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Tu B'Shvat in the Other Promised Land

By Liore Milgrom-Elcott

SAN FRANCISCO (Feb. 8, 2012) — Tu B’Shvat last year was freezing. Where I lived in New York, there was snow on the ground and the only things blooming were indoor plants tricked by artificial heat and light. But I’ve since moved and here the trees follow our holiday calendar like clockwork. As one would expect with Tu B’Shvat, almond trees are blooming by the farms and ornamental plums here in town have all just started to bloom. Streets are lined with beautiful purple-pink flowers and I’m amazed. And weeks before Sukkot, etrogim (known by the farmers as citrons) emerged at my local farmers’ markets.

All this is true without my having to spend a shekel or having to cash in on a free one-way ticket on El Al. Though I did return to the land of my (literal) origin, my move was to California, not Israel. So what does it mean to live in a place where the study of Jewish agricultural tradition and the Jewish calendar is the same as local geography — a place that so closely resembles the landscape, climate and seasons of Israel? 

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibit “California Dreaming,” I learned that I was not the first to ask this question. Indeed, the first pioneer Jewish settlers in San Francisco noticed these similarities and came to call Northern California and all its wonders the contemporary Promised Land. This idea was, and remains to be, encapsulated by a stained-glass window in Sherith Israel’s sanctuary. It represents the traditional scene of Moses with the Ten Commandments, but instead of a rendering of Mt. Sinai, Moses is descending from Half Dome and El Capitan — the famous granite peaks of California's Yosemite National Park.   

Though I and the first California chalutzim asked similar questions, I have come to a different conclusion — one of reinforcement, not replacement. The geographical similarities and natural bounty of my people’s home and my own new home thrill me. I have never before shopped for a Tu B’Shvat seder — getting dates, raisins, fresh pomegranates, almonds, olives — exclusively at my farmers’ market. Nevertheless, the wonders of a shared agricultural system are no replacement for the Land of Israel. So this year on Tu B’Shvat, as I enjoy the warmth in the air, blossoms on the trees and local fruits on my seder plate, I hope to pleasure in the bounty of my adopted home, while remembering the bounty the Land of Israel has given to the Jewish people for millennia. 



Liore Milgrom-Elcott is a former member of the board of directors of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




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