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Tu B’Shvat: The Paris Hilton of Jewish Holidays

“Tu B’Shvat?” Jenny Block repeats, entranced. The very mention of the holiday is swirling the rabbi’s daughter back to her youth. “For whatever reason, it was always a very sensory thing for me as a kid. I can still remember the sound of the lulav shaking, and the smell of the etrog and…”

“Jenny!” I stop her short.

“What?”

“You’re thinking of Sukkot. Tu B’Shvat is something else.”

“Oh, my gosh! I have virtually no memories of that. Did we plant a tree?”

And so it goes for Tu B’Shvat, the Paris Hilton of Jewish holidays. Sure we’ve all heard of it, but what is it famous for, exactly? Figs? Dates? Little bowls of nuts? Woo-hoo! Trail Mix: The Holiday.

Or so it always seemed to me. But my sister and her hip friends in Berkeley seemed to regard it as something a lot more fun, so I did a little digging. This turned out to be wildly appropriate because Tu B’Shvat is the birthday of trees, and a day to plant them.

“It’s the Arbor Day of Israel.” At least, that’s what people kept telling me. But since Arbor Day isn’t exactly Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one, I was happy to learn there’s more to it. It’s a legal day that turned into a holiday that turned into a mystical celebration with — for people other than Jenny — some great memories thrown in.

Back about 2,000 years ago, Tu B’Shvat — literally the 15th day of the month of Shvat — was a tax deadline, of sorts. Any trees planted before Tu B’Shvat were considered to have been “born” the previous year. Those planted after Tu B’Shvat (or, perhaps those that started blooming after Tu B’Shvat) were part of the next year’s crop. As the amount of fruit you were required to tithe from each tree was determined by its age, this date was significant. And since the easiest way to remember a tree’s birthday was to plant it on that day, that’s what some folks did: planted.

Anyway, fast-forward another millennium and a half — more or less — and the mystics in Safed started celebrating Tu B’Shvat as almost a second Passover. They’d praise God for fruit, think of what all the different kinds symbolized and drink four cups of wine.

Four cups of wine? Suddenly, it was a hit.

Avroham Winer remembers celebrating Tu B’Shvat when he was studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem a few years back. “There were three of us single guys and we had no idea how to cook, but Tu B’Shvat was coming up so we decided to make a cholent” — that is, a beef stew, cooked overnight.

Only problem? “We didn’t actually know how to make a cholent, so we took a block of meat that was supposed to be cubed, but we didn’t do anything to it. The only other stuff we put in — because it was Tu B’Shvat — were figs, grapes, raisins and dates, and the liquid we cooked it in was grape juice and wine.”

The next day, says Winer, “The meat was absolutely delicious! Sweet and tasty and tender. But gastronomically?” He pauses. “It was like eating a gallon of prunes.” (Believe it or not, Winer is now CEO of a food Web site — recipegate.com.)

Carla Freiman Feuer’s Tu B’Shvat memories focus on food, too. Growing up in 1960s St. Louis, she was always grateful that the holiday meant a day outside the Hebrew school classroom. The kids would trudge around looking at trees, which, far from blooming, were frozen sticks. “Even at our young age,” Feuer says, she and her friends knew from ironic.

When dismissed, they were given bags full of Tu B’Shvat treats, and she headed to her grandparents for lunch (bagels and lox —which, in my eyes, trump dates and figs any day).

“Mom would say, ‘Give the buxser to Grandpa,’” Feuer remembers. “We’d hand over the weird brown thing from the bag to Grandpa Sol. Grandpa would suck on it and chew it and seemed to really enjoy it. We’d say, ‘But Grandpa — what is it?’ And he’d shrug and say, ‘It’s buxser.’ Then he and Grandma would speak Yiddish to see if they could come up with an English translation, which they never did.”

It was carob, the bony treat I’ve always associated with the holiday, because on Tu B’Shvat we’re supposed to eat the fruits mentioned in the Torah: olives, dates, grapes, figs and pomegranates.

Hey! Carob isn’t even on that list!

Well, Thomas Jefferson never actually mentioned apple pie in the Declaration, either, but you know it goes with America. (And, at some point, a famous rabbi ate only carob for a week at Tu B’Shvat, too.)

Anyway, in modern times a lot of kids spend the holiday planting trees in Israel, either literally (if they’re there), or symbolically (by raising tree money in Hebrew schools). Orit Pennington was lucky enough to grow up there.

“We would get on the buses from school and go wherever it was decided for us to plant trees — sometimes the entrance to a city, sometimes some desolate mountainside. And you got little plants in your hand and everyone would get all muddy, and it was so much fun, and of course we got a day off from school.”

Now Pennington is a software entrepreneur in Houston. But from time to time she gets back to Israel, “and the most exciting thing for me today is to drive by somewhere and say, ‘Oh my God! We planted this forest!’ You don’t forget a place where you plant a tree.”

This January 30 is Sukkot. Oops, sorry — Tu B’Shvat. Try to remember and it may take root for you, too.

Lenore Skenazy is founder of www.freerangekids.com and author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry” (Jossey-Bass).

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