I come from a family that cares about horticulture. You could say we’re “deeply rooted” in plants. My paternal grandmother, a “lady of leisure” in the latter half of the last century, would put on a smock and make a day out of watering and repotting her 100 or so plants around her Boston home. My maternal grandfather, a successful obstetrician/gynecologist in Toronto, had his own vineyard, apple and pear trees, corn stalks, raspberry bushes, and more, plus a very full and “always green” greenhouse attached to the house.
Whenever I visited either set of grandparents, I would spend my days following them around their properties, observing, learning, and “helping” as best I could. It is a memory of my now-deceased grandparents that I continue to cherish.
Fast-forward some 20-plus years and I am not a lady of leisure, nor do I have a huge property with lots of plants or vegetables. I currently have seven plants, if you count the two pots of parsley seeds I planted with my children on Tu Bishvat that we harvested for our Passover seder. Correction: I have six plants. On a more careful (and rather infrequent) moment of watering my plants, I notice that one is dead, and not only merely dead but, to paraphrase from “The Wizard of Oz,” she’s really most sincerely dead.
To put it simply: While I have inherited many blessings from my grandparents, their very green thumbs I did not.
And yet, I keep planting. There’s the easy-to-care-for houseplant we bought before starting a family (we don’t do pets) just to make sure we could keep something alive (and eight years later, it’s yellow, but still mostly OK). There are the tomato plants I will plant with my children this spring so they can watch and learn about the fruits of their labors. And there’s the orchid—one of the hardest plants to keep alive in my experience—that someone gave me last summer when I had cancer, and while I’ve watched it die while I, thank God, recovered, I’ve also seen it sprout new buds, a sign of hope for the future.
I did not inherit the green thumb: Planting and harvesting do not come easily to me. And yet, I keep doing it, and I encourage my children to do it too, because who knows, one day, something beautiful may sprout for them. But it isn’t easy. In fact, I struggle, I have doubts, and I often find the burden of “cultivating my garden” (thank you, Voltaire) to be overwhelming.
Why continue to pursue something that is so challenging? Personally, there is meaning, engagement, and dare I say it—joy—even in the struggle and certainly in the moments of enjoying beautiful results. It does not always happen, but when it does, I am so glad to fulfill the words of our tradition, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”
So, why be Jewish? For me, it is just like planting. We find meaning in tradition: in keeping the traditions of our ancestors, in remembering what was special to them. We create joy for ourselves: the pleasure of seeing blossoms, of giving and sustaining life. And we imbue our children with deep roots and with the hope and possibility of future buds that may sprout one day.
There’s no simple answer and there’s no easy reason to be Jewish. It is a personal choice, just like anything else in life. For me, I am Jewish because, as the words in the Talmud say, “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so will I plant for my children.” And I can only hope and pray that I am able to make our Jewish lives rich and beautiful and meaningful in such a way that my children will say the same.