Monday, February 1, 2010

Tu B’Shevat, Jewish Arbor Day, and Marianne’s 80th

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My friends picked a much better week than we did to vacation in a warm climate. Roxy is off in Hawaii this week and Laura is in Puerto Rico. They missed one of the most bitter cold weeks ever, here. Saul and I have been Hawaii dreaming all week, especially Saul, when his arthritis starts giving him pain from the chill. Luckily, last week we decided to exchange our planned Williamsburg vacation during spring break in March to a 10-day vacation on Kauai. For my sixtieth birthday, I will be spending the entire day on an airplane winging my way there. I wish they could just beam me up! Each time I arrive there, I don’t want to come home.

During the beginning of the week, I suddenly became aware that Tu B’Shevat, our Jewish Arbor Day, was beginning on Shabbat eve, January 29, this year, so the focus of our week was the scavenger hunt to find all the exotic fruits and nuts needed to make a beautiful seder. Tu B’Shevat is also known as Rosh Hashanah L’Ilanot, the new year of the trees, and falls at this cold time because the sap is just beginning to run in the trees about now. I invited a bunch of friends over for Shabbat dinner and tuned up our seder script a bit from sources on the Net. Saul and I made the rounds of various stores on Thursday afternoon and evening (in bitter cold weather) to gather supplies, but we were somewhat disappointed with Assi Market this year. Usually, it yields such great and exotic produce as fresh rambutan or lychees, but this year, I could not even get a good mango or persimmon there. We did, however, find a sabra, which was quite exotic to a few of our guests and which allowed us to make a sheheheyanu over a new fruit. We had great fun and had eaten way too much by the time the seder was over and it was time for dinner. We were glad we decided to use grape juice rather than wine for the four cups, or we would not only have been full, but falling off our chairs as well.

Joining us for dinner were Larry, Beth, Terry and Gene, Faith, Elaine, and Sister Lisa from Chestnut Hill College. During the seder, one is supposed to eat at least 16 different fruits and nuts, four from each of the four categories. In the first category, fruits or nuts with a hard, inedible shell that are completely edible inside, we had: pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, cashews, pistachios, Brazil nuts and almonds. In the second category, fruits with an edible rind and a pit or pits in the center, we had: olives, dates, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, apple and Asian pear. In the third category, fruits with a tough, inedible skin on the outside but sweet fruit within, we had mango, banana, sabra, pomegranate, and orange. In the fourth category, fruits which are soft throughout and are completely edible, we had figs, grapes, raisins, kiwi, starfruit (carambola) and blueberries. As appetizers before the seder, we had guacamole (celebrating the avocado) with chips, and Comté cheese with membrillo (celebrating the quince). For dinner, we had homemade challah, chestnut soup, Israeli salad, vegetarian meatballs, macaroni and cheese, and maple-glazed Brussels sprouts. For dessert, we had carob cake and mini chocolate shells with ice cream and whipped cream.

I have included the text of our seder, which I have gleaned from several sources, and which can be modified at will to suit the occasion. Much more elaborate (and time consuming) versions are possible as well, and may include appropriate songs/prayers, 10 modern plagues of the environment, and other ecologically-conscious points of discussion.

