Tu B’Shevat celebrates fruitful new year

Ellie S. Grossman

Following the jam-packed, festive December holidays, the dreary months of January and February are a let down for some people. I don’t understand those sourpusses. I actually look forward to packing away the dreidels, menorahs, snowman decorations, and lighted garlands that collect dust on my fireplace mantle for a month straight.

Besides, there’s no such thing as down time for Jews. We have something to celebrate all year round. In January, we rejoice in Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the trees. As the wind chill currently dips into the teens, Tu B’Shevat is supposed to be the day when we think spring. After all, the almond trees are beginning to bloom in Israel, and Jews around the world honor their homeland as we eat the delicious, rich foods native to the country. When we nibble on figs, olives, pomegranates, almonds, honey, carob, oranges, avocados, bananas, and kiwis, we pray for a fruitful and bountiful year.

The name Tu comes from the Hebrew letters tet and vav, which are the number equivalents that add up to 15. The name of the holiday means the fifteenth of the month of Shevat, a date that falls on Jan. 22 this year.

A fun way to celebrate Tu B’Shevat is to have a taste testing party. Blindfold members of your family and let them try to guess what kind of fruit they’re eating. Have plenty of leftover cocktail napkins on hand for picky eaters.

In addition to sampling all kinds of native Israeli delicacies, we are supposed to drink the traditional four glasses of wine. The first glass is white wine, representing winter. Then the second cup is a blush wine made by mixing some red wine and white. The third cup is darker still with half white and half red wine. The last glass is the darkest red, containing only a drop of white wine and symbolizing the changing seasons. For kids, you can use combinations of white grape juice, apple juice, and cranberry juice.

Before each cup of wine is drunk, celebrants recite: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech ha’olam boray p’ree ha-gafen. “You abound in Blessings, Adonai Our God. You create the fruit of the vine.”

If you want to go all out, you can prepare a Tu B’Shevat Seder. This banquet includes several courses made up of different kinds of fruit and nuts: fruit without shells, (figs, grapes, apples); fruit with pits that are not edible (olives, dates); and fruit with an outer shell that was discarded before eating (coconut. pomegranate, almonds). This holiday is a vegetarian’s delight — no brisket in sight!

When the custom of a Tu B’Shevat seder first originated among the mystics of 16th century Tsfat (Safed) in the north of Israel, participants would study biblical passages, tractates of the Talmud, mystical writings, and rabbinic commentaries that dealt with fruits, plants, trees, or similar relevant subjects. For dessert, they danced in the fields.

Finally, no Jewish holiday is complete without trying a new recipe using specialty foods from Israel. Here’s one of my favorites:

Date Nut Cookies

One pound pecans, cut up

One pound dates, chopped and pitted

One can sweetened condensed milk

Mix ingredients together. Let set a few minutes. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. These cookies are very sticky, so use cooking spray on top of paper as well. Drop spoonfuls of the mixture on the cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Let cool a few minutes. Carefully remove cookies from baking sheet.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Currently, she is obsessing over the custom postage stamps for her son’s bar mitzvah invitations, so please feel free to send any advice to: [email protected] or visit her website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.