”

The fig tree became so closely identified with the JCC preschool, and parents and alumni felt such a strong emotional connection to it, Sells explained, that Togliatti once again took cuttings before the move to the new campus in 2009.

Togliatti, who is also the author of  “Growing Jewish Values: Cultivating Your Jewish Roots in Your Own Backyard,” said she had several cuttings “the width of a pencil” but only one of them took root. “We took that one and planted it in our garden,” she said. “It’s very important to us that we had that tree that had come from two sites ago.”

Figs are one of the biblical seven species that grow in the JCC’s gardens — two orchards also contain pomegranates, grapes, olives, wheat and barley. This most recent incarnation of the original fig tree now stands about 7 feet tall, providing shade on hot days and a calm place for teachers to read to the kids. With 15 classrooms and 250 preschoolers enrolled this year, the fig tree gets plenty of love.

Togliatti likens the prized fig tree’s seasonal maturation process to the varied pace of early childhood development. “Not all of the fruit ripens at the same time,” Togliatti said, “which is how kids develop. They don’t all develop at the same time.”

Anne Frank’s tree in Sonoma

At Sonoma State University, a tree descended from the horse chestnut tree that grew behind the secret annex in Amsterdam where teenager Anne Frank hid from the Nazis has become a potent symbol of Holocaust remembrance.

“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom,” Frank wrote in her diary on May 13, 1944. “It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.”

Frank mentions her beloved chestnut tree several times in the “Diary of Anne Frank,” and before it was knocked down in a windstorm in 2010 — it had already been sick and rotting for several years by that point — the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam arranged to gather and germinate its chestnuts. The resulting saplings were donated to groups dedicated to Frank’s legacy, among them the Anne Frank Center USA.

Of more than 30 organizations that applied, SSU won the honor of receiving one of 11 saplings distributed by the New York-based center. Now a young tree, it sits in the university’s Erna and Arthur Salm Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove, a lakeside grove dedicated to international genocides, including the Native American holocaust, the Armenian genocide and, of course, the murder of 6 million Jews.

“It’s a pretty powerful statement right here in Sonoma County,” said Elaine Leeder, dean emerita of the School of Social Sciences who spearheaded efforts to bring the sapling to campus. “It’s the only one of its kind in the Bay Area.”

Leeder, whose Lithuanian Jewish ancestors perished in the Holocaust, also conceived of the Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove, which was dedicated in 2009. That year, Leeder and two of her colleagues at the university applied for and won the coveted Anne Frank sapling.

Before it could be planted, however, the sapling — which might have contained funguses from the Netherlands — was quarantined for three years in a plastic hut on campus. Samuel Youney, SSU’s director of landscape services, and an expert in plant diseases and pest control, nurtured the sapling with great care.

“He’s the daddy of it,” Leeder said of the in-house campus arborist.

In April 2013, Youney planted the growing tree in the memorial grove. Speakers at the tree’s dedication ceremony included Ard van der Vorst, deputy consul general of the Netherlands; Hans Angress, a Berlin Jew who went to school with Anne Frank; and Myrna Goodman, director of the Holocaust and Genocide Center lecture series, who collaborated with Leeder and the school’s senior director of capital planning, design and construction, Christopher Dinno, on the successful proposal to bring the tree to campus.

“The tree is now thriving on campus,” Leeder said proudly. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”

According to Leeder, the tree has been incorporated into the curriculum, with faculty members regularly bringing students to the tree to discuss the Nazi genocide. Moreover, local elementary and high school students are brought to campus to visit the Anne Frank tree and learn about the international genocides represented at the grove.

“The kids all read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ so they can look out and see a part of the tree that she viewed during her hiding,” Leeder said.

In an unexpected twist, the tree’s planting inspired one Bay Area Holocaust survivor, Oakland resident Helena Foster, to donate funds for the planting of 18 new trees that ring the campus lake near the Anne Frank tree.

“As far as she [Foster] is concerned, it proves that Hitler couldn’t kill the survivors,” Leeder said. “You know how Jews like to plant trees in honor of family members. It’s kind of like the trees in Israel.”

Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel. www.rebeccaspence.com