I never thought I’d pine for Manischewitz.
But the odd, clashing wine combinations of the Tu B’Shvat seder made me yearn for the familiar, sugary Passover libation.
The Kabbalists who created the Tu B’Shvat seder in the 16th century chose to include four cups to mirror Passover. But their wine instructions took an odd turn.
The first cup we drink is just red wine. (Other Tu B’Shvat seders start with just white.)
The second cup is red with white wine added (I can’t recommend it).
The third cup is white wine with red wine added (even odder). Other seders prescribe a full mix of half-red, half-white. Either way it feels like I’m a child pretending to be a mad scientist.
The fourth cup is just white. (Other Tu B’Shvat seders do just red. It feels backwards to go from red to white, but I roll with it.)
The fifth cup is vodka (no objections there).
Each cup represents a world and each world is linked to a particular type of fruit, so suddenly I’m swimming in symbolism.
Which is why Romemu feels like exactly the right place to try my first Tu B’Shvat seder.
Romemu – for those who missed my Rosh Hashanah dispatch – is a spiritual community known for its amalgam of orthodoxy and mysticism. It’s not Judaism-lite (there’s loads of liturgy). But it’s Judaism 4.0, with contemporary extrapolation, poetry, vigorous song and serious study.
Romemu was founded in 2006 by Rabbi David Ingber, considered one of the leading lights of reinvigorated worship, who, when I complimented him on his vibrant teaching at a learning conference (Limmud NY) in 2011, informed me –with a smile – that my brother accidentally broke his nose years ago when they played ice hockey in a pickup game.
Since Rabbi Ingber was away in Israel last Tuesday night, we were guided instead by his frequent partner in prayer, Romemu’s sprite-like music director, Basya Schechter, who fronts a musical group, Pharaoh’s Daughter.
There were no assigned seats in the church basement on Amsterdam Avenue and 105th Street, decorated with orange Christmas lights and a few small potted trees.
Thirteen tables of ten were set with yellow paper table cloths (crayons scattered if we were inclined to draw,) and next to the stacked plastic cups awaiting wine fusions, there was a center platter piled with the prescribed fruits and nuts: figs, walnuts, pomegranates, clementines, blueberries and almonds.
I’ve now learned that the mystics created this ritual to honor the land and to repair our original sin. “The big mistake of the Garden of Eden,” explains Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, “is that God said, ‘There’s incredible abundance here. Eat from it, enjoy. Just exercise a little self-restraint. You see this particular tree here? Don’t eat from it. Reserve it. Show some self-restraint in the way that you deal with the abundance of the earth.’”
We all know Adam and Eve flouted God – a violation that Waskow says foretold the gluttony of today, when it comes to industry and human consumption. “If you gobble up everything, you produce disaster and abundance stops,” he asserts. “Entire civilizations have done that. Now it’s the entire planet that is at risk.”
He says the Tu B’Shvat seder brings us back to our roots as an indigenous people – “as shepherds, farmers, and tree-growers who understood the flow of life, and how to respect, affirm and heal it.”
There are no shepherds at this Romemu seder, but I do meet a farmer – a 29-year-old woman sitting next to me, who majored in biological anthropology and tells me she’s bought a one-way ticket to Israel to work on organic farms. She tells me that her parents wish she would stay home and find a husband, but she’s going anyway. Our instant, effortless intimacy reminds me how easily Jewish strangers share stories.
She seems to unwittingly affirm the invitation in Romemu’s haggadah “to set a kavanah/intention for your own personal unfolding.” I’m pretty folded-up myself, at least at this seder so far, especially when we’re directed by another leader – “spiritual storyteller” Carole Foreman – to circle our tables while singing, “Zeh ha-schulchan asher lifnei Adonai,” “This is the table that is before God.”
Maybe if vodka had been the first cup instead of the last, I’d have circled more freely. But Basya’s beautiful singing does make me exhale a bit, and sets the tone for openness and lack of inhibition. She is casually dressed in a floppy winter hat and her huge smile is infectious as she introduces the first world – Assiya, which their haggadah defines as “Actualization = the physical world, earth winter.”
“Find a fruit on your table that is hard outside and edible inside,” Basya instructs. “What are the challenges we have in our lives that are almost impenetrable?”
My tablemates pass each other the banana halves, clementines and walnuts.
“Some things are difficult at the start,” Basya continues, “but once we go further, they soften.”
This is like fruit therapy, I think to myself.
Basya’s questions bounce in my head and I try to answer them inwardly, honestly, privately. When did I meet a barrier that then softened?
