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Tu B’Shvat in Israel is a Time for Rebirth

24 Jan Posted by | Comments
AZM Tu B'shvat in Israel

When I was a kid, Tu B’Shevat meant coming home from Hebrew School with a bag of fruits from Israel. It contained things that I’d never tasted before – dates, figs, bokser (carob tree pods); and, as a kid, those were things that I often hoped to never taste again. I still remember the time that a teacher told us that bokser tasted best if put in the toaster. The horrible smell in our home that night became a story that my family would not soon forget.

For many of us, our first perceptions of Israel would come from a sensory picture painted for us of its nourishment and taste, a description of Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey. Even before we had an opportunity to visit Israel – or if we’ve never been so blessed – those words from Exodus gave us a sense of the fulfillment and sweetness of the Holy Land.

Indeed, I would imagine that most of us have drunk milk and eaten honey, milk and honey that we assume is the same as was described in the Torah.

But the milk and honey referenced in our sacred texts are not cow’s milk and bee’s honey. The milk is goat’s milk, and certainly that’s something many of us have tasted, albeit don’t drink regularly. But the honey is something that none of us have ever tasted. Not bee’s honey, but date honey. Not just any date honey, but the honey rendered from the native Judaean date.

And how do I know that no one reading this post has ever tasted native Judaean date honey? I know because the native Judaean date palm is a species that has been extinct for thousands of years.

Of course, there are many date palms in Israel, but those are all species native to other parts of the world (including North America ).

So not only do I know as a certainty that no one reading this post has ever tasted the honey used in the Torah to describe the sweetness of the land of Israel, but it would be a logical conclusion that no one reading this post will ever be able to taste such honey…unless there was some kind of crazy, Jurassic Park type story.

Indeed, there is a crazy, Jurassic Park type story.

A number of years ago, during excavations on Masada, a clay pot was discovered that held some very, very old seeds. Those seeds were passed from one hand to another until they got into the very learned hands of Dr. Elaine Solowey, Director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the ground-breaking Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev.

Dr. Solowey, after asking herself “What am I going to do with two-thousand year old seeds?” developed some ideas, applied them, and lo and behold one of the seeds germinated, one of the oldest seeds ever to sprout, and out of that tiny container grew a native Judaean date palm.

JudeanDatePalmMethuselahWithSign.JPG

The date palm was named “Methusaleh,” and then the waiting game came to find out if Methusaleh was a male or female tree. (Apparently, one can’t just look under one of the branches to find out.) If Methusaleh were a female, she would bear fruit, and, for the first time in two thousand years, we would again be able to taste the native Judaean date honey used to describe Israel’s sweetness.

As it turns out, Methusaleh is a boy. But not deterred, Dr. Solowey is germinating other date palms with the intent to mate them with Methusaleh and eventually create an orchard of ancient date trees, giving Israel the opportunity to flow not only with goat’s milk but also with sweet Judaean date honey once again.

Indeed, the land of Israel, as much as ever, is a land of fulfillment, sweetness, and agricultural magic.

And Tu B’Shevat can honor not only the birthday of the trees, but – in the case of the native Judaean date palm – their re-birth, as well.

Happy Tu B’Shevat.

David Weisberg, a member of the national board of the American Zionist Movement representing Aytzim, is a 20-year senior executive for Jewish organizations.  He was most recently CEO of Hazon, North America’s largest Jewish environmental organization, and has previously led the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, Friends of the Arava Institute, and the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Center of Greater Harrisburg.

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