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By JOANNE SEIFF When I was in graduate school in North Carolina, our garden had an enormous camellia tree. In February, around Tu B’Shvat, it started to think about flowering.

By the end of February, we saw the first daffodils and enormous camellia blooms. It wasn’t hard to imagine that it was time to plant trees in Israel; it was Tu B’Shvat.
It’s harder to make that connection in Winnipeg. Last year, as my preschoolers talked about the seedlings they had started at school, I wondered how I would get the plants home and inside without freezing. I worried that they wouldn’t make it from the car to the house. Those seedlings made it inside but died from lack of sunshine long before it was time to plant the garden. It was just a plant or two, but it sort of summed up part of the paradox of being a Jew living in the diaspora.

Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, is the Jewish equivalent of Arbor Day. It isn’t a big deal in the great scheme of things on the Jewish calendar. Shabbat is more important, of course. However, if you’re a gardener and a person who thinks a lot about weather and the seasons, it’s hard to blow off entirely. Plus, there are good tie-ins for a thinking Jew. The popular one is an environmental connection. If we care about the earth, Jewish tradition offers us holidays that show Jews have always had ways to remember planting and harvest.
Mystics in Safed focused on the transformational nature of the four seasons on this holiday. This can be deep and meaningful…or not. As a university student, I held a rocking Tu B’Shvat seder in my dorm room. Four bottles of wine changing from white to red, a mystical seder filled with fruit and nuts…my friends and I had a great time. So momentous was our Saturday night mystical experience that I had an enormous hangover when I went to teach religious school the next morning. My nine year old students knew it was serious when I couldn’t bear to eat snack!

So, how to make this meaningful in Winnipeg? Well, I focus on the chance to think about starting again, change, blossoming, and thinking about other, warmer climates. Every year, we get to start over multiple times with different New Years. This is one of the less famous ones. In terms of agriculture, it’s a chance to pour over the seed catalogs. Since I can’t plant outside, I think about what beans and peas we’ll plant in our garden in June. What will we change? What can we depend on to blossom and grow in our short growing season?
In a bigger sense, living outside of Israel teaches us to be in two places at once. In services, we pray for rain in Israel. We pray for heads of state, for peace, for all Jewish people and for everyone in the world. It requires us to empathize with others and their needs. Tu B’Shvat is a chance to make that leap. Geographically, our environment differs enormously from Israel’s. A rabbi or teacher may ask us to connect to Israel, empathize with Israelis and their climate in this context. That’s a good idea, but it’s not the only thing I’d like to pursue. I also try to work closer to home.
Take this notion of trying to be here and to imagine another place to reach out to others - at the same time. How can we manage our own lives (or our harsh winter climate) and also, remember to empathize with others? This can be a real humdinger.

Ahavat Yisrael (Loving fellow Jews) and – more generally - loving others is great in theory, but sometimes hard in practice. It’s stopping to see if I can hold the preschool door for another kid and his parent or shoveling someone’s walk after a snowstorm. It’s asking if somebody has a place to go for a hot holiday meal or warm enough clothes. It’s wondering how I can manage more to make someone feel welcome or help them realize I value them.
This is where the mystical transformation comes in. The trees in my yard are dormant…but this minor holiday offers a chance to work on nurturing. How can I reach out to help someone else blossom? How can I change my already packed schedule to include more positive interactions with others?
Sure, Tu B’Shvat is about trees, but Judaism can ultimately be about people, wherever we live. Maybe this is yet another opportunity to transform. I won’t lie, my life is jam packed – two three year olds, a husband, two bird dogs, a household and even a small amount of time to work. I’m sure you’re busy too. However, maybe our best Jewish selves are the ones who can be in two places at once, making positive change…one tree at a time.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and the mom of twin preschoolers. See more of her work on her blog: www.joanneseiff.blogspot.com or at http://www.ravelry.com/designers/joanne-seiff.