Yitzhak Buxbaum takes the microphone. A self-described “teacher and storyteller” who has written ten books on Jewish Spirituality and Hasidism and happens to be married to Romemu’s storyteller Carole, Buxbaum reminds us that the “sap is starting to move in the trees,” despite the fact that we’re in extreme winter. “At least it is in Israel,” he clarifies, smiling.
Here in Manhattan, there was no sign of anything sprouting as I trudged into the church out of the grim New York slush, an icy full moon overhead. But there’s something reassuring about Buxbaum’s reminder that spring has started somewhere.
He continues: “The Tu B’Shvat seder is a tikkun—a mystical repair of the sin of Adam and Eve…The sin is that we ate wrongly. So we repair the sin by eating in a holy way.”
Eating in a holy way on Tu B’Shvat seems the antithesis of Passover: economy versus excess, nuts and oranges versus gefilte fish and brisket. Tu B’Shvat is the antidote to Sammy’s Romanian. A cleaner meal. I may need pizza later.
We’ve come to the second world:
Yetzirah – “Formation = growth, creativity, water, emotions, spring.”
“Find a fruit on your table with a pit inside and an edible outside,” Basya directs us.
My tablemates take dates (these turn out to be somewhat miscast because someone brought pitted dates by mistake).
“These fruits are representative of all the things that we start,” Basya says, “that seem easy at first, and then get hard: our spiritual practices, our exercise regimens, our relationships.” She shares a personal insight: “I’m good at many things really quickly and then I hit a wall.” She encourages us to think about the times we’ve hit walls and broken through them.
This holiday series is one personal example. I’d hit wall after wall in my past attempts to attain more grounding and fluidity in tradition. I kept being reminded of how much I don’t know, how many worship moments alienate me. This project has been, I suppose, an attempt to break through.
Basya recounts a conversation she had that morning with Larry Schwartz, who teaches meditation at Romemu. “This is one of four Jewish new years – Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Tu B’Shvat, and Passover. Look at how many chances we have to start again.”
So many chances to start again.
I can’t think of one person in my life who hasn’t craved the chance to start over in some area of their lives. I love that teaching.
The third world is “
Briah” – “Creation = thought, air, summer season.” We eat fruits that are wholly edible, through and through: blueberries, strawberries, grapes.
Basya quotes an an 18th century Hasidic sage, Rabbi Nachman of Bretslov: “There is no such thing as obstacles.” Would that this were true.
But maybe it is. Maybe the obstacles we perceive are largely self-constructed and not actually intractable. Maybe we see hard pits when the fruit is actually permeable through and through.
Larry Schwartz takes the microphone to guide us through a meditative eating practice:
“Look at your piece of fruit and think about where it came from, what it required to get here: sun, soil, planting, pruning, picking, packing, driving, unloading, packaging…Farmers, pickers, drivers, grocers…”
I pick up a strawberry slice and a personal snapshot flashes: my teenage daughter picking strawberries last summer with two friends, running from bush to bush, clearly excited at the surfeit and sweetness. Strawberries in February seem pointedly optimistic.
“Roll it around in your fingers if you can. Notice the different colors. Smell it.”
He instructs us to put it in our mouths without biting or chewing it. “The temptation to bite is strong but resist it. This is really hard.”
Finally we’re permitted to bite it. One bite only. Then a second. At last we can chew it all.
“Notice how you swallow it. We feel gratitude. For the sensations. For our ability to taste. And for being together.”
Another reverberation. I’ve been aware lately, as I watch people age or get sick, what a loss it is to no longer be able to chew or taste. The thought panics me. How often I gloss over the minute joys of a good meal.
The seder breaks for the buffet dinner, and we fill our paper plates with a fattoush-like salad, chickpea patties, rice and lentils.
Soon it’s time for the fourth cup:
Atzilut – “Emanation – World of the Aleph, world without words…”
There is no food for this world of the spirit.
The Romemu haggadah says, “We are beyond eating, beyond speech…” (I’m never beyond either, though I could use less of both).
Basya asks us to inhale a fruit on our table. I can’t reach the platter so I take the closest thing – a clementine peel. It smells like summer to me and makes me wish that July wasn’t half a year away.
The vodka marks the fifth and last cup – a Romemu invention: “Yechidah – Outside of time, presence = the highest of the highest are humor and music…”
A Romemu congregant does some standup comedy and a few volunteers play “Name that Fruit” with Yitzhak Buxbaum.
I’m the only one at my table who finishes the vodka shot.
Basya sings a final song, and as she does, I find myself taking my pen and underscoring one line of a poem they’ve included by Reb Nachman:
“Do you know that every blade/of grass has its own poem?”
As I walk back out into the snow detritus, my answer is yes. Every blade of grass has its own poem, indeed. I will taste things a little differently now. And I can’t wait to see the grass again.