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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Seeking Essence

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Tatiana Schreiber visits with some people in a Vermont Jewish community celebrating the annual mid-winter holiday of Tu B'Shvat. The holiday reminds people of their inner connections to nature through songs, symbols and a tradition of tree plantings.


CURWOOD: Winter might seem interminable right about now, but nature's gears are turning relentlessly toward spring. Already the days are noticeably longer and the sap is starting to flow. There's a date on the Jewish calendar to mark the first stirrings of renewal in the middle of the bleakest season. It's called Tu B'Shvat, The New Year of the Trees, and it's celebrated this year on February 5th. It's been a minor event for years, but many Jewish people concerned about the environment are embracing it as a way to integrate their religious heritage with their work to heal the earth. Tatiana Schreiber explains.

GIRL: Climb them?

GOULD: You can climb trees, they're great to climb. What else? Ely?

ELY: You get paper from them.

GOULD: That's true, I forgot that. We do get paper from wood.

SCHREIBER: Jackie Gould teaches here at the Brattleboro area Jewish Community Center in southeastern Vermont. She's always loved trees and the outdoors. That's one of the reasons she moved to the Green Mountain State from San Francisco in the late 70s. It was then that she was able to join her respect for the natural world with her strong Jewish identity.

GOULD: (Sings in Hebrew)

SCHREIBER: Lo Yisa Goy is one of many songs about trees and the earth sung on Tu B'Shvat, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the moment in the Middle East when sap starts to flow in the trees and a new cycle of growth begins. Once a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, American Jews in the last 20 years have revitalized the event with special meals, songs, tree planting ceremonies, and discussions about what Gould calls the deeper meaning of the human relationship to nature.

GOULD: The Torah itself is called Ats Hiim, or Tree of Life. And there is a phrase that says it is a tree of life to those who cling to it. And there are Midrash -- Midrash are the stories between the stories -- it's not interpreting what's there, it's kind of interpreting what's missing. And there's a Midrash that there's a tree growing down from Heaven and a tree growing from Earth, and in the middle they meet. And we have to figure that out, how to figure out that mingling place where the trees meet. So Tu B'Shvat has become really special for me. It's also fun because the foods are so yummy.

KITTY: ...You don't eat the outside. You do eat the outside and you don't eat the inside. Then you have something like nuts where you don't eat the outside and you do eat the inside. Then you have something...

SCHREIBER: In Brattleboro, Vermont, Rabbi Noah Kitty is meeting with members of the congregation to plan the upcoming Tu B'Schvat seder.

KITTY: Then there's carob, which is a traditional fruit where you eat the outside and the inside but you don't eat the seeds.

SCHREIBER: The meal revolves around all kinds of fruits and nuts, and the drinking of wine ranging from white to white with a drop of red to red with a drop of white, and then finally all red. The foods and wine correspond to Jewish mystical tradition concerning how the world was created, relationships among people, and four levels of holiness: action, feeling, understanding, and essence, or spirit.

GOULD: The fun is debating them, of course.

SCHREIBER: Jackie Gould is gearing up for this year's Tu B'Shvat.

GOULD: And then the final level is essence, which some people say there is no fruit or food that goes with essence. And some people say it's music, and other people say it's perfume scented things. Essence. And in Vermont, we say it's maple syrup, and it smells so good, and it's the essence of the tree, it's from the sap, the rising sap. So I always love that on this table is a bowl of maple syrup in Vermont. Tu B'Shvat seders, I don't know if they do that anywhere else.

SCHREIBER: Part of all Jewish tradition is this process of questioning, debate, and interpretation. And Tu B'Shvat, according to Arthur Wascow, is one of the best arenas to debate what it means to be a good shepherd or a good steward of the land.

WASCOW: One of the real pieces of wisdom, I think, of Jewish tradition in fact is really a wisdom of the Hebrew language, is the relationship between 2 words: adam, which means human being, and adamah, which means the earth.

SCHREIBER: Arthur Wascow is a leader in the Jewish renewal movement, which aims to apply religious tradition in meaningful ways in daily life.

WASCOW: Even the word environment is really a kind of false indicator, because environment means what's out there. Right? What's around me. But adam and adamah says listen, it ain't around me, it's inside me, and I am inside it. We are intertwined. We're not identical, but we're intertwined in a very profound way.

SCHREIBER: This idea is catching on in many Jewish communities. The group Shomrai Adamah, or Protectors of the Earth, is a Jewish environmental group that's been developing nature-based Jewish educational resources for both adults and kids, and the Shalom Center, which Arthur Wascow directs, is working on what it calls the Eco-Kosher Project. The center has begun urging Jews to make conscious decisions about their use of paper, energy, and food.

WASCOW: What happens when you live in a generation when human beings don't just eat food any more? Nowadays human beings also eat coal and oil and electric power and paper and the chemicals that we combine to make plastics. So you can say we're eating many more things than food. So is there a kosher way to eat coal and oil and electric power? Is electric power that comes from a nuclear power plant, is that kosher electric power?

SCHREIBER: But for Wascow and others who are observing Tu B'Shvat this winter, the holiday has more than environmental and political meanings. It's also a celebration of warmth, renewal, and hope that in a time of darkness and cold, spring will in fact arrive. Jackie Gould is gearing up for this year's Tu B'Shvat, practicing a song she says is perfect for Jews in Vermont: the Green Mountain State.

GOULD: It's called Esa Ey-Niah, or I Lift Up My Eyes. "I lift up my eyes unto the mountains from whence, from whence will my help come? I lift up my eyes unto the mountains from whence, from whence will my help come?" (Sings in Hebrew)

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Brattleboro, Vermont.



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