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The Many Reminders from Tu B’Shevat

by Cantor Evan Kent


A year and a half ago, I along with my husband, Rabbi Don Goor, and our cat Merlin, made Aliyah. As I write this message and look out the windows of our Jerusalem apartment, there are storm clouds forming, the winds are picking up, the temperature is dropping, and the weather forecasters are calling for heavy rains turning to snow.

The upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shevat (observed on the 15th day of Shevat- this year on February 3rd) is the New Year of the Trees. Tu B’shevat, like Chanukah, is post-Biblical as the holiday’s observance was instituted by the Rabbis. Trees, of course, play a great role in the Biblical narrative with the Tree of Good and Evil first mentioned in Genesis and the later laws in Deuteronomy presenting the laws ensuring that trees would be not destroyed in times of war. In modern times, Tu B’shevat has become a holiday akin to a Jewish “earth day” and has served as a reminder that we are merely stewards of the earth. The songs used to celebrate the holiday are not only those that celebrate the majesty of trees, but rather include a variety of songs that extoll the beauty of so many of the trees, flowers, and plants that are harbingers of spring.


Tu B’Shevat also serves as a tangible reminder for those of us living in wet and rainy Jerusalem (and any other location where winter is especially harsh) that spring is soon approaching. Words from Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) remind us that the winter rains will soon depart and the time for blossoms will soon arrive. Here Debbie Friedman (of blessed memory) sings her setting of the words “Kumi lach” the Song of Songs.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCataED7ja4)


In Israel, the first blossoms of spring—the flowering almond trees—are celebrated with the singing of the early Zionist song “Haskediya Porachat” (The Almond Trees are Growing). Although this song was written at the turn of the 20th century it remains a favorite both here in Israel and among students in preschools and early grades in the United States. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSWstqDijUU). The words not only illustrate a pastoral setting of flowering trees and singing birds but the lyrics highlight the importance of labor and agriculture in the early years of Israel’s development.


Other blossoms that appear as winter fades into spring are the cyclamen, or known here as “rakefet.” Blooming from the end of January through February, the rakefet is a beautiful flower that covers the hillsides in a pale-pink. Israeli singer, Esther Ofarim, made this song about these beautiful flower famous. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pJWn9ZmzIc


Connection to the land and all that grows upon it is particularly well illustrated in Naomi Shemer’s song “Shirat HaAsavim” (The Song of the Grasses) with lyrics inspired by words written Reb Nachman of Bratslav. This tender and poetic song acknowledges the natural world as an inspiration for prayer and meditation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir7RYfpBvTI&list=PL92F99CBA79F00B6B&index=3


For twenty-five years I served as the cantor for Temple Isaiah, an incredibly vibrant and progressive synagogue in Los Angeles. Many times during the week and on Shabbat, I had the joy of singing with the many classes of pre-school students. One of our teachers referred to the students as “little flowers—each one of them growing and growing.” Those preschool students with whom I sang during my initial years at the congregation are now beginning families of their own and many of their children attend the Temple Isaiah pre-school. Through song and celebration we have enabled a new generation of Reform Jews to grow and blossom. These “little flowers” grew up and new seeds have been planted insuring the continuity of liberal Jewish life.


As the winter rains begin to fall once again in Jerusalem, I cannot help but remember hundreds of preschoolers celebrating Tu B’Shevat and singing this song and pantomiming to plant and water trees with their arms up in the air like branches. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUqZ3MTlXYo)


Tu B’Shevat reminds us of the importance of trees and all of God’s creation in our lives. But it also underscores the importance that we as synagogue leaders and congregants have in nourishing and nurturing our community’s most precious resource: our children.

ACC member Cantor Evan Kent is an “oleh chadash” having made Aliyah to Israel in the summer of 2013. Previous to his moving to Israel, Evan was the cantor at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles for 25 years.  Evan was also on the faculty of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles for 15 years. Cantor Kent’s publications have appeared in the Journal of Reform Judaism, Sh’ma Magazine, and Conservative Judaism. In May 2014, Evan received his doctorate in music education from Boston University. For his dissertation, he researched how music at Jewish summer camps in North America facilitate the development of Jewish identity.


Dr. Cantor Kent has been a member of numerous committees and commissions.  Most recently he was the cantorial representative to the CCAR task force on inter-marriage and is currently the cantorial representative to the CCAR’s editorial committee for the new High Holiday prayer book.


He is currently on the faculty of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem and is also teaching at the Levinsky School of Education in Tel Aviv.