(JTA) — Tobin Mitnick may be a comic actor, but his interest in trees is no joke.
Mitnick has been documenting his love affair with trees since September on TikTok, the viral video app, where he goes by the mantle “A Jew Who Loves Trees.” He’s racked up more than 110,000 followers there by posting short videos that show him exploring the vegetation around his Los Angeles home and explaining, in a trademark rapid clip, interesting facts about the trees he encounters.
The goal, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, is to “do really particular storytelling in order to create a connection between a person and a tree.”
In one of his many videos with tens of thousands of views, he offers a deadpan review of different pine cones while sipping on different types of whiskeys that he has “paired” with them. His TikTok debuting his infant daughter, “A Sapling for a Sapling,” in which he mentions the Jewish tradition of planting a tree after the birth of a child and takes off his shirt while gardening, elicited comments such as “the shirt vanished abruptly … Mazel tov to me.”
On Inauguration Day, Mitnick unveiled “Bonsai for Doug ‘Big Dougie Fir’ Emhoff,” in which he committed to maintaining a bonsai tree that represented the country’s path-breaking vice presidential Jewish spouse.
“Welcome to the ranks of Jewish men who married a little too well,” Mitnick says in the video, which is directed to Emhoff. He promises to tend to the tree “in the hopes that while you might not be able to outshine your wife — trust me, I have tragic experience with this — that you will bring that sweet sweet spirit of tikkun olam that our people have known for thousands of years with you.”
Sometimes the only Jewish content in the videos is Mitnick himself, a 33-year-old Columbia University graduate whose love for trees was born in southern Pennsylvania, where he grew up in a farmhouse whose land boasted “a really excellent magnolia tree and a really excellent apple tree.” But this week he has planned out a suite of videos for Tu b’Shvat, the holiday that celebrates trees, including a 60-second Seder and a mini-lesson about trees in Jewish mysticism that Mitnick says will be made family-friendly.
He’s also planning to plant a tree on a hill outside his home in honor of his wife’s grandmother, who died last week, alongside the sapling he planted for his daughter.
“The content won’t be entirely lighthearted because of the moment we find ourselves in,” Mitnick told JTA. “It’s the trees’ day to shine and we should respect its more serious metaphorical aspects as well.”
We spoke to Mitnick about his TikTok persona, how he handles online anti-Semitism and the tree idiom his wife doesn’t understand. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JTA: How did you decide to become a TikTok creator, and how did you decide to make trees your thing?
Mitnick: I’ve always had kind of weird interests. I deal with [obsessive-compulsive disorder], and one of the approaches to dealing with OCD is you have to make sure your brain is full of good interests, so that ruminative thoughts can’t make their way in and bore a hole in your life. So for my whole life, I went through periods of intense interests, from sharks to gems and mineralogy, to classic horror movies. And one of the very early ones was trees. I got way back into them a couple of years ago. Part of it was the mythical attraction of the redwoods and the sequoias and these things I wanted to see since I was a kid that now I could actually make these little pilgrimages to see.
I’m an actor. TikTok is a fun release because you don’t have to be a character. You can kind of make games out of your everyday life, or plot the middle between what sketch is and what your actual life is and find something in the middle. And if you can combine that with an interest, it doesn’t feel like work; it’s just like insane amounts of fun.
When the shutdown happened, I was looking for outlets. As an actor and as a creator, it just felt a lot more fun to be myself but still put a layer of character on top of it. If I’m playing kind of like a miserly “New York Times, correct this megalodon caption” character, or if I’m actually doing something really educational and trying to make it fun, it’s just a creative outlet in the time where literally nothing is happening. And it feels really good.
That explains the trees, and that explains TikTok. But why go with Jew Who Loves Trees, as opposed to “guy”?
For four or five years, I’ve just had a kind of fascination with the question of why isn’t the relationship between Jews and trees more explicitly talked about. The term “Jews love trees” is really punchy, and I always wanted that to be the name of my production company whenever I started that. It’s been a theme that I’ve revisited. I did a weird little short film four or five years ago where I talked about it. I wrote a pilot about a ne’er-do-well who’s court-ordered to go teach Hebrew school and the principal is obsessed with trees and always making metaphorical connections between the Jews and trees.
It’s exciting to get back into religion on your own terms. I see trees as my way back that isn’t being forced to go to synagogue all the time. My dad planted a lot of trees, and you inherit a sense of what is valuable to you. Things are more valuable to you when you recognize them as an inheritance, and I think trees are one of those things for me.
Plus, with some of the Jews who have been gracing the headlines the past four years or so, I think we kind of have to have a fresh start and say what values we have and try to create content that’s kind of ethical. That’s part of why I say I’m a Jew who loves trees: You know who I am and what I love.
My understanding is that TikTok can be both a really great place and also, like much of social media, a sometimes scary place for Jewish creators. What have your experiences been like?
The more followers you get obviously the more people are going to be posting [negative or offensive comments]. You kind of have to curate what your community is in the comments section. If people are doing really jokey comments [that cross the line], you have to kind of “yes, and” those comments — that makes it a fun place to be. You want people to feel included and feel like what they said is funny.
But some of the anti-Semitism is just lazy, and I don’t know what to do. Like, first of all, you always have to deal with the idea of people conflating Zionism and Judaism, and I’m not going to spend hours and hours trying to explain that to people who have no interest in understanding the difference between the two.
