My Promised Land – A Question

March 8, 2014

shavitThis week I’ve been reading a book  much more slowly than usual. I’ve been distracted by some conversations about the book that have me running back to reread sections. The book is Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit is a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. The man can write; sections of the book are almost poetry. He uses anecdotes from his family history as a framework to look at the State of Israel.

I began reading the book on the recommendation of my rabbi. He said that the writing was excellent and that it was a book that would “make everyone talk.” He’s right on both counts.

You can Google the reviews, if you want. What fascinates me is that Shavit seems to have found a “sweet spot” in which he’s bothering everyone. One reviewer will say that he leaves out too much Palestinian wrongdoing; another will say that he’s leaving out too much Israeli wrongdoing.  Often they cite the same chapter, Chapter 5, “Lydda.” Again and again, informal commenters and reviewers seem to insist that he left something out. The problem is almost always what he failed to say, some element that for the reviewer is essential.

It leaves me to wonder how big a book would need to be to satisfy everyone, to truly address the bitterness on both sides. I wonder what would happen if we were to assemble such a book: a book that both the most passionate Palestinian and the most passionate Zionist could read and say, “Yes, everything is there.” No reasons, no excuses, this book would list the bitter facts, lay them all out so that everything is acknowledged.

Would it help, or would it make things worse?  I do not know.


Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 7, 2014

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.  It’s coming at sundown on January 15, 2014.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright

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