Driving my youngest to his music class the other day, I almost caused an accident when he suddenly started to scream, “date palm, date palm, oak tree, oak tree.” This is one of the familiar signs that the holiday of Tu B’Shvat – the New Year for Trees – is on its way.
Kindergarten and grade-school children learn all about Israel’s tree population – and my son, it seems, was listening very closely. Upon reaching our destination, we had to inspect every tree that we walked past and I got long explanations of my almost four-year-old’s latest passion.
Another sign that the tree festival is around the corner is the mounds of colorful dried fruits in supermarkets and open-air markets. Dried apricots, figs, dates, prunes, raisins, mango, pineapple . . . the list is tantalizingly endless.
There’s even a tradition to host a Tu B’Shvat seder — a festive meal featuring fruits in honor of the holiday. The seder started as a kabbalistic way to celebrate the holiday but has become popular amongst the general population as a great opportunity to reflect on ecological issues.
The main activity for the holiday in Israel, however, is tree planting. Writer and historian Ze’ev Jawitz is hailed as the guy who kicked off this tradition when he and his students planted trees in the Zichron Yaakov region in 1892.
In 1908, the Teachers’ Federation and the KKL-JNF standardized this practice. KKL-JNF has planted more than 230 million trees since its establishment, in an area of around one million dunams (about 250,000 acres).
Today, thousands of Israelis plant trees to celebrate the 15th day (“Tu” is the acronym for the number 15 in Hebrew letters) of the Jewish month of Shvat – the day almond trees traditionally begin to bloom.
Where to plant a tree
The KKL-JNF is running related activities throughout the month of January – nature walks, tree plantings, guided workshops.
The Manara Cliff complex has guided flower walks, tree planting and holiday themed activities for kids on January 17-18.
There’s also tree planting, nature tours and bird-watching at the International Birdwatching Center of the Jordan Valley at Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin on January 18.
Tel Aviv is turning its central Rabin Square into a forest for a day in honor of the holiday. Three-meter-long trees will create a mini-forest in the center of the city on January 16.
Crop Graffiti farmer-artist Peter Viner, who has become celebrated for his grain designs, joined forces with a local fifth-grade class to create a huge pomegranate in the fields of Park Hamaianot in honor of the holiday.
If you’re more interested in the fruitier part of the festival, Kibbutz Tirat Zvi is hosting a Tu B’Shvat-style guided walk through its date plantations. This Beit She’an Valley community is the largest date grower in Israel, with 18,000 trees. (Reserve ahead: 972-50-558-1078)
As in years past, my family will take part in the KKL-JNF’s tree planting in Ben Shemen Forest. Although we always say that we’ll remember to bring our own spades, we almost always forget and instead use our hands to dig and pat the sapling into squishy mud. My kids are always so proud of the “I planted a tree”’ paper flag they get as a thank-you for ensuring a green Israel for the future.
Happy birthday, trees!
If you missed Tu B’Shvat but still want to plant a tree in Israel, the KKL-JNF runs three tree planting areas year round.