Digging Deep on Tu B’Shevat

Tu B’Shevat, also known as “the New Year for the trees,” starts at sundown on February 9. (So soon? Why, it seems like it was just the 10th of Tevet!) Like a Rorschach inkblot, this holiday can reveal a lot about who’s celebrating it. Originally it was merely the agrarian equivalent of April 15 for our farmer ancestors, a date established to count the year’s harvest for tithing purposes. Later, it became a symbolic time for early Zionists to celebrate their bond with the land. Finally the crunchy hippies got their metaphorical hooks into it, turning it into an environmental preachfest about conservation and our custodial responsibilities toward the planet.

Judaism has always had an environmentalist bent. The very first job God assigned to humanity was to tend a garden. (We kind of flailed on that one.) The tradition of a Tu B’Shevat Seder, which generally involves eating fruits and nuts and talking about the awesomeness of trees and conservation, dates to the 17th century, when the mystic (and icon of Kabbalah-water-swilling Madonna) Rabbi Isaac Luria of Tzfat created a Seder around the notion of restoring cosmic balance by strengthening and repairing the Tree of Life.

Josie’s religious school class will be having its own Tu B’Shevat seder. The holiday’s a natural for kids. They love environmentalism, being outdoors, digging in the dirt. So if you are a person who finds gardening more interesting than watching paint dry — and I assure you I am not — you can till the soil with your child and find teachable moments scattered hither and yon like sunflower seeds. In addition to self-control (pluck the bud, tempting though it is, and the flower does not grow), gardening can teach patience, and the cycle of life. If you water the tomato plant, not too little and not too much, the yellow flowers come, and then they go away, and then the tiny green balls appear, and then they turn yellow and orange and red. And you wait. And wait. And when the tomato is just the right shade of redness and heaviness, you pick. And savor. Through that cycle of planting, nurturing and harvesting, children learn that to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. (Turn, turn, turn!)

Kids are also natural environmentalists because they love to preach to us stupid old people. Tiny little Kuciniches (that was redundant, but you know what I mean), they khrak and kvetch and drey and geshrey at us about our failure to protect the planet. (Their vehemence is so great, it can only be described with Yiddish verbs, even by people like me who do not speak Yiddish.) My children delight in my occasional failure to turn off the tap while brushing my teeth. “Mom!” they shriek, in a word that suddenly has seven horrified syllables. “You’re wasting water! It’s a precious resource!” Josie has taken to heart a sign she saw next to a toilet when we were on vacation in Mexico: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” Predictably, she now loves to lecture me about the planetary gift of urine-collection. Do we live in a Berkeley co-op? No. When Josie and Max grow up, they may ferment their own kombucha, eat spelt and refrain from pee-flushing. But in my house, pee does not mellow.

The kind of facile environmentalism that delights in catching parents and friends in sinning is easy. The way eco-awareness is usually taught to kids, in both Jewish and secular settings, is simply unchallenging. It’s “gotcha” ecology. Teaching kids blindly to chant “reduce, reuse, recycle” doesn’t allow for depth or real work. What if, instead of focusing on turning off the water while brushing teeth, we explained to kids that plastic toys are not great for the earth, since they’re made with petroleum, encourage wasteful packaging, degrade slowly in landfills, release toxic fumes when burned, and increase our dependence on foreign oil? Would they choose to forgo Barbies and dump trucks? (Plastics lobby, please write to me care of The Jewish Week. Thanks.) What if we talked about taking the three-Rs slogan to its logical conclusion — buying fewer toys in general, and getting them at the thrift shop? Could they be more abstemious? Could we parents say “no” more than we do?

And what if we actually talked to kids about the fact that while individuals’ choices matter, countries and corporations’ acts matter much more? It’s “empowering” to talk about making little changes in our daily lives, but is that mostly feel-good pablum? What about discussing with kids the fact that our country — which does way more than its share of contributing to the world’s environmental problems — needs to do some hard, painful work in developing clean energy and green jobs; forcing automakers to increase cars’ fuel efficiency; helping poor families eat locally, sustainably and affordably and improving public transit? Remembering to turn off the bathroom light is dandy, but regulating industrial pollution would be even better.

Lobbying lawmakers for change will never be as satisfying or immediate as making personal changes. And that’s okay. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Josie’s religious school principal gave me a clever list of “18 things you can easily do in a Jewish home to save the Earth,” from the Teva Learning Center, a non-denominational Jewish environmental education service that works with Jewish day schools, congregational schools, synagogues, camps and youth groups. Teva’s tips include reusing plastic bags (if every American family used just 10 fewer bags a month, Teva says, we’d save 10 billion bags a year) and honoring Shabbat by going for a walk, refraining from driving, resting and building community. Another tip is reducing garbage production — the handout quotes Maimonides: “Wasting even as little as a mustard seed is against the law of Ba’al Taschit (do not waste)” — by buying products with less packaging and avoiding disposable cups, plates and cutlery. Recycling has an illustrious Jewish pedigree, the handout says; the wicks for the menorah in the temple on Sukkot were made from the used underwear of the priests. Please let this be true, because it is hilarious.

Finally, let me give a shout-out to “It’s Tu B’Shevat” by Edie Stoltz Zolkower, illustrated by Richard Johnson (Kar-Ben), a board book included in my 2005 Best Children’s Books of the Year list. With its pretty, painted, folk-arty illustrations, it’s a sweet entree to the holiday for the youngest environmentalists. Nuanced eco-friendliness isn’t easy… but for the littlest kids, it should be as welcoming as the shade of a leafy tree. Older kids, like the rest of us, should have to do a little work.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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