The Not-So-Dead of an Israeli Winter

Dear Josep,

Anyone who attended a Jewish day school, anywhere in the world, learned That Tu B’Shvat song sometime in his or her childhood.

And everybody only knows the first verse and the chorus:

The almond tree is blooming
And a golden sun is shining
Birds from every rooftop
Proclaim the arrival of the holiday

Tu B’Shvat is here,
A holiday for the trees!
Tu B’Shvat is here,
A holiday for the trees!

Now… as a child in the northeastern United States, the entire concept of this song was utterly bizarre.

This is the view from my friend Shelly's window in Pennsylvania as of Jan. 28th. Celebrating trees is not what comes to mind.
This is the view from my friend Shelly’s window in Pennsylvania today. A “holiday for trees” with the “golden sun shining” is not what comes to mind.

I was assured at the time that in far away, temperate Israel, where our ancestors had first observed this “new year for the trees”, Shvat was indeed the very beginning of springtime, when the worst of the winter rains were over–an ideal time to plant trees. As Shelly and the rest of my friends and family in northeastern USA right now will testify, this was pretty difficult to picture!

It was only when I moved to the Jerusalem area that I started to notice that the song actually describes the phenomenon with startling accuracy. Right around the beginning of the month of Shvat, it’s like someone (or, I should write, Someone) flicks a switch, and all of the these stark, bare brown almond trees suddenly burst into bloom. Almost overnight, the landscape is dotted with these patches of white and pink blossoms, so striking against the mostly leafless branches.

An almond tree in full bloom on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on the road home.
An almond tree in full bloom on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on the road home.
Another almond tree next to the neighborhood playground. They are such beautiful blossoms, so striking against the leafless branches.
Another almond tree next to the neighborhood playground.

One of the things I very quickly learned after making aliyah is that Israelis are completely obsessed with nature. They can’t get enough of this beautiful land and everything that grows in its soil. I was nine years old when I moved here, and my classmates had already mastered the names of all the most common Israeli wildflowers the year before. Whereas “field trips” in the USA involved trips to places like museums and historical buildings, the annual Israeli school tiyul meant hiking–and I mean serious hiking. Like, six-hour-mountainous-trails-in-the-blazing-May-sun hiking. I heard once that Israel has more marked hiking trails per square kilometer than any other country in the world; I don’t know if that’s true, but it could be. The land is covered with trails, and hiking them is the most common and popular recreational activity. (Unless, of course, you count arguing about politics. 😛 )

For a girl who has always loved nature, it is a little embarrassing to say that I rather dreaded these excursions. I am sensitive to heat, I hate exercise, and I am an exemplary specimen of introvert. Needless to say, these trips held very little appeal. So when my class went on its first overnight tiyul in sixth grade, I declined and stayed home. When I tried to do the same in seventh grade, my teacher was extremely concerned and called my parents to tell them they couldn’t just let me stay home! This was a crucial part of my social development! She was completely baffled that I would even consider the possibility of not going. Unfortunately, introversion is often considered something of a social disability in this very gregarious and outspoken culture. My parents brushed her off.

In eighth grade, I gave in to peer pressure and decided to go anyway. I eventually found my Introvert Niche within these trips: heart-to-heart conversations with my handful of close friends, late into the night. It was worth suffering through the hikes for that “quality time” with friends.

In any case, over the years I have acquired bits and pieces of that fundamental education in Israeli flora. I now know, for instance, that these lovely bright red flowers blooming in a field across the street from us now, are called kalanit (anemone):



And not pereg (poppy), which is the red spring flower that grows closer to the coast, where I grew up:

Photo credit: MathKnight,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo credit: MathKnight, CC BY-SA 3.0

Or nurit (buttercup):

Photo by Shlomi Sheetrit

Telling these three flowers apart is elementary knowledge in local botany for Israelis. (Here’s the secret, which you can’t really see in my picture: anemones have a white circle around the flower’s center, and the other two don’t. Buttercups have five petals, anemones have six, and poppies usually have four.) (You’re welcome.)

Indeed, the month of Shvat is very different here from what I grew up with. Your climate is much closer to mine, and one day I expect a full report of your favorite flora native to Catalonia, complete with photographs. 😛



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