On the evening of January 16, 2022, Jews around the world will begin celebrating Tu BiShvat, a festival marking the New Year for trees. The holiday, which falls on the 15th (written “Tu”) day of the month of Shevat on the Jewish calendar, has an ancient and storied history that encompasses early Jewish farming, the legendary arrival of Jews in India, medieval kabbalah, and modern ecological activism. Nowadays, many practice Tu BiShvat by holding seders, eating fruits symbolic of the spring harvest across the Levant, and planting trees.
Tu BiShvat will be especially meaningful at the Museum this year as the community unites to welcome and care for the Children’s Tree. The sapling was cut and rooted from a tree that was planted by Jewish children and their teacher Irma Lauscher in Theresienstadt in 1943 to celebrate the festival. Theresienstadt served as a ghetto, labor camp, and stopping point for many Jews before they were deported to concentration and labor camps by the Nazis. The Children’s Tree represents the legacy of those at Theresienstadt who perished as well as the children who carry on their memory today.
History of the Holiday
Tu BiShvat is one of four different new years on the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of the Hebrew Lunar calendar; Tu BiShvat, the New Year for trees; Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot, the New Year for animals on the first day of the month of Elul; and Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month of Nisan (the month of Passover) which is known as the New Year of kings.
Tu BiShvat was originally conceived as a functional tool to help farmers to track the ages of their crops. Leviticus 19:23 says: “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.” Jewish law dictated that no one could eat the fruit of a tree for three years after it was planted (which incidentally is about how long it takes for a fruiting tree to gain the strength to produce good fruit). In the fourth year the fruits were collected and brought as an offering to the Temple. Then, finally, in the fifth year the tree’s fruit could be enjoyed. These laws tasked Jewish farmers with tracking the ages of their saplings as well as patience and care for the trees. In order to help farmers carry out this responsibility, rabbinical authorities ultimately established the fifteenth day of the month Shevat as a birthday for all trees.
Over time, Tu BiShvat evolved to hold many cultural and religious meanings.
For Indian Jews, Tu BiShvat has great historical significance. The Bene Israel, the largest Jewish community in India, have a legend that Jews first arrived in the country, 1600 – 1800 years ago, on the day of Tu BiShvat when their ship capsized off the Konkan coast. Eliyahu HaNavi, or Elijah the Prophet, appeared to the shipwreck’s 14 survivors, seven men and seven women, and promised that they would have a home in India. Eliyahu HaNavi then ascended to the heavens on a chariot, as the Biblical story goes.
In the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics known as Kabbalists, imbued the holiday with new spiritual messages and began holding Tu BiShvat seders modeled on the Passover seder. Sephardi Jews in particular embraced Tu BiShvat, sometimes calling it Las Frutas. Celebration takes place at home with seders full of fruits and vegetables. Children also sometimes put on plays in Ladino, a unique Judeo-Spanish language, or walked in parades adorned in white and holding fruit baskets.
Today, many Jews have come to regard Tu BiShvat as a time to reflect on the seasons, on our reliance on and need for trees to live, and generally on the health of the planet. Jews around the world observe Tu BiShvat still partake in seders, as the Kabbalists innovated, to celebrate nature and the environment.
A seder will generally include fifteen or more fruits, depending on local practice. Seder plates for Tu BiShvat traditionally include wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. These seven foods are served because the Bible describes the promised land as a “a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey.” (Deuteronomy 8:8). For many , eating these seven species on Tu BiShvat is a way of connecting to our ancient heritage.
Ashkenazi Jews often relied on carob for one part of their Tu BiShvat celebration, because it was importable to Europe during wintertime. The rest was more difficult to come by, given that in our parts of the world we’re still in the dead of winter, whereas Sephardi communities had more access to the springtime bounty enjoyed around the Levant.
Indian Jews from the community Bene Israel celebrate the holiday with a ceremony called the “malida,” which is used to mark a number of important occasions, including b’nai mitzvah. The centerpiece of the malida is a special rice dish filled with and encircled by fruits and stacked in the center of a round plate to emulate the appearance of Mount Sinai. Both Jewish and Indian influences inform the malida, which is unique to this community.
The Children’s Tree
This year at the Museum, and in years to come, Tu BiShvat will be a time to celebrate and nurture our Children’s Tree. The story of this tree is one of connection, blooming, and possibility.
In January 1943, a group of young Jewish children detained in Theresienstadt planted a tree in celebration of Tu BiShvat with the help of their teacher, Irma Lauscher. The children took care of and nurtured the tree, using a portion of their collective water rations to keep the tree alive.
Over 140,000 Jews were imprisoned in Theresienstadt over the course of the Holocaust, and only 16,000 survived the war. Of those who died, 90,000 were sent to death camps where they were murdered, and 33,000 died in Theresienstadt due to disease and starvation. Only 200 of the 15,000 Jewish children imprisoned in Theresienstadt survived the Holocaust. Those who lived placed a sign on the tree proclaiming, “As the branches of this tree, so the branches of our people!”
Since the end of the war, saplings from the original tree in Theresienstadt have found their way to cities around the world, including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Jerusalem. Now, we are proud to join the global tree network, and will join together with the students at PS/IS 276: The Battery Park City School, which is across the street from the Museum. With our student neighbors, we will water and care for it for generations to come, honoring the children who came before us, who recognized and worked to keep their connections to nature and celebrating the future generations of children who will preserve their legacy.