When I was a girl, I spent many weekends at my grandmother’s house. She had a HUGE walnut tree in the center of her backyard. The neighborhood kids and my siblings and I, like most children, used sheets, blankets, benches and the like to create tents, tunnels and fortresses under the branches of that tree. From there we would enter the fantastic worlds of our imagination, gathering food for our children (i.e. walnuts for the dolls), walking through the desert (i.e. my grandmother’s cactus garden) or searching for magic globes (i.e. fruit from her avocado tree). The walnut tree was the starting point of every journey and the center of most of our larger family gatherings.
Trees were the first living things God created on Earth. God separates the Light from Darkness, goes on to create the Sky, the Earth and Seas, and then: “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with seed in it.” (Genesis 1:11)
In fact, the entire Jewish Environmental Protection Plan—“Do Not Waste/Bal Tashchit”—derives from one sentence in Torah regarding trees: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
No wonder trees are held in such high regard in Judaism. This respect continues with the holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat), known as “The Birthday of the Trees.” While this is the time of year (in Israel) when farmers determine the age of their fruit trees to know if the fruit can be harvested for market, Tu Bishvat is now the occasion to focus on a world facing global warming, climate change, habitat destruction and a plethora of other environmental problems.
Today, in communities all over the world, innumerable activities and events from seders to Green Picnics to Tree Planting are organized to make sure young and old get involved in celebrating “The Birthday of the Trees.” Look online or in your local paper for a place to celebrate, or go to a nearby nursery and find a tree to plant in your own back yard. Me? I’m going to the National Arboretum to wish Happy Birthday to a walnut tree.
The best part of Tu Bishvat for me is some of the wonderful new books that come out each year about trees, ecology and taking care of the earth. Here are few of my favorites:
Dear Tree by Doba Rivka Weber. Illustrated by Phyllis Saroff. ©2010. Hachai Publishing. Ages 3-8.
The foremost publisher of Orthodox Jewish children’s books has provided an exquisite Tu Bishvat book in which a young boy writes a heartfelt birthday letter to his tree, filled with wishes for all the best things for the year ahead. While terms like Hashem (a name for God) and the boy’s very traditional clothing may be a bit unfamiliar, the gorgeous illustrations and the loving feelings of the boy for his tree are universal.
Happy Birthday, Tree! A Tu B’Shevat Story by Madelyn Rosenberg. Illustrated by Jana Christy.
©2012. Albert Whitman & Company. Ages 4-9.
Joni wants to celebrate Tu Bishvat with her favorite climbing tree. After all, it is the tree’s birthday. However, no matter what she tries—singing “Happy Birthday,” watering, making dirt cupcakes—nothing seems to make her tree happy. With help from her friend, Nate, Joni at last comes up with a perfect gift: a promise to be good to her tree and all the trees of the world.
Netta and Her Plant by Ellie B. Gellman. Illustrated by Natascia Ugliano.
©2014. Kar-Ben Publishing. Ages 4-8.
Part Tu Bishvat, part coping with change book, this charming story based in Israel starts with Netta receiving a small plant at her pre-school on Tu Bishvat. As Netta and her plant grow, Netta is cared for by her parents, the plant by Netta. As Netta outgrows beds, moves to a new home and a new school, her plant must move to bigger and bigger pots. As Netta reassures her plant that “It will be OK,” new friends are made and a Tu Bishvat celebration insures that all is well.
Picture a Tree Written and Illustrated By Barbara Reid.
©2013. Albert Whitman & Company.
Using her trademark polymer clay illustrations, Ms. Reid enables us to see the trees—and the world—around us in myriad ways. Through all the seasons of the year, you will look at trees differently after reading this beautiful book.
View the trailer for Picture a Tree:
A Tree for Emmy by Mary Ann Rodman. Illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss.
©2009. Peachtree Publishers. Ages 5-9.
Emmy wants to plant a tree for her birthday, but not just any tree. Emmy wants a Mimosa tree like the one growing in her grandma’s backyard—the one with the pretty pink flowers. Unfortunately, Mimosa trees are considered weeds by everyone else, and no one sells them for planting. What will Emmy do to get her birthday wish?