The Tu B’Shevat of My Youth

On May 12, 1944. I made my debut upon the stage of life at Israel Zion Hospital (now Brookdale Hospital) in Brooklyn. In a week I was home, my first home being the spare bedroom at my grandparent’s apartment. With little space, there was no room for a crib. I found comfort and peace in a dresser drawer.

In short order my parents and I moved to the home my family would occupy for nearly 17 years. A one-bedroom apartment “to the back”, which in Brooklyneze means all our windows opened upon a dark alley that separated us from the adjacent apartment building. So dim was our apartment we, of necessity, would leave the kitchen light on during the day.

We lived on the third floor in a four floor walk up. Looking out our windows, our alley was festooned with clothes lines. The cacophony of sound, radios and some televisions turned up just a bit too loud, the melodious and gentle voices of my fellow Brooklynites, provided a world devoid of silence.

Soon I was joined by my two brothers Ken and Mark. We were given the bedroom and my parents slept in the living room on a high rise bed. It was tight quarters with no privacy. With only two closets, our doorways were draped with our clothing. Space was at such a premium, that, when I went to bed, I did not have the luxury of responding to nature’s call. as it would have meant climbing over my sleeping brothers. My bed was by the window, the bedroom door was on the opposite end of the room.

During the summer months, the landlord provided wooden louvered doors for the apartment doors. This would allow us to open a window in the hall opposite our apartment door to receive some semblance of relief from the intense heat. My two brothers and I along with my Dad would sleep in our underwear on the linoleum covered floor just inside the doorway. In the morning, my mother would literally mop up the puddles of sweat we shed during the night. I have only bleak memories of our all too cramped abode.

Yet there were two times during the year when these dismal surroundings took on a special glow. The first was Hanukkah. Placing our tin Hanukkiah in the window, lighting our orange candles, their glow in our darkened kitchen brought a warm and festive feeling into our home.

And then there was Tu B’Shevat. As far as I could tell, we were the only family on the block who took Tu B’Shevat seriously. No doubt this was due to the fact that my mother in her youth was an active member of Young Judea and an an avid Zionist. In fact, she was involved in gun running, smuggling guns to the Palmach. Israel always had a special place in our family’s life.

Tu B’Shevat was preceded by all the students in Talmud Torah vying for prizes given to those who, by selling Jewish National Fund tags, raised funds to plant trees in Israel. On the wall in our classroom was a large tree and upon the sale of one booklet a leaf was placed upon it. I remember it as a real competition taken most seriously by my classmates.

On the day of Tu B’Shevat, my brother Ken and I would return home from school to find a plate on our kitchen table. Figs, dates, prunes and of course, St. John’s bread, bukser, dried careb, filled the plate. My mother would as well. purchase “shoe leather” dried rolled apricot as a special treat. Each of us was given a piece which we would treasure.

My mother would explain that dried, hard, tasteless fruit, the carob, was in fact a juicy and delectable morsel when it first was plucked from the tree in Israel.

In my mind I was transported to a lush paradise. A world in which orchards abound, vineyards, with full vines drooping from the weight of large clusters of sweet, luscious grapes, a world in which the sun is ever bright and the air has a sweet delicious aroma – Israel. The walls of our dark and crowded apartment faded away. In that moment when I munched upon the carob, ate the figs and prunes and slowly and deliberately took small morsels of the apricot “shoe leather” savoring its taste, I could see Joshua and Caleb giving their report to Moses. “They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. (Numbers 13:27) And there I was, eating that very fruit.

More often than not in today’s tumultuous climate in the Middle East we forget that “land flowing of milk and honey” and allow ourselves to immerse our thoughts in the frustrating politics of the Middle East. We forget that for our ancient forebears, Israel was to be their special paradise on earth. Tu B’Shevat affords us a moment to reflect upon that paradise reborn in our lifetimes. Few who visit Israel today are not taken by the profusion of the beauty of its nature, nurtured on that holy soil by Jewish hands. Our Sages remind us, “The land is good for the People and the People are good for the land” Gardens filled with flowers, magnificent orchards and vineyards, lush forests, a land whose exports of bulbs is only second to that of Holland, this is the Israel we dreamed of for so many centuries.

The romance of the land and our People reborn seems forgotten by the world and sadly by our fellow Jews as well. Therefore may I suggest that this Tu B’Shevat you make it a point to bring the bounty of our Israel into your home. Take a moment to eat a fig or a date or a prune, perhaps bite down on a hard piece of Boksur, and remember the LAND of Israel so precious to our People for thousands of years. And as you dream of its beauty and its majesty, its sun drenched hills, offer a prayer that Israel will one day live in peace with its neighbors allowing it the opportunity to fully share it brilliance in agriculture and farming with the world as never before teaching its technology to the world and by so doing literally feed the world’s starving millions. For the true blessing of Israel is not merely for the Jewish People alone. Standing at the apex of creation, Israel is a beacon of prosperity and peace for the world embracing every human being with a nurturing love which cares for both the physical and spiritual wellbeing of humanity. “For out of Zion goes forth the Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.”

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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