The Meaning of a Birthday
By Dr. Elana Heideman
In preparation for Tu B’Shevat, I was immersed in ongoing searches for everything out there that had to do with this unique holiday. I came across everything from environmental to spiritual interpretations and a slew of arts and crafts activities, all of which focused on a very generalized interpretation of this New Year of Trees.
I was surprised to find that so little of what did exist – and there was A LOT – had anything to do with Israel, the very land to which this holiday is associated. Israel is mentioned in passing – included in the historical reference as to why we have this new year that no other peoples have. Sure, there are plenty of Arbor Days honored by various countries and cultures, but Tu B’Shevat is so special, so unique, it even has its own seder.
For those unfamiliar, Tu B’Shevat is celebrated on the 15th (TU = ט”ו) day of the Jewish month of Shevat שבט, this year on January 25-26. This is one of the 4 New Years mentioned in the Mishnah. Known in Israel as “Chag Ha'Ilanot” (Ilan אילן= tree), we honor this day when budding fruit enters a new year of life and the first bulbs of spring are beginning to bloom.
I can’t say I remember much about Tu B’Shevat growing up. But I do recall the first time it had real significance to me: on a family trip to Israel in my late teens when my Grammy Esther was along for the ride.
As we drove through Tel Aviv, Grammy suddenly burst out with excitement, “Oh my goodness! I think I planted those trees! I remember planting those trees right there!”
She went on to tell us that, growing up in Palestine, it was customary for every child, every school, every family to take part in the planting of trees, keeping alive a tradition that seemed as ancient as the soil in which they were planting.
Born in 1924 in Rovno, Poland (now Ukraine), her father Shraga brought the whole Voronov clan to the Holy Land when Grammy was only 9 months old. Ironically, she doesn’t actually know her real birthday on the secular calendar, but she will always know that she was born on Tu B’Shevat, which her father made a big deal of every year when they went planting. Not only were they celebrating a new year of life for the trees of Israel, but also for Esther – always making my own celebration of Tu B’Shevat that much more special.
Being in Israel with Grammy is always something incredible for me, as I feel my life is intertwined with hers and the legacy her own father and mother set forth when they came here all those years ago.
Grammy ended up moving to the US in 1946 to marry my Grampa Max who she met while he was stationed here serving in the US Army (and that is a whole other incredible tale to be told). All these years later, she still reminds people that she isn’t Israeli, because she wasn’t here when the state was declared. But she is very proud of her family history, her connection to this land, and her ability to speak to my own Sabra children in Hebrew, helping them to feel close to her even though she lives so very far away.
I have told my boys about the trees in Tel Aviv that Savta Esther planted when she was a child. And we have now been planting our own every year since they were born. But most importantly, I make sure they understand the significance of Israel in the Tu B’Shevat story – that we wouldn’t have this chag without the land and the history to which we are connected. Then again, they sing Eretz Yisrael sheli yafa v’gam Porachat all day… (My Land of Israel is beautiful and blossoming… believe me – when you hear the song, you, too, will become addicted.)
When my survey of Tu B’Shevat materials came up short in the Israel-connection, I decided to make sure that everyone in the world could know that the two cannot be divorced one from another.
With the help of Michael Eglash of Upstart Ideas, and our amazing Israel Forever team, we created an opportunity that would allow people to plant their own piece of Israel in their corner of the world: