As I wend my way through the colorful, well-stocked supermarket aisles, my mind meanders through orchards and fields and trees. It's that time of year again; Tu B'Shvat has arrived.
In the Midwest U.S.A. where I grew up, Tu B'Shvat was an anomaly. It always came in the wrong season, in the midst of winter, often with freezing sleet and icy snow. It was a long-distance holiday whose purpose was to remind us that we were on the wrong continent, in the wrong country; that far away in the Land of Israel, spring was on its way; the sap was rising in the trees; and G-d was blessing the produce of His Land for the next agricultural year. Tu B'Shvat reminded us that our calendar, our laws, our lives were intrinsically bound up with His Land, not with the place where we happened to live.
Perhaps that was the reason I loved Tu B'Shvat, even though there was nothing much to mark the day besides the dry, hard, brown and tasteless bokser the fruit of the carob tree, they gave us in school.
I never ate that carob fruit, but it left its mark nonetheless. It imprinted Eretz Yisrael, the Holy Land, on my mind and in my soul. Even today, many years later, carob immediately conjures up visions of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who hid from the Romans in a cave in the Galilee for twelve years and survived on carob fruit; and it transports me in true flying carpet fashion to the Upper Galilee. I see Tzefas (Safed), ancient burial caves of Talmudic rabbis, mountainous villages and most of all, trees dainty, silver-coated leaves on gnarled olive trees; dark, hand-shaped leaves on spreading fig trees, and the stately, canopied carob. In my mind, they are all intertwined: Eretz Yisrael, Tu B'Shvat and trees.
A tree is a tree is a tree, but each is a distinct, unique creation, and every one is a wonder to behold, a miraculous piece of engineering, a powerhouse of energy, a balm for the soul. All growing things are miraculous tiny buds poking through bare, brittle branches; acres of golden wheat and lush grasses; fields of wildflowers or the profusion of red poppies in the spring, or violet bougainvillea draped over a garden wall or fence. But trees reach up to the sky and give wings to my soul.
Plants in general never fail to amaze me. Leaves inhale sunlight from a source millions of lights years away; roots ingest water and inert minerals from the soil; and somehow, somewhere, in intricate connections we can only begin to fathom, energy and matter are transformed into living, mind-boggling works of art which sustain our lives. The Divine Spark which makes inanimate things live and grow and multiply, is a wonder indeed (which makes me wonder how I can mindlessly mumble a blessing on food countless times a day without mustering the proper concentration).
Even more wondrous is the Divine Force at work in Eretz Yisrael. How can we possibly explain or understand that the soil of the Holy Land (which may have the exact same mineral composition as soil in other lands) nonetheless produces a different fruit? That a grape grown in Chevron or in Zichron Yaakov is inherently different from a grape grown in California or France? That in some intangible way, these fruit not only sustain our bodies, but nourish our souls? That an additional measure of G-d's Divine Essence is given to us through the venue of the fruits of His Land?
On second thought, perhaps it is not so difficult to imagine after all. Food is the connecting link between body and soul. Without food, life ceases and the soul departs. But Jewish souls require a distinct type of food (that's what kashrus [kosher observance] is all about.) So why shouldn't they receive extra "nourishment" from their own special brand of Eretz Yisrael soul-food?
Such are the exalted thoughts that fill my mind as I fill my supermarket wagon. There is no doubt that living in the Holy Land adds a philosophical dimension to shopping.
But it's time to descend from my celestial orbit and reenter my earthly domain. I have one more stop to make, and an "earthy" one at that. I still don't have my Tu B'Shvat fruit.
So I drive across town to Chananya a store in the Bukhari Quarter of Jerusalem. There, Chananya sells dried fruits, nuts, seeds, pods, peels, spices and all sorts of exotic products I cannot identify. Everything is stored in burlap bags, glass jars and open wooden boxes and sold by weight. The scents wafting through the air are heady, intoxicating. They conjure up images of caravans, spice-mountains, the Queen of Sheba, and the ketores the incense used in the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple).
It was at Chanaya's that I first saw fresh carob fruit, not the hard, dried kind I remember from my childhood. These carobs were soft, sweet and chewy, dripping with carob honey. Chananya sells fresh dates and figs, too really fresh, straight from the tree full of thick honey (biblical devash refers to honey from dates, not bees.) I never tasted such dates, and I never liked figs, not until I met up with the genuine article in Chananya's store.
The store is always filled with people and I am always filled with wonder. What do they do with all those things they buy? I ask around. The elderly ladies of Sefardi extraction are the best source of information. They use these seeds, herbs, roots, nuts and leaves for food, spices, soups and medicines, for beauty concoctions, for Sabbath and Yom Tov delights, for every conceivable (and some not-so-conceivable) purpose. (All I ever use is pepper, salt, paprika and cinnamon, plus a little garlic since I married into a Hungarian family.)
Chananya's is definitely a Tu B'Shvat store and I am definitely delighted with my purchases and the morning's culinary guide. It has been an Eretz Yisrael-Tu B'Shvat experience par excellence.
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JWR contributor Yaffa Ganz is the award-winning author of more than forty titles, including "A Different Dimension", from which this essay was adapted.
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