Last week, on the way home from kindergarten, my 5-year-old son kept begging to watch a movie. “You watched a video yesterday,” I explained over and over again. I tried not to lose it, but my voice gained an edge. “You know we only do something electronic every other day.”
“Right,” piped in my 2-year-old daughter, nodding with great self-importance. “No something electronic today.” She opened the door to the apartment, ran straight to my room, and came out carrying our tablet. “Want to play with this electronic now!”
I sighed. I took away the tablet. I repeated “no electronic activities” ten or a hundred or a thousand times more.
Later, when my kids were (finally) playing with their Playmobil set, I started reading the news on my phone. “Can you help us, Ima?” said my son.
“Sure,” I answered without really listening, and read on.
“Ima, I’m hungry,” whined my daughter.
“Just a second sweetheart,” I said, but my eyes remained glued to the screen. Eventually, after several more requests on their part and noncommittal “hmms” on mine, my phone was snatched from my hands.
“Ima,” said my daughter, her eyes large and reproachful. “No electronic today.”
Why is it so hard for us to disconnect from “electronics”? Why do children often prefer watching videos about Playmobil sets to actually playing with them? Why do I, with all my awareness and good intentions, find it so exceedingly difficult to turn off my phone for several hours?
I was pondering these questions when I looked over my calendar that night. The words “Tu Bishvat” caught my eye, written in bold letters under “Monday, January 25th.” And just like that, though I still couldn’t answer the “why,” a plan to move forward formed in my head.
People usually say that Tu Bishvat is the holiday of trees. Really it should be called the holiday of mishmash. Yes, eating dried fruits, planting trees in the pouring rain, extolling recycling, and teaching our kids nature-related proverbs can all be traced back to trees, but only tangentially. And besides, since when do we Jews celebrate something as simple as “trees”?
In a way, Tu Bishvat is to the Jewish calendar what Wonder Women is to the Batman v Superman trailer. After a procession of holidays that predictably involve food, a victory, and/or a miracle, we find ourselves staring at Tu Bishvat, and we can’t help but blurt, “Where did this come from?”
The original significance of the date ties it to trees, but it doesn’t explain the holiday’s customs today. In the days of the second Temple, the 15th (tu) of the Hebrew month Shvat marked “rosh hashana la’ilanot“—New Years Day for trees. Despite whatever images these words may evoke, the date had nothing to do with barefoot families dancing cumbia around grapevines while counting down to midnight. Tu Bishvat was rather a way to divide between annual crops for tax purposes. The fruits that formed before and after the 15th of Shvat were grouped into the ancient equivalent of separate annual income reports. Yup. Good luck making that sexy.
The roots of Tu Bishvat’s mishmash of customs lie later in history. After the Exile, Tu Bishvat became the ultimate “make your own holiday” date for Jews everywhere. And every new version of the holiday bequeathed us a custom or two.
Teachers in the shtetls gave us dried fruits. They dedicated Tu Bishvat to eating fruits from Israel (hence the dried part) and teaching kids about the Old Country.
Seventeenth century Kabbalah scholars from Safed bequeathed us the blessings and rituals of Tu Bishvat’s eve. They crafted an elaborate Tu Bishvat “Seder” that was supposed to spiritually repair the world by eating fruits in a certain order. (They also drank four glasses of wine. There are worse ways to repair the world.)
The early Zionists taught us to plant trees in this (wrong) season. Ze’ev Yavetz, a teacher from Zikhron Ya’akov, wanted to reconnect his students with the land of Israel. And so he took them to plant fruit trees on Tu Bishvat in 1890, unknowingly inaugurating the annual tradition that would get millions of Israeli children muddy and wet.
And finally, Israel’s education ministry and The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel brought the environmental mumbo jumbo into the fray. When they realized that filling Israel with conifers isn’t really as important as preserving the environment, they decided that Tu Bishvat, as a somewhat nature-related day, was the perfect opportunity to talk Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
All these different groups had two things in common. They treated tradition as a jumping board for creative reinterpretations, not as a closed book. And with the exception of the Kabbalistic ritual, their main purpose was to answer an educational need. It’s as if Tu Bishvat wandered down history carrying a little sign: “If you need an opportunity to highlight a value, pick me!”
Well, I thought as I stared at the words “Tu Bishvat,” I am in need of your services, oh thou holiday of trees. Or should I say—thou holiday of innovations? I need to highlight the value of engagement with the real world. I need to recommit to the beauty of reality, and teach my children to experience it without the mediation of a screen. And I need to remind myself of the power of the real world, too. Tu Bishvat is my opportunity to work on that, and break free from electronics. It’s my educational ticket out.
So today, I will join the long Jewish tradition of utilizing Tu Bishvat for new educational purposes. I will eat dried fruits, plant trees, and all that jazz, but I will also turn off all electronic devices for the day. I will spend an hour outdoors on my own, simply acknowledging everything I see. I will take my kids out and let them play with nature—the dirtier they get, the better. I will talk to strangers to remind myself what face-to-face conversations are like. And I’ll encourage my kids to do the same.
These new customs fit right in the Tu Bishvat mishmash. Reality is nature, after all. As are trees.