It is a truth universally acknowledged that it can be difficult to be Jewish at Christmas time. It has seeped into North American cultural consciousness so thoroughly that South Park even wrote a song about it, complete with trademark expletives. It seems that these days, the months of December, November, and even sometimes October are covered in pine wreaths, icicle lights, and Christmas marketing. North American Jews living in metropolitan areas with lots of other Jews might get a small Hanukkah display in their local grocery stores featuring blue decorations and gelt; for the most part, everyone else gets nothing.
Though the Christmas season can be isolating for Jews, in some ways it’s also a strong reinforcement of Jewish identity. Every time I pass a Christmas tree, I am reminded of my outsider status – but the experience is not solely a negative one. Each reminder that I am not a Christian also reminds me that I am a Jew.
On the other end of the spectrum are the holidays during which time it feels easy, at least for me, to be Jewish. The holidays of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, and even Shavuot are all associated with strong ritual tradition. On these holidays, special foods, prayers, and family gatherings all affirm Jewish identity and promote positive associations through repetition.
I get no such external reinforcement, positive or negative, at Tu BiSh’vat. Tu BiSh’vat is supposed to be an agricultural holiday and the time when biblically mandated tithes of fruit trees are determined. The almond trees are supposed to start budding as the earth awakens during the final third of the rainy season.
Being the urban-dwelling North American Jew that I am, though, I have a difficult time relating to these agricultural events. My current weather forecast tells me to expect temperatures well below freezing for next week’s Tu BiSh’vat holiday, and there’s no sign of budding trees anywhere on my very cold, snowy block. It will be months before the local farmers’ market resumes, and my personal agricultural involvement is limited to the indoor potted plants and herbs on my windowsills.
If called to rank holidays or times of year based on the ease with which I can immerse myself in Jewish ritual and identity, I would put Rosh HaShanah and Passover at the top, and Tu BiSh’vat at the bottom. Yes, even below Christmas. I find it harder to reach outside myself to find meaning in a holiday from which I am almost completely removed in my surroundings and my mentality than to shore myself up from within against a barrage of external pressure. At Christmas, the goal is to stand still so that I don’t allow myself to be pushed away from my Jewish identity. At Tu BiSh’vat, though, I must overcome internal inertia, as well as pushback from my environment, and move myself in a positive direction – toward active engagement with Judaism and the source of the food that so miraculously makes its way to my supermarket and my table.
I haven’t yet found a solution to my Tu BiSh’vat problem, but I’ll continue to try, and this year, as every year, I will do my best to celebrate Tu BiSh’vat and to feel truly connected to what I see as the most difficult of Jewish holidays. I’m open to suggestions, too, which you can share in the comments section down below. And if someone wants to write a song about how difficult it is to get in the mood for Tu BiSh’vat, I, for one, will gladly sing it to get myself into the holiday spirit.