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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Josh Perelman, the exhibit’s chief curator and the director of exhibitions, programs and collections at the museum, admits that the Tu B’Shvat exhibit highlights “an aspect of Jewish observance that may not be known to many visitors in the broader community” — or even to some of the museum’s Jewish visitors. The show was intentionally scheduled to close on Earth Day, April 22, as, he said, part of the museum’s “efforts to inspire civic dialogue about those values and experiences that bring depth and meaning to American and American Jewish life.”

In the exhibition text, Perelman suggests that the idealized manner in which Shochat represents the Israeli trees and fruits, which a New Yorker review referred to as “a set designer’s version of Eden — extravagantly bountiful but oddly unnatural,” emphasizes the unsettledness that comes from not being rooted in space and time.

This “tension” is “familiar to Jews’ millennial history as a people living in [the] Diaspora,” Perelman writes. “Are they at home in a utopian orchard or alone and anxious?”

Asked whether the exhibit is particularly Jewish in addition to being environmentally conscious, Perelman cites the prohibition in Deuteronomy 20:19 against destroying fruit trees in a time of war. That concept “was expanded during the rabbinical period to the entirety of the natural environment,” Perelman said, meaning that the natural environment couldn’t be destroyed even in times of peace.

The CJM’s exhibit, “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought,” which opens on February 16, also cites the Deuteronomy verse. Although the exhibit relates to Tu B’Shvat, it opens after the holiday, due to the museum’s “complex exhibition schedule,” according to Dara Solomon, the museum curator.

Asked how the exhibit will address the biblical commandment articulated in Deuteronomy 12:3 that trees worshipped as idolatry — Asherot in biblical Hebrew — be burned, Solomon says there will be an educational space within the gallery that will address “the various laws, commentary, traditions, and concepts related to the tree in Jewish tradition, practice, and thought.”

“In this area, we will be exploring the anxiety about the idolatrous potential of ‘tree worshipping,’” she said.

The three-part exhibit at the museum, which will include works by Shochat, addresses Jewish responses to trees and the environment, as well as the tree’s “universally potent symbol in many cultures and religions,” according to a release. More than 50 artists created new work about “a broad range of themes inspired by the holiday Tu B’Shvat,” according to the museum.

Several of the works in the exhibit appropriate salvaged wood, and an installation by Japanese artist Yuken Teruya is a nod to Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, “The Giving Tree,” which describes a very altruistic tree that sacrifices every part of itself for a little boy until it is reduced to a stump.

The bronze sculpture “Aspen Roots for Tu B’Shevat,” by Colorado-based artist Yoshitomo Saito, who is also Japanese, depicts fanning roots which, from a certain angle, almost resemble a baseball catcher’s mask.

According to the museum, Saito was inspired by the fact that aspens, though they typically live for only 40 to 150 years, can survive in root form for thousands of years. By focusing on the roots — which he says represent the means for communities to survive and thrive — Saito has shed light on a generally invisible series of objects, almost like flipping an iceberg.

By mentioning Tu B’Shvat in the title, he has also invoked a holiday that Solomon believes has been getting more and more attention. “I think there is a rise in the celebration of the holiday of Tu B’Shvat because of its relevant environmental message. There are large communitywide Tu B’Shvat Seders and private ones in the home, which I learned about in my research,” Solomon said. “This is not something I had even heard about when I was younger and before moving to the Bay Area.”

But even as museums focus on environmentalism, they might not be doing enough, said Wall Street Journal arts writer Tom Freudenheim, a former art museum director.

“Would Jewish museums be willing to sacrifice their fundraising and membership goals to the cause of Tu B’Shvat celebration by announcing that they will produce fewer paper fundraising, membership and calendar products in favor of going paperless on the Web?”

Menachem Wecker blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle and is based in the Washington, D.C., area.


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