Jerusalem typically has winters that are cold, windy, and rainy. Although winter in Jerusalem isn’t as severe as the winters in New York, Boston, Chicago, or Minneapolis, there is something about Jerusalem that makes the rainy, windy winters feel more miserable than they actually are.
Maybe it’s the slippery stone sidewalks that run around the city. Or perhaps it’s that so many of Jerusalem’s homes are poorly insulated. It could be that we who live in Jerusalem are used to nine months of glorious weather and the brief winter months, by comparison, seem unduly harsh. Whatever the reason, it often feels like winter in Jerusalem will never end.
When it rains, I sit on the couch in our living room reading on my Kindle or checking Facebook and Instagram on my phone with our two lovable kittens balanced on my knees or purring while sitting on my shoulder. From our apartment on the third floor, I feel like I’m in a treehouse.
The boughs and branches of the large trees outside the window sway and chatter in the wind and the planters on the balcony, filled with geraniums, rosemary, and lavender, overflow with water. As winter progresses, the leaves fall onto the slick sidewalks below until only bare skeletons of branches clatter and shake in the cold wind.
Then Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat arrives and, as if on cue, the winds begin to subside. The hours of sunlight increase, the rainy, cold weather lessens, and the naked trees begin to bud.
A famous Israeli children’s song reminds us that the almond trees are the first trees to flower at the end of winter, but I have a bit of a disagreement with that. For me, the first sign of approaching spring is the kumquat trees bearing fruit just inside the gate of our building.
Magically, the kumquats have gone from mere buds to increasingly fatter fruits that take on a deep orange color when they’re ready for eating. Whenever walking in or out of my apartment building, I reach up to the highest branches and grab a couple as I walk by. Kumquats are eaten whole, and their pleasant, tart, juicy crunch is a true foreshadowing of spring.
Like the kumquats on the walkway, the holiday of Tu BiShvat acts as a preface to spring. Coming a month and a half before the spring equinox and two months before Passover, Tu BiShvat provides a glimpse of springtime at a time when winter can often be at its cruelest.
I don’t really need a calendar to remind me when Tu BiShvat is coming; here in Jerusalem, my local supermarket does that for me. Once the sufganiyot are cleared away and the Hanukkah menorahs are boxed up, the Tu BiShvat foods (usually representing the Seven Species: figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, olives, wheat, and barley) are proudly displayed.
Mountains of figs and dates appear overnight. Olives of all colors and tastes are laid out in large bins: black, green, pitted, stuffed, cracked and spiced with lemon rind: They all glisten and tempt.
Other dried fruits join the Tu BiShvat celebration: apple rings, clementine sections (my personal favorite), guava, pineapple, dried strawberries and watermelon, sticky mango, papaya, banana, black and golden yellow raisins in a variety of sizes, and kiwi (another personal favorite).
Some of these treats will be used in Tu BiShvat seders, others used in dinners or lunches celebrating this holiday. But me? I just buy the dried fruits and stock up my pantry.
Nothing is as comforting during Jerusalem winters as lying on the couch with the kittens on either side, purring deeply while I snack on local raisins and a handful of almonds, reading my Kindle as the rain coats the big picture window that looks out onto the street and the large tree.
But Tu BiShvat comes soon – and with it comes the promise of spring.