Celebrating Tu B’shvat, the ‘new year for trees,’ as ethnic cleansing continues

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

I haven’t attended a religious service at Rabbi Brant Rosen’s synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, which was initially housed in a church, and worse, in of all places, a Lutheran church. Luther was a Jew-hater, and though Lutherans are now thoroughly reformed, I still can’t abide worshiping in a Lutheran space. Chalk it up to a historical consciousness that is intense and, sometimes, unforgiving.

When his congregation isn’t in their church space, they’re found in a variety of protest venues. Rabbi Rosen and his congregation are wonderfully active and the new Trump administration has only upped their activism. It goes without saying that many Jews are agnostic on matters of religious activism. The reason is simple, though perhaps counter-intuitive. Though unintended, religious activism tends to rev-up disdain for religious hypocrisy.

But here’s the deal. Rabbi Rosen’s poetic take on scripture and the holy days in the Jewish calendar, especially now in a time of Jewish empowerment, is unsettling. Taken together his poems are a devastating critique of contemporary Jewish life.

Fortunately, Rabbi Rosen avoids the New Ageism the Jewish Renewal movement took on to its detriment. If you want to dance with the Torah in your arms, go for it. But when some Jews look at the Torah, they see instead Star of David Helicopter Gunships and Israeli settler colonies. What you live, you worship. These same Jews would be remiss if they didn’t give a shout-out to the one rabbi, who at least in his poetry, approaches the difficult threshold of Jewish fidelity during the darkest time in Jewish history.

Rabbi Rosen’s latest poetic take is on Tu B’shvat, the Jewish celebration of the New Year for Trees. Most Jews know little if anything about this holiday, and to my mind, that’s okay. With the sacred intoning of the Holocaust and Israel on the wane, though, Tu B’shvat may gain a new relevance. Here’s one traditional description of the holiday:

Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of Shvat on the Jewish calendar—celebrated this year on Saturday, February 11, 2017—is the day that marks the beginning of a “new year” for trees. This is the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. We mark the day of Tu B’Shvat by eating fruit, particularly from the kinds that are singled out by the Torah in its praise of the bounty of the Holy Land: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. On this day we remember that “man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19), and reflect on the lessons we can derive from our botanical analogue.

Rabbi Rosen has another take on Tu B’Shevat’s “botanical analogue.” Instead of praise, it involves the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Rabbi Rosen doesn’t hold back. As his poem is read note the inversion that lies at the heart of contemporary Jewish history. Jews are no longer innocent; Israel is not our redemption. The trees planted in Israel, financed with donations from Jews around the world, are part of this inversion as their beauty helps disguise the ethnic cleansing Palestinians underwent during and after the birth of the Jewish state of Israel. As Jews celebrate the New Year for Trees in the coming days, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians continues.

Beneath these trees, often set off as parks for Jewish Israelis to enjoy, and all around them, the remnants of Palestinian life remain. So at the heart of Israel, in the very trees planted, the destruction of Palestine is found. Found, too, is the culpability of Jews around the world.

Rabbi Rosen’s Tu’ B’shvat poem is unforgiving. He raises the disturbing question of whether atrocity lay at the very heart of Israel and contemporary Jewish life:

The Sacred Carob Tree of Khirbat al-Lawz

Every Tu B’shvat,
on a hill just west of Jerusalem,
almond trees are blooming their white blossoms
down a rocky terraced hillside.
Stone rubble is laced here and there along its slope –
the only remaining traces of the village
they called Khirbat al-Lawz.

Not long ago this place was populated by
hundreds of villagers who grew
olives, grapes, figs and tended farms
with sheep and chickens.
On the hillside there are two springs
called Ein al-Quff that sent water
down ducts that led to a well
built into the hillside.

Generation after generation
the farmers of the region
would parcel and share this water
to grow their crops.
Every evening after work, it is said,
the men of Khirbat al-Lawz
would gather near a carob tree
in the village center
to talk, smoke, drink and sing
late into the evening.

