An article on a scandal within the Jewish National Fund in a July 2000 issue of J.
An article on a scandal within the Jewish National Fund in a July 2000 issue of J.

The Jews (and this newspaper) love trees

“Do you know, boys and girls, that on Saturday, tomorrow, throughout the European countries and the Americas, wherever there are Jews, the Jewish Arbor Day … is celebrated?” Dorothy Wilke-Weiss wrote in our paper in 1936.

Happy new year of the trees! On the Hebrew calendar, it’s the 15th of Shvat, or Tu Bishvat. This year the holiday falls begins on the evening of Jan. 24 and ends at sundown Jan. 25.

Tu Bishvat is actually one of four new years marked annually in Jewish life. There is also one for kings and festivals, another related to animals and, of course, Rosh Hashanah. In the days of yore, Tu Bishvat was the day when farmers were allowed to start harvesting fruit from trees. In modern times it’s become a green eco-holiday.

This publication has long referred to it as Jewish Arbor Day, even as far back as 1920. In 1939, here’s how our local community marked Tu Bishvat:

“The Spring Festival of San Francisco Chapter, Hadassah, celebrating Palestine’s Jewish Arbor Day and Tree Planting Festival … will be a joint meeting of Seniors, Juniors and Buds, and is open to the entire membership. Members of Junior Hadassah will dramatize ‘Trees of Palestine,’ a poem written for the Festival by Miss Edith Hecht, vice-president.”

Jewish tradition has always looked to trees poetically and symbolically. The Torah itself is referred to as the “tree of life,” and kabbalistic tradition references the sephirot, or attributes of God, as a tree.

Over the decades, there has been lots of talk about trees in our publication, though we mostly talked about trees in a specific place: Israel.

Jews have long focused on planting trees there, not just for Tu Bishvat but to commemorate special occasions, such as b’nai mitzvahs and confirmations.

The idea of planting trees in Israel is older than the state itself.

Take, for example, this parable by the author Zahav. Published in our paper in 1927, it has a fable-like quality that equates trees with a sustaining (and a Jewish) life force.

In “Do Trees Have Souls?” a mother talks to her child in “the cool shadows of a eucalyptus wood out of the white hot glare of a midsummer noon in Palestine.”

“Before I myself was born there were hardly any trees in all of Palestine,” she begins. “The story of the trees here is really the story of the coming of the Jews to Palestine.”

“In very, very old times, when this country was a Jewish kingdom, the trees reached up to the very tops of the mountains. There were cedar and oak and cypress, and grapes, and figs and dates and olives and pomegranates, and all sorts of good things that grow on trees.

“But then you know, after the Jews were driven out, there were people here who cut down a tree every time they needed a bit of wood for cooking, and who never thought of planting one. And, of course, when there was fighting, the soldiers chopped away trees for all sorts of reasons. So, by the time we came here there weren’t many left, and we had to begin all over again.”

And so they did. Early on, there was the Theodor Herzl forest (“wald” in German) movement.

“The idea of creating the Herzl Wald in Palestine as a fitting memorial to the great founder of the Zionist movement was first proposed at the seventh Zionist Congress,” we wrote in 1908. “The forest was to be made up of not less than 10,000 olive trees. … The cost of subscribing to or of planting a tree has been set at $1.50 so as to make it possible for people of moderate means to contribute their mite to this memorial to the great leader of Zionism.”

The planting continued through the decades, always as a symbol of a commitment to Israel that reached down into the very earth.

“The San Francisco Jewish National Fund Council, headed by Albert S. Samuels, suggests to all fellow Jews to express New Year greetings by planting trees on the soil of Israel,” we wrote in 1948 before Rosh Hashanah, a more familiar new year. “Trees planted on the soil of Israel will be a living expression of the good wishes for the men and women in whose honor they have been planted, and will help reforest Eretz Israel. The cost of each tree is $1.50, and a beautiful tree certificate will be sent from JNF Headquarters.”

More than 75 years later, JNF is still in the same business, although the price of a tree-with-certificate has jumped to $18. According to JNF, it has planted over 250 million trees in Israel since 1901.

That’s a lot of trees — though everything hasn’t always been sunny.

“JNF downplays criticism in midst of Israel tree scandal” was the headline of an article written by Julie Wiener of JTA in 2000. “In the aftermath of an Israeli newspaper exposé accusing it of uprooting tourist-planted trees in Jerusalem, the Jewish National Fund is on the defensive,” she wrote.

The article suggested that workers at the JNF’s planting center in Jerusalem routinely uprooted trees planted by tourists and then gave the same saplings to the next group of tourists to replant. The article said few of those trees survived and noted the JNF was “still recovering from widely publicized reports four years ago that it sent only 20 percent of its revenues raised in the United States to Israel.”

Other concerns about the greening of Israel have also been raised over the decades.

In 2002, environmental law professor and future Knesset member Alon Tal spoke in the Bay Area about environmental tragedies in Israel. A polluted waterway was “formerly a rushing river of white water,” he said. “But, during the 1950s, the water was diverted to the Negev. The desert bloomed but at a high cost. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the flip side of Zionism’s success story.’”

Tal, one of JNF’s harshest critics, later joined JNF’s international board to lead efforts on sustainable development.

So the story of the greening of the land may not be as simple as it sounds.

But at its heart Tu Bishvat allows us to celebrate trees far and near, including our state’s vast variety — from the majestic redwoods of the mountains to the scrubby yarrow of the coast.

Or in the words of our founding editor, Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, “The fairness of California often amazes me. Its wonders render me speechless, in my heart is the silence of an exceeding admiration. God has been so good to this land, that we can only pronounce ourselves unworthy of so many blessings.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.