February 8, 2007
Missing in action—Tu B’shevat
Orthodox Jews are known to be deeply attached to religious rituals. Their days are filled with them. In addition to the three daily prayers, some observant Jews
make it a point to recite at least 100 blessings a day.
When actual holidays arrive, this attachment only deepens. Take a look at the Sukkot festival, when hundreds of sukkahs dot the landscape of neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson. Look at the care with which the observant Jew picks out his lulav and etrog, how the sukkah is carefully built and decorated, and the many blessings and rituals that happen inside this biblical hut. Orthodox Jews love those tangible rituals that you can eat, touch, smell and bless, because they deepen their connection to God.
So naturally, you would think that a religious happening that comes straight from the Mishna and is loaded with sensory opportunities would be eagerly embraced by the frum world. You would expect, for example, that they would embrace Tu B'Shevat, which celebrates the wonders of nature and, in particular, the wonders of those beautiful, delicious fruit born miraculously from God's life-giving trees.
Yet, here in the hood, Tu B'Shevat is the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish holidays: It gets no respect. It comes and goes like a ship in the night. It's the missing holiday.
When I asked several Orthodox rabbis if they planned anything special for Tu B'Shevat, I was hit, like a former colleague would say, with a sudden burst of indifference. The norm, with some rare exceptions, is simply to make a few blessings over certain fruit after dinner. No synagogue events, no special sermons, no special ceremonies.
Of course, this is not true for other branches of Judaism, for which Tu B'Shevat has become a major celebration of planet Earth, complete with environmental initiatives and tree-planting ceremonies with the mayor of Los Angeles.
It's almost as if the yeshiva world got together and decided that Tu B'Shevat is too "Kumbaya" for them, so they might as well leave it for the schmaltzy liberals to run with.
Many Orthodox rabbis will tell you that Tu B'Shevat is a minor holiday, it's not a commandment per se and it has a utilitarian history that is connected to tithing requirements in the Land of Israel. In other words, it's not that big a deal, especially if you don't live in Israel.
While I understand this reasoning, I think the frummies have missed the boat on this one. That's because this tiny, offbeat holiday has the potential to become a major, uniquely relevant holiday for all Jews.
And I don't mean engaging in more tree-planting ceremonies or other fashionable Earth Day-type events. Those environmental ideas are wonderful and necessary, and they should go on all year as part of tikkun olam (heal the world). What I have in mind is something deeper and more personal.
And it was brought to my attention by a woman named Vanessa Paloma. Paloma lives in Pico-Robertson, but she was born and reared in Columbia, where she learned to sing Ladino music and play her favorite instrument, the harp.
She's a recording artist who performs in festivals around the world. She's also an Orthodox Jew who studies Torah and mysticism every week.
While most of us were watching the Super Bowl, Vanessa was under an orange tree leading a group of 10 women in a Tu B'Shevat seder, the likes of which I'm guessing you've never seen.
Using teachings that originated in the 15th century with the Arizal, a Sephardic mystic living in Safed, Vanessa has constructed an elaborate ceremony of music, meditation and blessings that uses 41 different fruits (including nuts and four types of wine) to raise the consciousness of our individual potential.
It's not as weird as you think. In fact, its use of symbols is very Jewish. Think of all the symbols we use at a Passover seder: salty water for tears, charoset for brick and mortar and so on. It's just that here the symbols are more personal. A hard outer shell will symbolize the prejudices that stifle our personal growth. A fruit that is soft all the way through will trigger a contemplation of our limitless potential.
Paloma says that "the power of Tu B'Shevat has to do with defining and creating intentions to manifest our essence in the world. We are all trees with roots, a trunk, branches, flowers and fruit... but only with clarity, nourishment and directed action [movement] can any of these potentials come to fruition."
The holiday of Tu B'Shevat is here to help nourish our human trees, so that in time we can create our own fruits, whether it be through art, music, science or beautiful relationships.
Paloma explains that the ambiguous period of Tu B'Shevat -- winter almost ending, spring almost beginning -- and the symbol of the bud on the tree ready to sprout make it a fertile time to contemplate our creative potential.
By next year, she hopes to have the ceremony published as an attractive, user-friendly Tu B'Shevat seder. She wants people to see it not as spiritual mush but as practical mysticism utterly relevant to the modern, impatient mindset.
She won't have an easy time with the Orthodox crowd, who generally like their traditions straight up, not shaken or stirred. But you never know. Ten years ago, you would have been laughed out of most Orthodox shul meetings for bringing up the very liberal idea of bat mitzvahs. Now they're as common in Orthodox shuls as the cholent Kiddush.
But Orthodox or not, I'd love to see our best spiritual and creative minds get together and build on this whole notion of a personal seder for the holiday of Tu B'Shevat.
This personal seder would prepare us for the "peoplehood" seder that follows two months later at Passover. They would complement each other -- you start local and then you go global. A psychologist would call it working on yourself first, to help you better connect with others later, in this case, the Jewish people.
I would also call it brilliant marketing. We're always talking about all those Jews who abandon their Judaism, especially the new generation of Jews bored with religion and turned off by group-think. Could you imagine a more powerful hook than a Jewish seder that would celebrate individual creativity?