Tu B’Shevat Seder
In the 16th century in northern Israel, in the spiritual town of Tzfat (Safed), the Jewish mystics created the Tu B’Shevat seder. They recognized the many and varied dimensions of God’s creation and used the fruits of Israel to symbolize the nature of these dimensions of existence.
The Torah characterizes Israel as being blessed with seven varieties of produce: “A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olives and honey. (Deuteronomy 8:8)
In Israel, the holiday is always marked by the planting of trees. School children are taken on field trips especially for the purpose of planting trees, and great importance is placed on this simple act for many reasons. The pledge to make the desert bloom is part of the overwhelming desire to ensure a rich life in the “land of milk and honey.” In modern times, the burning of forests by enemies of Israel has strengthened the resolve to maintain and beautify the land to assure our continued presence there. In the diaspora, the concern of Jews for the land of Israel is expressed through the purchase of tree certificates from the Jewish National Fund. A certificate is purchased which indicates that a tree has been planted in memory of or in honor of someone. In addition to the planting of trees, these monies are used to maintain existing forest.
Hand Washing
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav,
v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are You, Source of all life, Who commands us to ritually wash our hands.
The First Cup of Wine
This cup of white wine or grape juice symbolizes winter, the dormant stage of nature and the mystical dimension of atzilut, or emanation, at which God’s energy infused the creation process with initial life.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam borei peri ha-gafen.
Blessed are you, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
For Adonai your God is bringing you into a good land. A land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths springing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land wherein you shall eat without scarceness, you shall not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you may dig brass. And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless God for the good land, which is being given unto you (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).
The First Fruit
Fruit that has a hard or inedible shell or rind on the outside and is soft and completely edible on the inside, such as walnuts, coconuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans.
The hard shell symbolizes the protection that the earth gives us and by representing the physical being as a soul covered by the body, also reminds us to nourish the strength and healing power of our own bodies.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, borei peri ha-etz.
Blessed are You, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the tree.
The Second Cup of Wine
This cup of wine or grape juice is mostly white, with a little red mixed in, to symbolize the beginning of spring, the earth’s reawakening and the mystical concept of formation and birth, often associated with water.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, borei peri ha-gafen.
Blessed are You, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall you be in the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your land, and the fruit of your cattle, and the young of your flock. Blessed shall you be in your basket and your kneading trough. Blessed shall you be when you come in and blessed shall you be when you go out (Deuteronomy 28:36).
The Second Fruit
This fruit is soft with an edible rind and a pit in the center, such as olives, dates, peaches, and apricots.
They symbolize the life-sustaining power that emanates from the earth and remind us of the spiritual and emotional strength that is within each of us, of the heart protected by the body.
The tamar, or date palm, has a further symbolism. In Bereshit Rabbah 41, the rabbis compared Israel to a date palm because it is a tree of which every part is useful.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, borei peri ha-etz.
Blessed are You, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the tree.
The Third Cup of Wine
This cup of wine is mostly red with a little bit of white added representing the full arrival of spring and the mystical concept of beriah, or creation.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, borei peri ha-gafen.
Blessed are You, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Then God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).
The Third Fruit
This has a tough skin on the outside but sweet fruit within such as mangos, bananas, avocados, or sabra, a desert pear, fruit of a cactus plant.
They symbolize the mystery of the world and our study of Torah. We are constantly seeking to uncover her secrets, and are continually nourished by her fruits.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, borei peri ha-etz.
Blessed are You, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the tree.
The Fourth Cup of Wine
This cup is all red, symbolizing the full glow of summer, the mystical concept of fire and the idea that within all living things dwells a spark of God.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, borei peri ha-gafen.
Blessed are You, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
And the angel of God appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and Moses looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed (Exodus 3:2).
And God said, “let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit trees yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth,” and it was so. (Genesis 1:9-13)
The Fourth Fruit
This fruit is soft throughout and is completely edible, such as figs, grapes, and raisins. This type symbolizes the highest form of spirituality, God’s omnipresence and our own inextricable ties with the earth. The tasting of this fruit may be followed by the tasting of wheat in the form of cake, bread, or cookies.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, borei peri ha-etz.
Blessed are You, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the tree.
Closing Prayer
May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors, that through our eating of the fruits and drinking of the juices, which we have blessed, that the trees of Israel will renew themselves by blossoming and growing. May the trees we have planted in Israel add to the beauty and blessing of Zion.
We pray that this seder celebration of Tu B’Shevat will inspire in us a deeper sensitivity to nature’s gifts. May the day soon come when we can plant a tree ourselves in Israel in fulfillment of the Commandments.
At this special Shabbat Tu B’Shevat seder, we pray for God to guard us and watch over all the Jewish People everywhere, in Israel, in the United States and in all the other countries where they live, some in freedom, some still in servitude. Our greatest hope is that all people will be free to live in peace everywhere.

Services at MBI-EE on Saturday were followed by a congregational Tu B’Shevat seder, one that was more elaborate in its scope, and then a luncheon. Arriving home, before our Shabbat nap, I completed the previous Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle, which uniquely involved folding the finished puzzle ala Mad Magazine to reveal a new abridged set of words within the circles—quite clever. It reminded me of an old, true story, covered once in Philadelphia Magazine, about some too clever boys at Akiba Hebrew Academy who were delayed from their high school graduation as punishment for having surreptitiously designed, and gotten published, a yearbook page that folded in like manner to reveal an x-rated drawing and message.

On Sunday, Adele, Saul, and I attended an incredible birthday brunch upstairs at the Wm. Penn Inn to celebrate the 80th birthday of our dear friend Marianne (Mom’s hospice volunteer) which was arranged by her children. We were delighted to meet in person many of her family and friends about whom we had heard so much. They were an extremely diverse, creative, intelligent and interesting group—a beautiful and cohesive family—not surprising at all considering the warmth and appreciation for life with which Marianne views the world, and this after having come through the Holocaust. Her remaining children, John and Margie, had made a trek to New Brunswick, New Jersey, which evidently has a large Hungarian community, to pick up delicacies from a special shop there so as to please their mother and to give their guests a taste of the family’s special Hungarian foods. Margie made a number of the desserts herself. Marianne’s birthday cake, a Dobos torte, was so delicious that calorie-counting went out the window for the afternoon and we will just have to begin again today. The brunch at the restaurant, even without all the extra treats, is truly exceptional. Many of our family celebrations have taken place there amidst the elegant ambiance and extraordinarily attentive service, not to mention the delicious and abundant variety of beautifully presented food on the well-maintained buffet. At the end, we were greeted by our old friend, Ian, now a manager at the Inn, who used to work with us there when we were in our teens. We assured him that our entire experience that afternoon had been stellar.

After another long nap, Saul and I alternated watching the over-the-top performances at the Grammy awards on television with work on our computers. The long commercial breaks allowed us to get quite a bit of work done. With the help of TiVo, we even had time to fish out our 3D glasses, saved from many years ago, to view, as it was meant to be seen, the 3D presentation on our big flat screen t.v. I love 3D! I am as excited for the proliferation of 3D viewing in the future as I was as a child when we were the first on the block to have a tiny color television screen. I hope I live long enough to be able to see holographic presentations.

Today, we are back to calorie counting in Lose It! and cutting back, trying to figure out just how many calories we have consumed with all the unusual treats we have had in the last few days.

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