Springtime in January

Tu B’Shvat never made sense to me growing up. Sometime in January, the Sunday school classrooms became flooded with stacks of plastic pots, bags of rich black soil, and tiny, fragile saplings. We diligently filled the pots, loosened the roots and gave them their first dose of water, carefully tucking them into their new homes on windowsills and sunny corners with high hopes they’d survive the following months. 

The teacher connected our random foray into gardening to the marking of Tu B’Shvat — “the birthday of the trees!” — a time for renewal and springtime planting. I gazed out the window at the bare, snow-covered branches and remembered clenching my hands into fists in an attempt to warm my fingers as I sat in the back seat waiting for my dad to finish scraping ice off the windshield this morning. I thought to my eight-year-old self, I’m no farmer, but this doesn’t look like spring, and I don’t have high hopes for these window-sill cucumbers. 

Of course, I was right. In high desert Oregon, mid-late January is not the time to turn the earth and nurture tender seedlings. But in Israel, things are starting to bloom. As I look out my Jaffa apartment window a soft rain is falling, as it has been for the past four days. The overgrown backyard of our building is a bright green dotted with tiny yellow flowers, visited daily by papery white butterflies. In the front parking lot, the huge three-story tall Gumtree sports tufts of lighter, new leaves. 

A decade ago during my first year in Israel, I was struck by the accuracy of Jewish holidays. “The first rain always happens around Sukkot” I was told. Sure enough, after months of hot sun my first Sukkot dinner was rained out, a perfect example of Murphy’s Law to schedule the first drops right when everyone is hanging out in thatched-roof huts all week. After a few months of rain, things start to bloom again in January, and sure enough by the time Pesach rolls around, it’s just getting warm enough to escape the slavery of daily modern life and go sit on a beach in Sinai. The merging of agricultural and religious elements of Judaism peaks during the Shavuot holiday marking the giving of the Torah and the summer grain harvest, celebrated with the same fervor in Orthodox Bnei Brak as it is in agricultural Kibbutzim, albeit in different ways. 

This year as yellow mustard flowers poke through the weeds next to my bus stop, red anemones are blooming in the fields where the Nova festival was held a few months ago. In the north, Almond trees are turning an eye-catching baby pink, as mortars and missiles are volleyed back and forth across the border with Lebanon. The war grinds on. 

Since the brief November ceasefire and the return of a portion of the hostages, there has been no good news, only death and foreboding of more war to come. My husband reviews scenarios and various contingency plans. “We should buy a generator,” he says, “or at least large batteries in case we have to be in the shelter for days at a time and there’s no electricity.” Once the baby is born we’ll get her a passport as soon as possible. Tamir wants to buy flexible plane tickets to have on hand, so at least she and I would have a way out if needed. He would stay to make arrangements for the house and cat, and help his mom before joining us. It doesn’t even feel scary anymore, just a necessity of life in this place, in this moment. 

Inside Israel is turmoil. Anger, sadness, fatigue. On any given day, you can join any number of protests for your specific grievance. Protests for a hostage deal, protests against the war, protests for new elections, protests against the UN, protests against the Red Cross, protests blocking aid to Gaza, and protests demanding a ceasefire. Protests to re-settle Gaza, and protests to oust Bibi.

News from the outside world, which I’ve largely shut out for reasons of self-preservation and advice from my doula, seem just as turbulent. When I do take a peek, some things in particular spike my blood pressure. 

There are plenty of awful things to be angry at, and plenty of things Israel should be criticized for and held responsible for (as should Hamas leaders, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and most of all, the Iranian government). What this conflict is not, however, is a replica of South Africa, the Native American genocide, or any other tragedy from somewhere else in the world. The insistence of Westerners to plaster their own experiences and apply their own histories on a place they know almost nothing about is not helpful and is infuriating. 

A friend from high school posted a meme calling the Houthis “courageous” and “badass,” viewing them as a ragtag gang of peace activists rather than the paid-for pirates they are. Another friend posted an article citing a Norwegian academic’s view of the war, noting “if there’s anyone I trust on this conflict, it’s the Norwegians.” Why? When was the last time isolated, cocooned Norway endured a conflict threaded with ethnic, religious, land and ideological disputes? 

Dismissing Jews/Israelis as “settler colonists” is also inaccurate, and contributes no understanding of the nuanced reality. The reality is more complicated and more tragic than a simple settler vs. indigenous paradigm. Jews have lived in and maintained a connection to this land for millennia, evidenced by the fact that Jewish school children in snow-crusted North America continue to mark ecological holidays perfectly timed to a climate 7,000 miles away. Jewish customs are tightly bound to the specific natural cycles of this particular place, showcasing plants and foods indigenous to Israel despite where they may be practiced. 

Palestinians also rightfully claim deep connection to this land, able to endlessly soliloquize the exact strain of Za’atar from their grandmother’s village, or describe the subtle signals that point to the start of the olive harvest. This tiny patch of land between three continents and two seas is as unique as the microclimate that inhabits it, as unique as celebrating springtime in January.