Posted on February 12, 2012 by Derek Kwait
(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)
Some of my fondest Jewish childhood memories are of Tu B’Shvat. Every year in Sunday School, we at Beth Israel Center threw a huge seder, with tens of species of exotic and familiar fruits, and a student-made Hagadda. Every year I looked forward to watching the grape juice turn colors, eating a starfruit, and along with my sister, absolutely gorging on coconut. It wasn’t until I got to college and I saw how few people had ever experienced a Tu B’Shvat seder that I learned how relatively rare this is. In college, I also came to notice how, in the Diaspora, (or at least in the Northeastern American part of it) Tu B’Shvat, a holiday so embraced and transformed by Zionism, mocks you for not being in Israel. While the trees are supposedly just starting to blossom in Eretz Yisrael, in Pittsburgh it is usually still below zero. Snowpocalypse happened right around Tu B’Shvat in 2010. Last year especially, I remember walking outside on Tu B’Shvat, shivering through my winter coat, longing for this time next year when I would be in Israel, wearing short-sleeves and sandals, watching the almond trees bloom.
Like many Diaspora dreams of Israel, this one too turned out to be exaggerated, though to be fair, I think I was just setting my expectations too high. It is getting nicer here—often in the middle of the day you can wear short-sleeves without a coat, but your feet would freeze in sandals since it’s still chilly, still February. But what matters is it’s getting warmer, and the trees are just starting to wake up and look perfectly ripe for being taxed.
Tu B’Shvat is kind-of a big deal here, with an emphasis on the “kind-of.” People know when it is and what it’s about, and some of the supermarkets had platters of dried fruits and nuts on sale, but its not Hanukkah and certainly not one of the Three Festivals. I had three seders this week: One on Sunday, one on Tuesday night, and one on Wednesday. Sunday’s was a learning seder with Yeshivat Talpiot, like Mechon Hadar in New York for Israelis. Tuesday’s was with Yotzer Or, the mentoring organization I’m volunteering with this semester. I went to this seder thinking it would be a big party with the students and other volunteers. I got there to discover a small room with maybe 7 Israelis sitting in a semi-circle watching a PowerPoint presentation and conversing Hebrew, as Israelis have the annoying habit of doing.
After I was there for maybe 5 minutes, two guys, one with a big bushy beard and a Rasta cap carrying a guitar case and the other with wiry hair and a sitar case, walked in. The sitar guy spread an oriental rug, took his shoes off, took out his sitar, sat down with the base of it against his bare foot in perfect Indian form. The guitarist was content with a folding chair. No one else in the room seemed to find any novelty in what was going on, but I’ve become used to this phenomenon.
After they had set themselves up, the guy in charge brought up a PowerPoint about the history and significance of Tu B’Shvat. He paused in the beginning to ask if I wanted him to translate for me, but I, in Hebrew, insisted I was fine. The look he gave after hearing me speak Hebrew let me know he didn’t believe me, but he humored me and continued in Hebrew anyway. Beyond just not wanting to be a pain for everyone else, I really wanted to hear the presentation only in Hebrew because, while my textual skills are getting better each day, my conversational Hebrew is still atrocious. With the help of the PowerPoint though, I was actually able to follow along and participate—in the Hebrew-speaking highlight of my life, I even answered a question in Hebrew no one else knew. At various times during the presentation, the speaker paused and the musicians led us in traditional Tu B’Shvat songs. I’ve heard השקדיה פורחת (the almond tree blossoms) so many times this week I thought I would go nuts (sorry), but I realized I had never really heard it before until I heard it on a sitar. I would never have gone to this seder had I known what it would be like, but in the end, I’m really glad I went.
Wednesday’s seder was part of Community Lunch and featured the Biblical 7 Species of Israel. It was a lot of food and a lot of fun, but even after a whole week of Tu B’Shvat in Israel, I must say that I’m disappointed no one here does Tu B’Shvat like Beth Israel Center. Three seders, warmer weather, and dried fruit coming out the wazoo (figuratively at first, literally afterwards), but not one of them had coconut, or even starfruit, so nothing’s perfect.
Appropriately, this week’s meditative practice in Self, Soul, and Text was contemplative eating, an exercise meant to connect us with the greater value of experiencing and bringing out the Divine in the physical world. When done right, eating can be a chance to connect to God, to use your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth to explore and partake of the wonders of God’s gifts. As someone who has the bad habit of eating fast, I’ve long been aware of the need to settle down and really taste the foods I put in my mouth and savor them. Sometimes when I’m eating something especially delicious like dark chocolate or coconut, this savoring comes naturally, but other times it takes work. In class we practiced this technique by taking 3 minutes to eat a single wedge of orange or cracker. Many people had trouble looking at others mindfully eating—caressing an apple over their chin or delicately sniffing raisins—without laughing, but I figured ahead of time I would have that problem, so I kept my eyes shut the entire time. With my eyes closed, I discovered that when you give it a chance, eating can be a profoundly spiritual experience: The feel of a cracker as it dissolves on your tongue almost instantly, the way salt crystals feel as they melt into your saliva, the subtle tart area right where the apple’s flesh meets its skin, the juicy balloons of orange juice that explode upon even the slightest contact with your teeth and the cartilage-like white parts next to them that never dissolve but only get smaller and smaller and get more stuck in your teeth the more you chew them, the immediate rush of ginger to the nose that comes with the first bite into a ginger snap.
It’s very humbling to consider just how miraculous our food is, not only in the mind-blowing fact that little seeds plus dirt, water, and sun make great fruit-bearing trees, but also in all the energy and anonymous people involved in bringing that food to your mouth, not even to mention the wonder of the digestive system. I resolved to bring this gratitude to the Tu B’Shvat seder Wednesday and soon discovered that communal meals are no place to take over an hour eating a single stuffed-pepper if you want to get to eat anything else, let alone talk with people. Still, the thought was there.
Almost every day last semester, I went home after class and didn’t really even think about school stuff until the next morning. This semester, I’ve found myself lingering in the Beit Midrash after class nearly every day, usually either reviewing Gemara on my own or with a chevruta or working through and translating as much of the Midrash Exodus Rabba in Hebrew as I can for my Chumash class. There’s a profound sense of purpose and peace that comes along with doing this, a sense that I am not just going through these texts or being taught them, but that, by reading them in the original on my own time, I am rather discovering them on my own, interacting with them, deepening my relationship with them, developing my own ideas about them, which will, in turn, help me to interact similarly with each new text I will encounter. Sitting alone with a Hebrew text in a nearly empty Beit Midrash is a peaceful, spiritual feeling that cannot be easily described. I now understand that, even more than for the incredible in-class experience, this is what I came to yeshiva to be able to do.
Quote of the Week: “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” – Kyle, quoting someone else.
Hebrew Word of the Week: קוקוס (“kokos”) – coconut