This life vanished forever on July 14 1948,
when the Haganah occupied and expelled
the people of Khirbat al-Lawz during a military action
known as “Operation Dani.”
The villagers remained in the nearby hills
hoping to return at the end of war,
but soldiers from the Harel Brigade
forbade their return
on pain of death.

Soon after the Jewish National Fund
built a thick forest of non-indigenous
evergreens around Khirbat al-Lawz
and the neighboring village of Sataf.

Today, the JNF website tells us:
This site offers many stunning walks in nature,
where you can also see olive orchards
and agricultural plots on
ancient agricultural terraces.
The two springs that emerge
from the site serve as a reminder
of an almost vanished Hebrew culture
dating back thousands of years.
Here, as in the days of the ancient Israelites,
irrigated vegetable gardens grow
alongside vineyards, olive groves and almond orchards
that need no artificial irrigation
and color the countryside green all year round.

Hikers today will surely not notice it,
but not far from these well groomed trails
you can still find the village center of Khirbat al-Lawz.
The spot is marked by an ancient carob tree
rising out of the thorns and dead grass –
bent and tilted to the side, but still growing.

According to the Jewish sages
it takes carob trees seventy years to fully bear fruit.
When we plant them, they say,
it is not for our own sake,
but for the benefit of future generations.

So this Tu B’shvat, think of a hillside
just west of Jerusalem
where the almond trees are blooming
down a rocky terraced hillside
and a sacred carob tree grows sideways
where a village center once stood.

Then close your eyes and imagine
the wind breezing through its leaves,
whispering to future generations:
you are not forgotten,
the time will yet come
for your return.

“Whispering to future generations,” Rabbi Rosen writes. Whispering heard by Palestinians that one day they will return? By Jews? By Jews and Palestinians in solidarity with each other? By Jews, Palestinians and the world who seek freedom for the Palestinian people?

Perhaps the whispering will become an inheritance that the trees, through us, bequeath as a gift of justice and reconciliation to future generations. That is, if future generations inherit and further Rabbi Brant’s poetic prophetic voice.

More than a month into our human New Year, it is difficult to envision that future.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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25 Responses

  1. jon s
    February 9, 2017, 3:22 pm

    Regarding the quote from Deuteronomy 20:19 -“man is a tree of the field”- it ‘s better understood as a question: is a man a tree? Is a tree a man? Why should trees suffer when people go to war?
    This is the entire verse:
    “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?”
    This is Rashi’s explanation:
    “Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you]?: The word כִּי here means“perhaps:” Is the tree of the field perhaps a man who is to go into the siege by you, that it should be punished by the suffering of hunger and thirst like the people of the city? Why should you destroy it?”

    Natan Zach’s beautiful poem based on the verse does indeed remove the question mark:

    Because Man Is the Tree of the Field

    Because the man is the tree of the field;
    Like the tree the man grows up.
    Like the the man, the tree also gets uprooted,
    And I surely do not know
    where I have been and where I will be,
    like the tree of the field.
    Because the man is the tree of the field;
    Like the tree he aspires upwards.
    Like the man, he gets burnt in fire,
    And I surely do not know
    where I have been and where will I be,
    like the tree of the field.
    Because the man is the tree of the field;
    Like the tree he is thirsty to water.
    Like the man, thirsty he remains,
    And I surely do not know
    where I have been and where will I be,
    like the tree of the field.
    I’ve loved, and I’ve hated;
    I’ve tasted both this and that;
    I was buried in a plot of land;
    And it’s bitter, it’s bitter in my mouth,
    Like the tree of the field;
    Like the tree of the field.

    translated by Warren Bargad and Stanley F. Cheyt,

    • amigo
      February 9, 2017, 3:46 pm

      “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/recent-comments/#sthash.wI4qDT2Q.dpuf“Jon S

      Too bad you were not around when zionist criminals waged war against Palestinian cities and demolished circa 400 Palestinian villages (how many trees).

      Perhaps they could have avoided the necessity of planting thousands of trees to cover up their crime of trying to blot out the existance of a people and their culture.

      Your adoration of trees would be admirable were it not so ironically perverse.

