by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Judaism is replete with tree-human stories and metaphors. Something about the way the branches reach out to the heavens and how those tenacious roots grab hold of the earth has captivated our imaginations. Not incidentally, we have thrived through the sustenance that trees provide us; their shade, fruit, and oxygen have been a big part of our survival on this planet.
This Tuesday evening is Tu Bishvat, our annual birthday-bash for the trees. There are many things said and written about the mystical origins of Tu Bishvat, but for very practical reasons, our ancestors relied on this day of the year to know how old a tree was. One of the agricultural laws first outlined in the Torah and later expounded upon in Rabbinic literature was that we must wait until a tree is in its fifth year before we can eat its fruit; this practice is called orlah. Unless you are a ‘Tree Whisperer’ it’s hard to ask a tree how old it is, and frankly, very sad and wasteful to chop it down just to count its rings. For this reason and for others discussed in the Jewish agricultural laws, a new year of the trees was needed.
Today, we know Tu Bishvat as a time of year when we bring out the dates, olives, barley –those archetypal fruits of the land of Israel– and follow a seder, or order, to celebrate these new fruits. In the last few months, I’ve become more aware of the many children who come for immersion at Mayyim Hayyim. I may not be a newbie here anymore, but I am still really taken aback by the young people who have embraced this ancient ritual. I can say for sure that I am not living in the world of my grandmother’s scary Uzbek mikveh. I live in a world where where there have been over a thousand boys and girls in the greater Boston area who have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim. As I anticipate the fruits of the seder this year, I have begun to think about young people as the fruit of their parents’ and communities’ labor. We may not have a definitive system of rules for parenting akin to Jewish agricultural laws, but each family has values and boundaries that allow their children to grow up as unhindered by the world around them as possible.
Tu Bishvat is a moment to celebrate the sweetness of the fruits that have ripened. It is our communal thank you for the work that had to happen for these fruits to grow and make their way to us. In honor of Tu Bishvat and the parents that have supported their children in so many ways, I’m sharing a couple entries from our guest book from young people who have come to Mayyim Hayyim. It is a testament to their own uninterrupted growth and the strength they drew from those around them that they arrived at the transition they came here to mark, with hopefulness and appreciation.
“Today was my first time at the mikveh. I was getting mentally prepared for weeks now. I got a little nervous. The mikveh guide gave me the tour and told me the instructions. When I was getting ready I looked in the mirror and smiled when my mom combed my hair. As I went in, I felt like an older big girl. I enjoyed it so much. I hope I can come back soon! This was for my Bat Mitzvah”
“On this day, my sister became Jewish. I honor today for she is only one year old! I am her brother, nine years old, and I cherish this day to remember.”
Leeza Negelev is Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She really loves trees and children.