Celebrating the birthday of the trees

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Hampton - posted Tue., Jan. 15, 2013
Merle Potchinsky helps Hudson and Michael measure the distance around a tree. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Merle Potchinsky helps Hudson and Michael measure the distance around a tree. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Tu B’Shvat is the Jewish New Year for trees. “Some liken it to the Jewish Arbor Day but with interesting historical links to ancient agricultural taxation, Jewish mysticism, early Zionism and environmentalism,” said Willimantic resident Merle Potchinsky on her blog, entitled “Humble Beginnings: Simply Jewish Parenting and Practice.” Potchinsky conducts programs for young children, in connection with Temple Bnai Israel in Willimantic, that help to educate and inform about Jewish holidays. On Jan. 13, she appeared at the Goodwin Forest education center in Hampton to teach about Tu B’Shvat. As a parent with a belief in nurturing a love of nature in our children, Potchinsky said that Tu B’Shvat was a personal favorite among the Jewish holidays.

Potchinsky opened the program by having children put together a large puzzle featuring a tree. Then, it was time to go outside and take a look around. Potchinsky had the children counting trees, noticing differences between their characteristics, measuring their circumference with their arms and identifying veins in leaves.

Then, it was time to go inside, wash hands, remove shoes and coats, and sit down to partake of some of the bounty that trees provide. There were a variety of different nuts, including Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds and pecans. There were fruits including bananas, oranges, apples, pears, dates and figs. There were a variety of olives. There was even a pomegranate, which none of the children seemed to recognize. The pomegranate is significant, said Potchinsky, as one of the seven species of agriculture mentioned in the Bible. The other six are olives, grapes, dates, barley, wheat and figs.

After singing a Hebrew blessing, Potchinsky allowed the children to taste the fruits of the trees - an activity in which they participated with gusto. Then, after checking with parents, she brought out homemade cupcakes and had the children sing “Happy Birthday,” in Hebrew, to the trees.

As the children bundled up to go home, Potchinsky explained that the observance of Tu B’Shvat had evolved over the years. In the Bible, fruit trees are revered as symbols of God’s bounty and beneficence. “Special laws were formulated to protect fruit trees in times of war and ensure that the produce of trees would not be picked until the trees were mature enough and tithes were given from them,” according to the website myjewishlearning.com.  “In order to calculate the age of trees, both for determining when they could be harvested and when they were to be tithed for the Temple, the Talmudic Rabbis established the 15th day (Tu) of the month of Shvat as the official ‘birthday’ of trees.”

“The holiday goes back to Israel’s agricultural roots,” said Potchinsky. “It goes back to the respect for the trees and the land that allowed the people of Israel to make a living and feed their families.” In modern North America, the holiday has evolved into a day for showing respect for nature. “It is often celebrated by planting saplings and also by participating in a seder-meal that echoes the Passover seder, in which the produce of trees, including fruits and nuts, are eaten,” reads the website.

Potchinsky will be facilitating a workshop at the Ballard Institute on Feb. 19, at 3:30 p.m., where children will have the opportunity to make masks for Purim, a Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from destruction in the wake of a plot by Haman.

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