    • talknic
      February 9, 2017, 5:30 pm

      Loverly poem However it’s the opposite of the scripture’s meaning. It basically asks is a tree your enemy that it should be attacked? The answer is of course, no.

      ” … for you may eat from them” I don’t think they were advocating cannibalism

      • Mooser
        February 9, 2017, 8:41 pm

        Have you ever, ever seen anybody so tone deaf? Put a sock in it’ “Jon s”

      • jon s
        February 10, 2017, 5:39 am

        talknic, Yes, that’s what I wrote, and that’s Rashi’s interpretation. Natan Zach gave the words a different twist. By the way, the poem has been put to music by Shalom Hanoch:

      • Mooser
        February 10, 2017, 12:55 pm

        Holy shit!!! My gawd, that is frightening, “Jon s”! The mohel” did a hell of a job on that poor guy.!!
        Gee, “Jon s” maybe you can enlighten me on this. Why are we compelled, when we have a male child, to slice a chunk off his dick first thing? And it’s only gotten more extreme, hasn’t it?
        What causes that, ‘”Jon s”?

    • echinococcus
      February 10, 2017, 3:41 am

      Who gives a toss about your obscurantist Zio nonsense?

      In the old civilized world, cutting an olive tree was among the very, very few crimes punishable by death. Count the millions of olive trees killed by your barbarian invader horde and tell me who among the pirates should be executed.

  2. just
    February 9, 2017, 5:06 pm

    Rabbi Brant Rosen is such a mensch and a man to be emulated, imho!

    His poem is very moving, indeed.

    One can also remember the hundreds of thousands of ancient and young Palestinian olive trees that have been destroyed by the GOI/IOF and the illegal and violent settlers this ‘Tu’ B’shvat’ and any day/month/year. It is true that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Palestine continues, as does the rape and the theft of their lives, their land, their resources, and their very lovely culture.

    (So sorry that you can’t get over your deep antipathy of his synagogue’s roots. It is, after all, only a building… I wish you luck with your journey.)

  3. jd65
    February 9, 2017, 5:29 pm

    Brant Rosen is a good man. Thanks for sharing some of his work here, Marc/MW. Rosen is a sincere person who has been, from what i can tell, somewhat fortunate in his life. And he’s doing what fortunate people w/ reasonable means should do: spend time and energy fighting the good fight to help the less fortunate. Thanks Brant/Marc.

  4. just
    February 9, 2017, 6:52 pm

    I’ll never forget this poem by Rabbi Brant from 2014:

    “This Monday night begins the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av: a day of mourning for the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. Among other things, the traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy includes the chanting Biblical book of Lamentations.

    Given the profoundly tragic events currently unfolding in Gaza, I offer this reworking of the first chapter of Lamentations. I share it with the hope that on this day of mourning we might also mourn the mounting dead in Gaza – along with what Israel has become…

    A Lamentation for Gaza

    Gaza weeps alone.
    Bombs falling without end
    her cheeks wet with tears.
    A widow abandoned
    imprisoned on all sides
    with none willing to save her.

    We who once knew oppression
    have become the oppressors.
    Those who have been pursued
    are now the pursuers.
    We have uprooted families
    from their homes, we have
    driven them deep into
    this desolate place,
    this narrow strip of exile.

    All along the roads there is mourning.
    The teeming marketplaces
    have been bombed into emptiness.
    The only sounds we hear
    are cries of pain
    sirens blaring
    drones buzzing
    bitterness echoing
    into the black vacuum
    of homes destroyed
    and dreams denied.

    We have become Gaza’s master
    leveling neighborhoods
    with the mere touch of a button
    for her transgression of resistance.
    Her children are born into captivity
    they know us only as occupiers
    enemies to be feared
    and hated.

    We have lost all
    that once was precious to us.
    This fatal attachment to our own might
    has become our downfall.
    This idolatrous veneration of the land
    has sent us wandering into
    a wilderness of our own making.

