At this point in our bleak winter, we could use the diversion of a holiday.
I know that Groundhog Day is today but looking for shadows doesn't conjure the type of excitement I would call celebratory. Lucky for us our Jewish friends are celebrating Tu Bishvat at Beit Haverim in Lake Oswego beginning Feb. 7 and they invite us to join them in celebrating with storytelling and a seder on Feb. 12.
Tu Bishvat is the New Year of the Trees. Why do trees get a new year, you ask? Rabbi Alan Berg and Michelle Minch of the Beit Haverim in Lake Oswego, my mentors in all things Jewish, filled me in.
'You know how people who garden use this time of the year to leaf through seed catalogs?' asked Berg. 'That is what Tu Bishvat is about - preparation. In ancient times you would prepare or designate what sacrifices you would offer by the time of Tu Bishvat.'
Jewish law dating back to 1,800 years ago, speaks of four new years, all of which are connected to an ancient cycle of tithes. Each year, the Israelites were expected to bring one-tenth of their fruits to the temple in Jerusalem, where they were offered to God and also helped sustain the priestly class and the poor. Since fruit from one year could not be used to tithe for another, the rabbis had to determine when a crop year would begin and end. They chose the month of Shvat as the cut-off date, for in Israel, this is when the sap begins to run and the trees start to awaken from their winter slumber.
The Jewish faith is deeply concerned with trees, harvests and the natural world - all of which are at the heart of Tu Bishvat. Trees are planted at Tu Bishvat as a reminder of the Jewish people's responsibility to nature.
'Modern Zionism is intent on purchasing land in Israel for Jews to live on,' said Berg. Much of this work is organized by the Jewish National Fund, founded in 1901 at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Each year during Tu Bishvat, Jewish families deposit coins in JNF's Blue Boxes, encouraging Jews everywhere to participate directly in the redemption of the land. Once in possession of the land, Israel's early pioneers realized that land development was essential for survival on terrain that had been allowed to erode for centuries. As the country grew and new issues arose, JNF evolved to address Israel's most pressing needs.
Nearly 3 million saplings are planted each year. These trees combat desertification, create 'green lungs' around cities, help replenish underground aquifers, inhibit soil erosion and curtail the greenhouse effect. In addition to planting new forests, JNF maintains existing woodlands through pruning, brush clearing and other fire prevention and fire fighting efforts.
Tu Bishvat is also a wonderful opportunity to share the Jewish tradition of storytelling.
'Storytelling is a big part of our culture,' said Berg. As part of the Tu Bishvat festivities storyteller Devorah Spillman will delight children and adults of all ages with 'The Fruits of Friendship' on Feb. 12. It's free, it's fun, and it's open to the public. There is no registration required.
Rabbi tells me there is no set liturgy for the modern Tu Bishvat seder. It's a ritual in flux; however he and Minch share these guidelines with us.
Set your table with a white or other nice tablecloth, good dishes, flowers, wine and juice. There is no requirement to light candles, but scented candles add a nice touch and a festive glow. One or more people can lead the seder, reciting each reading and making the blessings or people can take turns.
The seder begins with hand washing, a blessing and a reading.
The First Cup of Wine or grape juice is white, symbolizing winter and the mystical event at which God's energy infused the creation process with initial life.
The First Fruit served is one that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, such as walnuts, coconuts or almonds. The hard shell symbolizes the protection the earth gives us and reminds us to nourish the strength and healing power of our own bodies.
The Second Cup of Wine or grape juice is mostly white, with a little red mixed in, to symbolize the passing of the seasons and the mystical concept of formation and birth, often associated with water.
The Second Fruit is soft with a pit in the center. Think olives or dates, peaches or apricots. They symbolize the life-sustaining power than emanates from the earth. It reminds one of the spiritual and emotional strength that is within each of us.
The Third Cup of Wine is mostly red with a little white mixed in and symbolizes once again the change of seasons and the mystical concept of creation.
The Third Fruit is soft throughout and is completely edible, such as berries, figs, grapes and raisins. This type of fruit symbolizes God's omnipresence and one's own inextricable ties with the earth.
The Fourth Cup of Wine is all red, symbolizing the mystical concept of fire and the idea that within all living things dwells a spark of God.
The Fourth Fruit has a tough skin on the outside but sweet fruit within, such as mangos and bananas and avocados. These fruits symbolize the mystery of the world and the study of Torah. Jews are constantly seeking to uncover earth's secrets and continually be nourished by its fruits.
Berg and Minch invite all to attend the Tu Bishvat events.
On Feb. 12, the seders begin at 2:30 p.m. and storytelling begins at 3:30 p.m. The 3:30 p.m. session is most appropriate for children in kindergarten through third grade. A session at 4 p.m. is geared for children in fourth through seventh grades and a 4:30 p.m. session is for all students and parents.
Beit Haverim meets at 1111 Country Club Road in Lake Oswego.
Between the Third Fruit and the Fourth Cup of Wine, a vegetarian dinner is served. Minch shares a cherished family recipe for kugel so that you might enjoy preparing your own Tu Bishvat seder.
Bon Appetite! Eat something wonderful!
Grandma Esther Spielberger's Noodle Kugel
1 pound egg noodles cooked al dente
4 large eggs and 1 egg yolk
1 pinch of salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter
1 cup sour cream
2 ¾ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Juice of ½ lemon
1 cup raisins
Grease a 9x13 inch baking pan.
Beat eggs, yolk, salt, sugar and butter together. Add sour cream, milk, vanilla and lemon juice. Mix well. Place cooked noodles in baking pan and pour egg-milk mixture over them. Add raisins if desired. Cook at 375ºF for 1 hour.
Dried cranberries or cherries can be used instead of raisins. You can substitute Splenda or Stevia for the sugar, plain low-fat yogurt for the sour cream and low-fat milk for whole milk.
Esther 'Daci' Spielberger Platt