Writing at Tablet Magazine, Jenna Weissman Joselit shares with us how this year’s celebration of the Jewish New Year of the Trees, or Tu B’Shvat, incorporates old and new traditions.
The consumption of products grown in the Holy Land is the centerpiece of the holiday. Once upon a time, this meant dried apricots, figs, dates, and a brown, barklike substance called bokser. That unfamiliar item, which gave one’s teeth quite a workout, together with other dried fruits that gave new meaning to desiccation, came in an equally unattractive brown paper bag: hardly an effective way to forge long-lasting ties to the State of Israel. Not until many years later, when I became a devotee of my local health food store, did I learn that bokser had another name and another association: Known in those quarters as a carob pod, it’s thought to be both tasty and good for you. But that was still to come. When, as a wee lass, I was given this poor excuse of a goody bag, all I could think of was “yech.”
Happily, things have changed. These days, there’s no need to lose a tooth or suppress your appetite on the 15th of Shevat. Creative cooks have developed tasty and fanciful alternatives to bokser, ranging from sprightly grain salads and persimmon-laced pastries to chocolate bark.
The ritual life of Tu B’Shevat has also changed. Years ago, its commemoration was as meager and unprepossessing as its cuisine: You’d sing a few songs, dance a few listless rounds of the hora, and symbolically plant a tree in the land of Israel. There wasn’t much to it. These days, growing numbers of American Jews hold a Tu B’Shevat Seder, which, like the more familiar Passover version (but of shorter duration), welds eating, drinking, singing, and the reading of a wide range of texts—some kabbalistic in origin, others of a more contemporary ecological bent—into a bona fide ceremonial occasion.