    We have robbed Gaza of
    her deepest dignity
    plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
    Her people crowd into refugee camps
    held captive by fences and buffer zones
    gunboats, mortar rounds
    and Apache missles.

    We sing of Jerusalem,
    to “a free people in their own land”
    but our song has become a mockery.
    How can we sing a song of freedom
    imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
    with our own fear and dread?

    Here we sit clinging to our illusions
    of comfort and security
    while we unleash hell on earth
    on the other side of the border.
    We sit on hillsides and cheer
    as our explosions light up the sky
    while far below, whole neighborhoods
    are reduced to rubble.

    For these things I weep:
    for the toxic fear we have unleashed
    from the dark place of our hearts
    for the endless grief
    we are inflicting
    on the people of Gaza.”

    https://rabbibrant.com/2014/08/01/for-tisha-bav-a-lamentation-for-gaza/

    It was referenced in this amazing article/action here because it was read there:

    “AFSC commemorates one year since attacks on Gaza with beach remembrance”

    See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/07/commemorates-attacks-remembrance/#sthash.uXSrnLIM.a24UbiXY.dpuf

  5. JLewisDickerson
    February 9, 2017, 11:40 pm

    RE: “The trees planted in Israel, financed with donations from Jews around the world, are part of this inversion as their beauty helps disguise the ethnic cleansing Palestinians underwent . . .” ~ Ellis

    MY COMMENT: Not to mention that the non-native trees used pose a particularly serious fire hazard and have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem.*

    * SEE: The Carmel Wildfire is burning all illusions in Israel, by Max Blumenthal, 12/07/10

    [EXCERPT] The tree was among hundreds of thousands turned to ash by the forest fire pouring across northern Israel, and which now threatens to engulf outskirts of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Over the last four days, more than 12,300 acres have burned in the Mount Carmel area, a devastating swath of destruction in a country the size of New Jersey. While the cause of the fire has not been established, it has laid bare the myths of Israel’s foundation.
    Israelis are treating the [Carmel] fire as one of their greatest tragedies in recent years. . .
    . . . [T]he JNF planted hundreds of thousands of trees over freshly destroyed Palestinian villages like al-Tira, helping to establish the Carmel National Park. An area on the south slope of Mount Carmel so closely resembled the landscape of the Swiss Alps that it was nicknamed “Little Switzerland.” Of course, the non-indigenous trees of the JNF were poorly suited to the environment in Palestine. Most of the saplings the JNF plants at a site near Jerusalem simply do not survive, and require frequent replanting. Elsewhere, needles from the pine trees have killed native plant species and wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. And as we have seen with the Carmel wildfire, the JNF’s trees go up like tinder in the dry heat. . .

    SOURCE – http://maxblumenthal.com/2010/12/the-carmel-wildfire-is-burning-all-illusions-in-israel/

  6. Kay24
    February 10, 2017, 6:03 am

    I am sure that when they speak of olive trees, they do not mean stolen ones.

  7. W.Jones
    February 19, 2017, 5:07 pm

    “worse, in of all places, a Lutheran church. Luther was a Jew-hater, and though Lutherans are now thoroughly reformed, I still can’t abide worshiping in a Lutheran space.”

    I understand what you mean, Marc.
    However, if you would like a way to deal with this fact, think of it in a pragmatic sense. The building is owned by Lutherans, but when the synagogal service is going on, it’s not a Lutheran thing. The physical space itself is the same thing as a Jewish synagogue, pews and all, except they could have a table at the front.

    • Mooser
      February 27, 2017, 11:14 am

      I have absolutely no idea why Ellis needed to write that, what on earth he thought he was accomplishing. Seems like a rather abstruse way of getting victim-cred. But damned if I know.

  8. W.Jones
    February 19, 2017, 5:11 pm

    How does one get in touch with Marc Ellis?
    Does he have a website?

  9. W.Jones
    February 25, 2017, 10:43 am

    It’s nice that M.Ellis takes up the topic of the Prophetic. I think this topic should be for dialogue and I wish he responded to the comments section more.

    For example, he has said that The Prophetic is “indigenous” to the Jewish people, not to, say, Christians.

