I love ט׳ו בשבט (Tu B'Shvat). It is the best holiday - ראש השנ הלאילנות (The New Year for Trees).
Many, many moons ago when I was a child in Hebrew School in the dead of winter, every ט׳ו בשבט all the students received a gift of a small brown paper bag filled with nuts and dried fruit from Israel. It was something very special and it was very exciting. פרי תמרים, תאנים, משמשים, (dates and figs and apricots). שקדים בקליפה (almonds in the shell.) And something unknown in our parts - חרוב (boxer fruit).
I was very interested in eating it all but a little confused about whether I would like the taste of everything. And I wasn't really sure what sorts of trees produced these fruits. We had crabapple trees in our backyard and we didn't spend any time in Hebrew School on botany.
I knew what dates were. My mother baked cakes with them. They came from the supermarket pitted and packed in a block like a brick. The dates in my bag were whole. In my world, figs were the stuffing in Fig Newtons but the fruit in my bag didn't look or taste anything like that. They were shriveled and a funny color. I got the part about the nut in the shell, though I had never seen an almond with its coat on. As for the boxer fruit? It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned that boxer fruit is carob and that we were sent the carob pod with the seeds. It had the consistency of leather.
I didn't really enjoy the fruit. I suppose if I had closed my eyes and concentrated on the taste and not the look of the fruit, it would have been a different experience and a different memory. But the little brown paper bags did do something. They made me think. They made me wonder about all sorts of things.
Do dates on a tree look like the dates in my bag (and the answer is - yes, sometimes the dates are left on the tree until they are brown and ripe). Do figs grow with the string attached? How do they get the figs on the string? How can something like a dry pea pod be a fruit? Why only one nut and three fruits (even though later I learned that nuts are fruits)? Why do we have so many different kinds of holidays?
I wanted to know more, I wanted to know why we celebrated the trees on a special holiday. I never got these answers in Hebrew School. In fact, I am hard-pressed to remember if anything at all was explained to us. It was simply, "here it is".
So, now I know that we have different kinds of holidays. Some to celebrate, some to commemorate, some to mourn and some to repent. All these holidays have different kinds of obligations. I am unaware of any obligations on ט׳ו בשבט, but I am not religious. So perhaps there are some. Perhaps to plant a tree but that is no obligation at all for me.
To be able to celebrate the first fruit(s) of the season, to understand there is a relationship between the calendar and the food. To know when the עצי שקד (almond trees) can be harvested. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the goodness of nature and how fortunate we are to have trees and plants. Sounds very soppy, but it is heartfelt.
This Sunday evening ט׳ו בשבט begins. It lasts only one day. But in every market, large and small they are setting up special tables דוכנים loaded with goodies. Even in the מכולת (convenience store) has them beside the bleach and the paper towels. Today, there is a wider selection now with fruits like dried kiwi and dried coconut and walnuts from California Of course, the merchants will take the opportunity to sell. But it is more than a סתם holiday on a calendar. It is something that is actually observed. I love Arbor Day which I used to mark on my calendar and then I realized it shared its anniversary with Audubon Day/ National Pretzel Day/ National Help Your Horse Day/ National Richter Scale Day...
Today, I couldn't think of anything better than sweet dried dates and dried figs and almonds in the shell. But I think I'' pass on the boxer fruit. I prefer my חרוב (carob) processed. It's a little hard for me to chew it as it is.