Tu BiShvat Higia, Chag Hailanot!

Early this week on Twitter, David A. M. Wilensky asked why people get so excited about Tu BiShvat. Two rather mundane but honest answers are that for those who are into Kabbalah (and I am decidedly not one of those), it’s a moment in the spotlight for their favorite elements of Judaism, and for those who are Jewish educators (and I am decidedly one of those), it’s a holiday that fills the dead time between Hanukkah and Purim.

Personally, I could take or leave the holiday. I like fruit as much as the next guy. Strike that. I like fruit more than the next guy (as anyone familiar with my biography and tendency towards bad puns can attest). But my disinterest in Kabbalah and unease with the ways the holiday has been claimed by everyone from Zionists to Ecologists make it hard for me to get a firm grounding on what the holiday might mean to me.

However, we all know I like food. And when Tu BiShvat falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, I love the chance to build a Shabbat menu around fruit. Back in 5763 (aka 2003), when I was in my first year as a full-time Jewish educator, Tu BiShvat also fell on Shabbat. The shul where I worked had a very successful monthly community Shabbat dinner event. I asked if I could take the lead for the month when the dinner would coincide with the so-called birthday of the trees.

I was met with some skepticism. “Our congregation loves the dinners as they are. We don’t want any programming,” I was told. “Don’t worry,” I assured them. “I’m talking about menu and decorations. You won’t even know that you’re taking part in a Tu BiShvat seder.”

Kids' PlacematHaving made the bold claim, and not entirely sure how I was going to back it up, I got to work with my partner-in-crime, Robin Kahn, then the synagogue’s family educator. We bought up every mylar tree that iParty had for sale. We made up vertical seder plates with four levels, representing the four Kabbalistic spheres the seder traditionally mentions. One set of plates was filled with the expected fruits (the top level being left empty, natch). The other filled with dips like hummus and olive tapenade, because we’re classy like that — and because it gave us a second set of surfaces on the table to which we could affix labels. A third set of four bottles of soda or juice (representing the color spectrum from red to white) gave us our third canvas. The labels we places on each level, each bottle presented all the information of the seder in small, non-threatening and non-invasive chunks. (And lest you think I forgot about the שבעת המנים, the seven types of grains and fruit grown in Israel linked to the holiday, we had crackers made of barely & wheat to complement the rest of the fruits & dips on the seder plates.)

Our crowning achievement was the placemats we created. They were double-sided, with one side aimed at kids featuring a word search, a Cosmo-style “What Kind of Tree Are You?” quiz, and more. The adult side included a timeline detailing the evolution of the holiday from the time of the Second Temple though today, some text about the mitzvah of baal tashchit, and the words to the song השקדיה פורחת. No one had to look at the placemats if they weren’t interested, but to load the deck in our favor, we set the table with transparent plates and cutlery.

Placemat for Grown-UpsThe dinner was a success, both from a culinary standpoint and an educational/programmatic one. Today I printed out a new set of those placemats to use this Shabbat. It’s weird to look back at something from so early in my career — I admit to going through and changing the way I spelled the name of the holiday (thanks, BZ!) (although now I noticed I missed a spot). But I’m still proud of the work Robin and I did. And today it serves as a reminder to me that Jewish education can touch even those most resistant to it if we approach it with a little creativity and a lot of office supplies.

If you’d like to use my placemats at your Tu BiShvat table this year, feel free! here’s the adult version and here’s the one for kids.

4 Responses to “Tu BiShvat Higia, Chag Hailanot!”

  1. [...] By: David Levy, exerted from a post written for Jewschool. [...]


    Tu BiShvat Havurah Resources · January 28th, 2010 at 11:19 pm
  2. IF you’re really truly uncomfortable with Kabbalah, you’re prety much SOL, since nearly everything we do in modern Jewish ritual life has some elements of kabbalah in it, from Shabbat to tefillin…..
    There’s a great ongoing series by Rabbi Morris Faierstein in Conservative Judaism that does a nice gloss on a different topic each issue.


    Kol Ra'ash Gadol · January 29th, 2010 at 9:26 am
  3. If you read carefully, you’ll notice I describe my relationship to Kabbalah as one of disinterest, not unease. My uneasiness is with the way so many groups have tried to politicize the holiday at the expense of kids who don’t know whose messages they’re getting.


    dlevy · January 29th, 2010 at 10:12 am
  4. [...] Originally posted on Jewschool.com. [...]


    Jewschool.com: Tu BiShvat Higia, Chag Hailanot! | untitled itsdlevy project · December 28th, 2013 at 12:30 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik