My first encounter with Tu Bishvat was in Israel.
My husband and I celebrated with his family at their home in Ramat Gan, a suburb outside of Tel Aviv.
Their table was decorated with a rainbow of dried fruits — neon orange papaya spears, dried and sweetened bright green kiwi slices, orange mangoes, red cherries and an array of fresh nuts and roasted seeds purchased from a nearby kiosk. It was also one of the first times I had tried Arak — a pungent liquor made of anise seeds and grapes, typically served with a bit of ice in a shot glass.
I had never even learned about this holiday, having grown up in the U.S. in a non-religious family that did not observe all the holidays, and I never had a formal Jewish education.
For others who may not have grown up celebrating the Jewish Festival of Trees, Tu Bishvat is celebrated on the 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat on the Jewish calendar and marks the beginning of a “new year” for trees — when traditionally the trees that bloom earliest in Israel come out of winter hibernation and begin their fruit-bearing cycle.
The holiday is sometimes considered the Jewish world’s “Earth Day,” when families come together for a festive meal that includes dried fruits and wine — enjoying the spoils of nature’s bounty.
Just like any holiday or tradition, Jewish Iraqis like my husband’s family have their own customs for Tu Bishvat that are largely mirrored in other Sephardic Jewish backgrounds.
The key to Iraqi Jewish tradition is abundance. At any celebration, there is a full-on spread on the table, and it was no different that year with Tu Bishvat. An elderly Iraqi Jew once shared with me that they would mark this holiday in Iraq by serving up to 100 different types of dried fruits, berries, grains and nuts. I didn’t count how many were on the table that night, but the selection was certainly not lacking.
I had experienced holidays and Shabbat dinners with my in-laws many times, each time marveling at how it was instinctive for them to “open up a table,” a literal translation from a slang Hebrew meaning that they really knew how to decorate a table with a generous abundance of delicacies for every occasion, even if that was just someone popping over for a visit.
On Friday nights the family gathers — brothers, sisters, their children and friends — at a table seating some 14-20 people for a decadent feast of several meat courses and sides, always served with rice, followed by an after-dinner platter of artfully cut up fruit, homemade marble chocolate cake and fresh mint tea with sugar served in tiny clear glass mugs.
It’s a far cry from the way I had grown up in America, even though I was also born to Israeli parents. I was raised in an Ashkenazi family where Jewish holidays were observed with a sense of duty rather than all-out celebration — a stark contrast to the abundance and decadence of my husband’s family dinners and holidays. And while I thankfully did not grow up hungry, home-cooked meals were not an every day or even every week event. Many a night my siblings and I sat in front of the television to a meal of Lean Cuisines and Hot Pockets, something that would make my husband’s family wince.
In our household now, I strive to share the family traditions that both my husband and I grew up with, and heavily lean on the Sephardic traditions and cuisine when it comes to holidays and weekly Shabbat dinners when we have Kiddush with wine and recite the blessings.
Although Shabbat dinner was not a part of my upbringing, we have adopted this tradition and hope that our kids will carry it on as a legacy with their own children.
And while I still might not be up for hosting quite as many extravagant holiday celebrations, I have been inspired to emulate some of the traditions my husband grew up with. So this year, we are celebrating Tu Bishvat, Iraqi style.
There will be a spread of all the dried fruits, nuts and other delicacies that I can fit on our dining room table, where we aim to gather friends and family. It may not reach to 100 different types of fruits, nuts, seeds and grains, but I can assure the table will be full and bountiful.
It’s a small thing I can do — to celebrate Tu Bishvat with all the glory as my husband’s Iraqi ancestors. This year we will start our celebration just as I remembered from my first one in Israel — with an Araq toast, and a blessing for our family and friends.