By Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)
With Tu B’Shevat coming, I’ve been thinking about the holiday–it’s the new year of the trees, the end of winter, the beginning of spring– and about our attachment to the land and its fruits. Living in New York City for the past 25 years, it’s so easy to feel disconnected from the holiday. This year, however, is different. My father has taught me to be a gardener.
Gardening has given me another perspective on produce and how it gets from the ground to the table. I grew up in Connecticut and now live in New York City, where it’s easy to think that vegetables come from the Food Emporium or Fairway, and that they really do grow with that shiny spray stuff on them. It’s easy to forget that produce comes from the dirt.
I’ve never been a nature girl and wanted nothing to do with my father’s garden for many years. But I became interested about two years ago as I watched my father work in his garden and saw the look on his face. My father welcomed me into the garden. He taught me how to smell the soil to see if it is good, how squash should be planted close together in a circle and then thinned out, how cucumbers need to be planted near a fence because their tendrils need to climb, and that parsley can last until January or February if it’s covered at night when the frost hits. We worried about what would happen if there was no rain or too much rain. And many times, we were in the garden speaking to the plants, urging them to grow, or just sitting on the lawn watching the garden, and talking about our amazement at how sometimes in the sunlight it seemed we could see the plants growing.
My father taught me that I had to get my hands in the dirt. He said if I wore gloves I wouldn’t be able to feel it. He showed me how to feel the connection between the earth and me. It took time to get used to that. I was constantly on the lookout for worms, snakes, and bugs, but once I made peace with that fear I couldn’t wait to wake up early in the morning, go to the garden, and see what had happened the previous night.
When I was back home in New York, I would call my father, and we’d discuss how the plants were doing in the garden, especially one small, faltering eggplant in the south corner which we finally agreed we couldn’t save and had to pull out. Even when I wasn’t there, the garden was present in my life.
My father showed me how to hill and weed around the plants as they were growing, and I began to feel like a kid again, covered from head to toe in dirt. I began to re-connect to those experiences of seeing things for the first time. My heart jumped when I saw the seeds push their way up through the soil or when the first purple of an eggplant appeared. I ran screaming into the house when we began harvesting the plants to show my mother the first carrots, the first red tomatoes, and ears of corn. I began to understand why my father was always in his garden, and I wanted to be there too. I enjoyed being in the dirt. I looked for work in the garden. If there wasn’t something to be hilled, weeded or planted, I was disappointed.
Before becoming a gardener, I would recite a bracha over food but it didn’t contain much meaning for me. I could recite the blessing in the morning: “Blessed are you, Sovereign of the Universe, who dresses the naked” because I knit and know the amount of work that goes into making a garment. As I put on my clothes, I could relate to the seriousness and intention of this blessing. I don’t want to recite a blessing in vain, and I think the fact that I couldn’t connect to an experience with the earth made it hard for me to consistently recite the brachot over food.
And then the garden got me thinking about figure eights. The more I gardened, the more I saw and felt the growing process, the more I saw how brachot are related to experience, and how experience is related to brachot and how they are truly inseparable. I understood how brachot and experience constantly flow back and forth, into and out of each other. I think that’s probably what the rabbis had in mind when they created brachot.
My experience with brachot has been enriched because I made the connection that the rabbis were trying to teach. I don’t mean to say that one must have a deep experience in order to recite a bracha. That’s not possible every time, and one doesn’t need have to have my type of direct experience either. I don’t have a spiritual experience every time I recite a bracha. But what I hope for is that a bracha, which is really an acknowledgement and doesn’t need to always be formal, will sustain me, will relate to an experience, and I hope that my experiences will make me want to acknowledge them with brachot.
This year I plan to celebrate Tu B’Shevat at a seder (a kabbalistic invention modeled on the Passover seder) with four cups of wine and different types of fruit. Even though it is winter and I am far from the garden, I know that the experience of reciting brachot at the seder will take me back to the garden and that the garden has brought me to a new understanding of the land, its fruits, blessings, and brachot.
Janet R. Kirchheimer, a poet and teaching fellow at CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is the author of How to Spot One of Us, a collection of poems about the Holocaust.
This essay, which previously appeared in e-CLAL, CLAL’s weekly webzine, and in various Jewish newspapers, is reprinted here with the author’s permission
If you’d like to read a sampling of poems from How to Spot One of Us, visit the online magazine, Babel Fruit: http://web.mac.com/renkat/Winter_07/Janet_R._Kirchheimer.html
And if you’d like to learn more about the book, visit: http://www.clal.org/sp137.html.
For more information on Janet, check out the CLAL website: http://www.clal.org/clal_faculty_jrk.html