But some of it is just some guy posting with a name like “Slaughter the Jews” and the message “Hitler 2020.” Sometimes the best way to deal with people like that is not respond at all. And sometimes a good way to deal with people like that is to give them something that they don’t expect, which is to kind of kill them with kindness a little bit. So you say, “Hey, are you OK? Do you need some help?” and on more than one occasion I’ve had people be like, “Haha, it was just a joke.” And I say, “Some people don’t find these jokes funny but it seems like you might.” Half of it is me being like, I want to emotionally torture you a little bit.
I think the only way not to respond to those people is with anger because that’s what they’re looking for. So as long as you can short-circuit them a little bit, and not give them what they’re looking for, I think you can disincentivize them doing that in the future a little bit. Maybe that’s a little naive.
There are definitely different schools of thought about how to engage with trolls. Is that something that you have felt out on your own, or is there a community of Jewish and Jewish-identified TikTok creators helping you?
There are five or six Jewish creators that I interact with on a normal basis, someone who talks about the interactions between Judaism and being LGBTQ+, somebody who deals with bipolar disorder, someone who is Black and Jewish. They all get way more trolling than I ever will.
Some people more explicitly will host “how to deal with trolls” and stuff like that. I don’t really want to do that; I don’t think I have the best ideas or anything original to say.
I don’t report offensive comments to TikTok, just because it feels like you’re just using an eyedropper in the ocean in some ways. It just feels futile to do it.
Now tell me about the positive reception that you get and about what has surprised you. It looks like you have about 100,000 people who are like tuned in.
Because the bonsai community is so tiny, people will come out with really personal stories of guys that in my view are kind of like mythical — things that only people in the bonsai world would get. That’s really fun.
But more generally, it’s really nice when people say things like I’m sick with COVID and your videos brighten my day. Or people who will come back with, Hey, I’m a Catholic who loves trees, too.
Also it’s helped me understand that the appetite for a religious concept like tikkun olam is huge. And I’ve tried to kind of make that the guiding force in my work because I think we all acknowledge that things are broken right now and repair is going to be an essential part of things going forward.
What Jewish content has resonated most with your followers and what ambitions do you have for it?
My getting back into Judaism and understanding it on my own terms through this cool metaphor is also allowing me to show fun traditions that are centered around trees. When my daughter was born, it’s traditional to plant a cypress. So I went and I got a cypress and I made a video about it called “Sapling for sapling,” and there is an appetite to see the less-talked-about aspects of the religion you know just like some tradition buried in the Mishnah or something like that and see what they look like in a fun, regular 21st-century context because there are a lot of beautiful traditions and I’m having fun finding out things that I’ve never done before.
For Tu b’Shvat, we’re headed towards half a million coronavirus deaths [in the U.S.] and it’s so difficult to not see that as the biggest problem in the country right now. You look at the newspaper and you’re like, how is this not the biggest deal in the world? And isn’t our chief job as Jews to be comforting mourners? So I was thinking of doing something just a little bit more solemn and to talk about trees as a central metaphor in Judaism and life and death. I always want to do something that’s meaningful rather than just like crazy/kooky/funny. That can be really fun in and of itself, but the bigger platform you have I think the more responsible you have to be.
What resources are you drawing on, and are there people that you’re consulting on your Jewish content?
It’s just me! If I have a memory from Hebrew school, I’ll look that up and I’ll try to rediscover what this weird little memory was and might think that would be a good concept to explore in a fun video. But it’s really just me and the internet, as unromantic as that sounds. A lot of the people that I am friends with and my family, we’re all Jewish, and I was brought up in a Conservative Jewish household. But I slowly see myself becoming the most involved in what Jewish history is and finding these little pieces of stuff that we may have forgotten.
There’s a reason that Jews love trees because Judaism is a tree, right? That’s another reason why I do bonsai: When you’re designing a bonsai tree, you have to think about not just what looks good right now. You have to think about what looks good this season. At the same time, you have to make the same decision if I trim this branch, is this a decision that I’m just making for the season because it’ll look really pretty? Or am I making this decision for the tree’s health, next year in five years and 10 years, in 100 years? So it’s this metaphorically rich activity but, again, all comes back to this religion.
How has becoming a father changed your TikTok videos?
First of all, I don’t show her face directly because I want the idea of each video to be about some weird thing that I do. She’s kind of like a mascot. But it’s very fun to see a new audience emerge, which is people with young children who want to do fun things outside but just need options or need to be shown that you can have fun just going to a park and looking at trees. It’s completely possible. You just have to actually look at them and stop looking for views, as in distance. I don’t ever want to go on a hike to look at a view. Just follow the tree.
You would like people to miss the forest for the trees.
That’s correct, yes. I said that a month ago, but my wife didn’t understand what it meant because she was raised in Switzerland. She moved here when she was 12, so she’s not familiar sometimes with really particular expressions like that. I had to explain it to her and then I felt very unfunny.
As a Jew who loves trees and ambassador for trees in the world, what message would you want our readers to be thinking about this year for Tu b’Shvat?
I would like people to understand that climate change can be more easily connected with on a personal level. If you stop thinking in terms of isms, and you stop thinking in terms of words like deforestation or global warming and if you just spend time with one tree, then you can have a personal, emotional connection with nature that you can generalize to your views on climate.