Tu B’Shvat a Holiday in Transition

Once a Celebration of Israel, It's Now 'Green' Jewish Holiday

Greenest Holiday: Tu B’Shvat is now known mostly as the most eco-conscious of Jewish holidays.
Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Greenest Holiday: Tu B’Shvat is now known mostly as the most eco-conscious of Jewish holidays.

By Menachem Wecker

Published February 07, 2012, issue of February 10, 2012.
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Last Tu B’Shvat, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, located on Manhattan’s Battery Place, hosted a musical — “The Hatseller and the Monkeys” — and an arts and crafts event for children. This year, the museum has no nature-themed events on the docket to mark the Jewish new year’s celebration for trees, which begins on the night of February 7.

“We’ve done them in the past, and we’ll continue to do programs about the holiday in the future,” said Betsy Aldredge, the museum’s public relations manager. “We tend to do family programs every other month, and it just didn’t work out this year.” Indeed, a quick survey of dozens of Jewish museums and galleries reveals that even ones with holiday-flavored exhibits, performances or lectures for Passover, Hanukkah, High Holy Days and Purim, rarely have Tu B’Shvat events on their calendars.

One reason that museum and gallery campuses seem to relegate the Jewish new year for flora to sub-minor holiday status might be that it is a holiday in transition.

“Tu B’Shvat has changed in my lifetime, from a Zionist holiday — eating Israeli products and planting trees [for the Jewish National Fund] — to an environmental holiday, characterized by becoming environmentally conscious and going green,” said Jonathan Sarna, history professor at Brandeis University and chief historian of Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History.

Architecture and art historian Samuel Gruber, president of the not-for-profit International Survey of Jewish Monuments, says he’s been hearing more about Tu B’Shvat Seders lately, including a few hosted at museums. “This seems very new. I’d never heard of these before a year or two ago, and I’ve never been to one,” he said.

Gruber, who is also director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center, in Syracuse, N.Y., notes that New York’s Eldridge Street Synagogue hosted a “WinterGreen Festival” on January 29 in honor of Tu B’Shvat, which it calls “Jewish Arbor Day.” He traces the holiday’s green aspects back several decades. “My recollection since the 1970s is that the holiday was used as a kind of Jewish Earth Day — not just about trees and fruit, but an opportunity to talk about environmentalism,” he said.

Tu B’Shvat Seders, which seem to have their roots in 16th-century kabbalistic Safed, loosely parallel the Passover Seder, with the addition of fruits. Often these fruits are native to, or symbolic of, Israel. Some museums still maintain this focus on Israel. Yeshiva University Museum, for example, hosted a Tu B’Shvat paper-making workshop January 22 with a discussion about the Seven Species, which are the seven types of Israeli fruits: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

Two of the most prominent Tu B’Shvat-themed exhibits this season will be held at the NMAJH and at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The Philadelphia show, “In Praise of a Dream,” which features landscape photographs by Israeli artist Tal Shochat, opened on January 31. Shochat’s photographs depict idealized fruits and trees set against black backdrops in a manner that evokes John Currin’s paintings or the films of fellow Israeli artist Ori Gersht.


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