Gefen Bar-On Santor

The pastoral and the sublime on Tu B’Shvat

“Trees in Be'eri” by Carmel Harari.  Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem.  The project founder is Amit Trainin, Head of Illustration at Bezalel.
“Trees in Be'eri” by Carmel Harari. Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem. The project founder is Amit Trainin, Head of Illustration at Bezalel.

The holiday of Tu B’Shvat is often described in Israel as the birthday of the trees.  Children in Israeli schools plant trees on Tu B’Shvat to symbolize the connection to the land and the hope for growth.

This year, the birthday and reawakening of nature, when the almond tree blooms in Israel and winter begins to give way to spring, takes place on January 25, one week after another, sad birthday—the first birthday on January 18 of baby Kfir Bibas, the youngest hostage kidnapped into Gaza.  Kfir and his four-year-old brother Ariel and mother Shiri are claimed by the Hamas to be dead, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, there may still be some hope that they are alive.

Kibbutz Nir Oz, from which the Bibas family was abducted, was, like the other Kibbutzim around Gaza, a peace-loving community, despite being besieged by rockets.  In the aftermath of the murderous destruction of October 7, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem launched a project in which artists capture the productive and peace-loving beauty of the Gaza envelope region as it used to be before October 7.  Digital images of the art may be purchased for 100 NIS donation per image, with proceeds going to the “Shoresh Fund for immediate support of the Gaza Envelope citizens.”


“A Quiet Evening” by Noa Mishkin. Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem. The project founder is Amit Trainin, Head of Illustration at Bezalel.

Noa Mishkin’s “A Quiet Evening” might be imagined as depicting a community such as the one where Ariel, Kfir and other children should now be carefreely playing, exploring and enjoying their childhood.

The meandering path through the kibbutz is free of vehicles—perfect for childhood’s journey of discovery and for people of all ages to walk along.  The eye is drawn to the red roof of the house (somewhat as the eye is drawn to the red hair of Kfir and his brother Ariel).  The house is neat, small and modest.  It embodies the ideals of Zionism—simplicity and minimalism for the self and a focus on the cultivation of the land and the community.

We recently discussed this illustration in a continuing-education course that I am teaching at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa about creative responses to October 7. Together, the class sought to define the genre of the illustration.  We used the three “competing ways of looking at Nature” discussed in a University of Arizona Museum of Art resource about nineteenth-century landscape painting:

The pastoral: “celebrate[s] the dominion of mankind over nature.  The scenes are peaceful, often depicting ripe harvests, lovely gardens, manicured laws with broad vistas, and fattened livestock.  Man has developed and tamed the landscape—it yields all the necessities we need to live, as well as beauty and safety.”

The picturesque—“refers to the charm of discovering the landscape in its natural state,” the “beauty created solely by Nature,” such as sunsets, mountains or natural bodies of water.

The sublime—depicts “Nature at its most fearsome.”  Edmund Burke observed that “terror is in all cases. . . the ruling principle of the sublime.”  The sublime shows “violent passion” that emphasizes the powerlessness of humanity and “the possible folly in mankind’s overriding confidence.”

“A Quiet Evening” seems to belong to the pastoral genre.  One of the students observing the Bezalel illustrations noted the contrast between the pandemonium of tunnels destructively built by Hamas underground in Gaza on the one hand and the pastoral productivity of the Kibbutz on the other hand which, were in not for the Hamas, could have been an idyllic home for children.

Satan in Paradise Lost boasted that it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” and on October 7 its destructive forces emerged to ravage the pastoral beauty of the Kibbutzim and to murder, rape and kidnap their inhabitants.  In the minds of the terrorists, that pastoral beauty achieved through much hard work and love is a symbol of that which must not be allowed to exist—Jewish liberty and sovereignty over life and over the land.

Does the knowledge of what came to pass on October 7 make “A Quiet Evening,” created with the tragic knowledge of what was in the womb of time, sublime as well as pastoral?  Does the Hamas grotesquely hover in the background, perhaps in the dark clouds in the back of the paining?

Studied on Tu B’Shvat, Carmel Harari’s “Trees in Be’eri” (the image at the head of this posting) may in some ways be seen as a fulfillment of the promise of this holiday.  The trees, possibly planted when the Kibbutz was itself a baby, have matured and are now providing ample shade—in ironic and sublime contrast to the inability of Israel to provide protection for its citizens on October 7.  Today, the trees are there, but the people who should be enjoying the shade are murdered, kidnapped or displaced.

The modest homes in the background are waiting for their people—to walk along a peaceful path similar to that in “A Quiet evening” and return to the safety of home.  But the homes behind the trees seem rather far, somewhat out of reach—perhaps a picturesque reminder that trees may be more powerful than humans.  Humans, we are reminded on Tu B’Shvat, must plant trees so that the trees will remain standing for future generations when we are gone.

The eye might be drawn to a white object affixed to a tree in the center of the illustration.  Harari noted in an email that “the white thing is a little paper slip that some villages or cities use to mark trees in order to keep track of their growth and care (or sometimes to mark trees that are intended to get chopped down).  It’s kind of a weirdly . . . low-tech habit.”

Will Ariel and Kfir experience growth and care—or have their lives been tragically chopped down by the Hamas?

In the earlier years of Zionism, children received a card on their birthday ceremonies in kindergarten from the Jewish National Fund Land Company (KKL), which oversaw the purchase of lands for Jewish habitation and for the planting of trees.

Source for image of KKL card:
Source for image of KKL card:

On the right, the child or the teacher would be invited to fill in the information: I am ___ years old on the __ day of the month of __ in the year__.

My name is __.  My family name __.  My father’s name __.  My mother’s name__.  We live in __.  My school is ___.

[About the card that children in eretz Isreal received from the KKL during their birthday ceremonies in the kindergarten or elementary school:]

Here is a description of the card:

“This picture card consists of a blessing that is surrounded by twelve squares bearing the Hebrew names of the months, so that the whole card looks like a Hebrew calendar.  In each square, two elements of the nature of the designated months are represented as part of the flora and fauna of Eretz Israel. . . .

Culture and nature are woven into the picture.  Even in the central part showing cultivated fields and distant villages, one observes nature in its primeval sense: wild flowers, two enormous trees, flights of birds passing through the sky.

It is in this wild part of the central landscape that four parts of a printed text are found—read from right to left, as in Hebrew writing.  The first and second parts describe the child, or rather, since they are written in the first person singular, it is the child himself who presents his person.  Then there follows a poem by Bialik, the national poet:

Here is the bendiction

Which Hayyim Nahman Bialik

Sends the children of Israel:

Let God multiply you from ten thousand to

Ten thousand

Like the plants in the fields

And the wild flowers.

May you be the joy of your parents

And the glory of your land of birth (eretz moledet)

Amen and again amen.” (179-78)

Today, on Tu B’Shvat, is there hope that families will be able to return to the pastoral beauty of the yet-to-be-rebuilt kibbutzim and that children will grow up there to be sources of joy to their loved ones?

The translation of the poem and the description of the card are from Tsilli Doleve-Gandelman’s “Zionist Ideology and the Space of Eretz Yisrael: Why the Native Israeli is Called Tzabar” (in Ari Elon, Nami Mara Hyman and Arthur Waskow, Eds.  Trees, Earth and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology.  The Jewish Publication Society 2000).

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at