Reflections on T”U B’Shevat

By Dina Yoshimi with photos by Naomi Olstein

Sifting through my childhood memories of T”U B’Shevat, I recall religious school

teachers urging us to participate in the annual JNF campaign to purchase trees

in Israel.  In classes, we saw photos of children planting rows of small saplings

in barren settings, and photos of families going on hikes or picnicking

to celebrate the holiday.  Repeated over many years, those experiences

ensured that my earliest understanding of T”U B’Shevat was as an observance

that happened “over there,” in Eretz Yisrael.

 

My first hint that observing T”U B’Shevat might entail more than vicarious

participation in an Israeli holiday came about ten years ago, when a number of

Sof’s younger members (Ethan, Naomi, and Shawn among them) organized

Sof’s first T”U B’Shevat seder. The very idea of a seder that didn’t involve

matzoh and maror was quite new to me, if not to many Sofers. The seder

booklet that we used presented a rather mystical view of the holiday,

introducing the four sefirot (Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiyah), and

providing questions for discussion that left me a bit unclear as to what all

this had to do with T”U B’Shevat. As is so often the case at Sof, a new path

to Jewish learning had presented itself, and, for some, conversation about

the seder content continued beyond Shabbat Beshallach. After two successful

years coordinating the seder, new life directions made it impossible for the

young organizers to maintain the effort, and quite a few Sofers noted the

absence of the event.

After a hiatus of a year or two, there was a groundswell of interest in

reinstating the seder. With many members of the kehillah contributing,

a new tradition began. From the rich set of library materials, e-mailed

suggestions from Sof members, and a liberal dipping into Tehillim (Psalms),

the seder booklet was cut-and-pasted together. A general call for contributions

for the seder elicited no fewer than four different barley dishes, and a range

of tree fruits and nut butters from apples and almonds to persimmons and

pomegranates. The presence of strawberries and dried cranberries on the tables

was evidence of our status as novice organizers (ever see a strawberry tree!).

 

There was nothing “novice”, though, about the presentation of that first seder.

In those days, Gin Sgan was the Oneg Coordinator.  On the day of the first seder,

she and a few others had worked through the better part of Shacharit to prepare

the plates of fruit and nuts, and to get the room set up.  There was still a large bag

of greenery freshly cut from the Sgan’s garden to be set out, along with all the

plated fruits, but the Torah service was approaching, and I had a reading.

I hesitantly left the kitchen with Gin’s reassurances that there wasn’t much left

to do. Thirty minutes later, I went back to the oneg room. As I laid eyes on the

beautiful spread, I could have been walking into the gateway of Gan Eden. It was

as if a garden had grown in place of the oneg room. The colorful fruits were shining

gems in a backdrop of lush greenery. I remember being completely stunned, and

exclaiming to Gin that she was amazing and that the set up was magnificent.

It is that model, and the sanctity of that awe-inspiring beauty, that remains one of

the high points of our Sof seder tradition.

The other is, of course, the joy and camaraderie that comes from our gathering

in shared spirit and purpose to celebrate Rosh HaShanah for the trees. In this sixth

year of what has become a regular part of our Shabbat calendar, the T”U B’Shevat

seder had many memorable moments that reflect our increasingly rich and enduring

tradition.  This year, our Motzi blessing was enhanced by T”U B’Shevat challot made

by Peter Fritz, who created an original recipe for the occasion. Inspired by the custom

of including the sheva minim, ‘seven species,’ at the seder, Peter baked loaves that

included four of the seven species native to the Land of Israel: wheat, figs, olives

(olive oil) and dates (date syrup).  The heavenly challot were a huge hit – and

we’re hoping to see them again at next year’s seder. Tradition!

 

 

The congregation’s familiarity with the seder routine was also readily in evidence:

thanks to the many contributors, our tables were graced with the full 15 varieties

of tree fruits and nuts, herbs from three different family gardens provided the

fragrances for the fourth sefirah (realm) of assiyah (action), and a tasty array

of fruit pies, including home-made apple and pear pies, completed the spread.

The chair-moving ‘ceremony’ unfolded as if choreographed, the readings and

wine pourings flowed smoothly; and, most importantly, we remembered to start

with the WHITE grape juice for the first cup!

 

Two comments from today’s seder reflect the ways in which it fulfills the

oh-so-Jewish approach to tradition, an approach that combines a respect and

fondness for the old with a joyful discovery of the new. In remarking on our

practice of reusing the same paper handouts for the readings year-after-year,

Marc quipped, “We’ve been using these for so long that I’m starting to recognize

my grape juice stains.”  And, on a reflective note, as those same papers were being

collected for use again next year, Marlene commented, that the readings “take on

meaning as you read them, even as the words are coming out of your mouth.”

The joy of eating, the joy of learning, the joy of sharing a communal tradition –

these are the ingredients that have seasoned our Sof T”U B’Shevat seder over the years.

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