    Interestingly, the Judaism 101 article on prophets explains:
    A prophet is not necessarily a Jew. The Talmud reports that there were prophets among the gentiles (most notably Balaam, whose story is told in Numbers 22),
    http://www.jewfaq.org/prophet.htm

    So already in the era and eyes of the Torah there were fully legitimate non-Jewish prophets indigenous in their homelands, before the Bible was spread to other nations in Christian times.

    • Keith
      February 25, 2017, 11:48 am

      W.JONES- “I think this topic should be for dialogue and I wish he responded to the comments section more.”

      With all due respect, I think you may be getting hung up on the details and missing the core message. Marc Ellis isn’t here to debate. He seems to me to primarily be making sermons advocating spirituality and moral behavior as opposed to tribal power-seeking. Of course, we may differ on the details, however, Ellis has always demonstrated a strong moral core and sense of right and wrong. And since it is a sermon (more or less), he backs away and leaves the discussion to the Mondoweiss commenters. As for a Christian Prophetic, wouldn’t that be more meaningful coming from you than from him? Surely, your comments can briefly touch upon the subject. Perhaps it would please Marc Ellis if you did so.

      • Mooser
        February 25, 2017, 5:15 pm

        “I haven’t attended a religious service at Rabbi Brant Rosen’s synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, which was initially housed in a church, and worse, in of all places, a Lutheran church. Luther was a Jew-hater, and though Lutherans are now thoroughly reformed, I still can’t abide worshiping in a Lutheran space. Chalk it up to a historical consciousness that is intense and, sometimes, unforgiving. “

        Uh, yeah, okay, if that’s what you want to call, and how you want to actualize, your “historical consciousness”, in the US of A, you go right ahead.

        What are you afraid of, the ghost of Dietrich Bonhoffer?

      • W.Jones
        February 26, 2017, 8:03 pm

        Mooser,

        Maybe it’s a ghostlike problem. For practical purposes, a Luther-owned worship building is not itself a Lutheran church service. For practical purposes, it’s the same as a synagogue during synagogue worship. The fact that it’s Lutheran owned building seems to imply a ghostlike presence left over that still lays around when the synagogue service occurs.

        Or maybe for Marc it’s like holding a Jewish or Christian service in a witches’ coven: Luther’s anti-interfaith antagonism and polemics are so blasphemous that no Dietrich Bonhoeffer can wipe Luther’s evil out from their religion.

      • W.Jones
        February 26, 2017, 8:08 pm

        Keith,
        You ask: “As for a Christian Prophetic, wouldn’t that be more meaningful coming from you than from him?”
        Sure, I can see that it would be.
        However, I am asking what the “Christian Prophetic” would be according to Judaism.
        Marc is saying that only the “Jewish Prophetic” is “indigenous”, whereas the “Christian Prophetic” is imported from Judaism. I am putting in question whether the prophetic is really only imported when it comes from gentiles, because the Torah talks about legitimate prophecy from gentiles, even ones like Balaam who weren’t getting their belief system from Judaism and at times were even antagonism to Old Testament/Tanakh Judaism, which even Christians aren’t.

        Balaam was gentile and had the prophetic, yet the Tanakh didn’t suggest that he adopted it out of Judaism, rather Tanakh treats it as independent corroboration of Tanakh.

      • W.Jones
        February 26, 2017, 9:07 pm

        I am interested in your ideas too, Keith. For example, do you believe in the concept of The Prophetic?

      • Keith
        February 27, 2017, 11:12 am

        W.JONES- “I am interested in your ideas too, Keith. For example, do you believe in the concept of The Prophetic?”

        Since I am 100% secular, I am a poor choice to discuss/argue theology. I do, however, try to anticipate changes in the political economy. Currently, things are looking grim. I don’t wish to go into a lot of detail, particularly on a dead thread. I will, however, take the opportunity to link to a music/poetry video that I find very moving. It is the poem “Crazy Horse” by John Trudell set to music. I hope you like it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ku8ga-krBe4

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