My mother died on February 1, 1999. According to the Jewish calendar, her death occurred in the year 5759, on the 15th day of Shevat. It’s easy for me to remember that date, because the 15th of Shevat is also Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees, a minor Jewish holiday.
I do mean minor. When I was a kid in 1960s, Tu B’Shevat meant raising money to plant trees in Israel. Our Hebrew School teachers passed out cardboard cards with pictures of trees with slots among the leaves, each one the right size to hold a penny. Fill the card with enough pennies and the cardboard and copper magically morphed into a real tree that would transform the desert into a forest.
By the time my kids hit Hebrew School, 30 years later, pennies for trees were passé. Our Burlington synagogue celebrated Tu B’Shevat with a special seder based on a mystical model developed by 17th-century Kabbalists. Progressive hues of wine (or, in the kids’ case, juice) suggested the cycle of seasons, and different categories of fruit – with inedible shells and edible insides, with inedible pits and edible outsides, and with no inedible parts – symbolized, well, something.
Spheres of spiritual enlightenment? Personality types? Aspects of our relationship with Earth? Whatever. As someone in a college English class once said, “I know it’s a phallic symbol, but I don’t know of what.” That’s the great thing about ritual. It’s plastic. Also fun, even if you have no idea what it means.
But about my mom. By dying on a holiday, she did me a favor. Determining the Gregorian date of my dad’s Jewish death anniversary could be a pain. But every Jewish calendar came with my mom’s yahrzeit pre-labeled, making it oh-so-easy for me to know when to light the 24-hour memorial candle and show up at evening services to recite Mourner’s Kaddish.
On the other hand, anyone who has lost a loved one knows how holidays magnify the absence, and how holidays on which tragedies take place are never the same.
As earth-focused Tu B’Shevat took deeper root in my Green Mountain congregation, I grew increasingly resentful. Noshing on nuts and singing songs about trees hardly seemed suitable for such a sacred, somber day. Especially when the silly celebration’s eco-vibe and trippy mysticism were so appallingly appealing to an aging Deadhead and former Flower Child wannabe like me.
It really shouldn’t have been such a big deal. Except it was. Until it wasn’t. I didn’t do it on purpose or even consciously, but when we moved to Rhode Island, the mourner in me also moved on. First I forgot to buy the yahrzeit candle. Then I got lax about saying Kaddish.
David and I do go to synagogue more Saturdays than not, though, and when we do, I play an active role in the service. And every month we get together with the five other couples in the informal eating-and-schmoozing circle one of the rabbis organized. This month it was our turn to put together the program. When I realized the meeting’s date was the 11th of Shevat, I decided to do something I had never done before: put on a Tu B’Shevat seder.
We blessed and sipped various hues of wine, and blessed and nibbled different categories of fruit. In lieu of the Talmudic excerpts suggested by the Tu B’Shevat haggadah I found online, we read poems celebrating trees and their fruits: Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Joyce Kilmer. Then we dug into a sumptuous potluck. Before and during and after, we teased each other and told jokes, passed around a phone with texted updates on the Pats/Jets game, and generally enjoyed being together.
Did I think about my mother? Of course. Mostly what struck me was how right it felt to remember her by getting together with friends to celebrate trees and anticipate spring, rather than closing myself off and nursing resentment.
I didn’t realize how really right it felt until David and I were cleaning up, putting the house back in order before we went to bed, as my parents made a point of doing after every party.
My parents never attended a Tu B’Shevat seder, and they died before cell phones and texting. But they loved food and friendship and jokes. Dad was more into baseball than football, but he would have eagerly reached for that phone when each update came in. And as a lifelong Jersey Boy, he would have been the one person in the room celebrating the game’s outcome.
My mother would have particularly appreciated the poems, especially the ones by those great New Jersey poets, William Carlos Williams and Joyce Kilmer. It was my mother who introduced me to poetry, sitting at the side of my bed and reading verse after verse before finally turning out the light.
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold.
William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918