Tu Bishvat

by Eleanor Goldfield

To the trees: a call to action, a dedication...

Tu Bishvat: the birthday of the trees, the new year of the trees - Rosh HaShanah La'llanot.

As I sit here in a Nordic winter, snow flurries across floor-to-ceiling windows in snowglobe cinematics. Evergreens live up to their name while the naked frames of other trees needle into a monochrome sky. I think of Vikings - because of course I do. And I am reminded of Yggdrasil, the world tree in Norse mythology, the tree from which all of creation stems: the nine worlds, the norns who weave fate, the dragon Nidhogg who gnaws at its roots, as if foretelling Ragnarok, the end of all worlds to begin again.

In my late teens and early 20s, I would often visit my dad's cousin in LA. Being thousands of miles away from my parents, her quintessential Jewish motherhood was a cozy reprieve from the jungle. Outside of her condo door hung a mezuzah, a small silver case - something I'd seen before at my own childhood home but had considered it a decoration, not something to interact with. But before she walked into her home, she would always touch this silver case and then kiss her fingers. Now, I do the same. I never asked her what she thought of when she kissed her fingers - that felt too personal. To me it wasn't her thoughts that I wanted to emulate but rather the intention.

On my mezuzah case, there's a tree of life, etz chaim. On the scroll inside, I haven't scribbled the traditional phrases from the Torah but rather my own invocation, what some might call a prayer though I don't because I feel 'prayer' is too weighted down by the horrors of gods.

Traditionally the mezuzah is there to remind Jews of their connection to god, and to their heritage. For me, it is a reminder of my connection to both my heritages, and to the trees which relate them, literally and figuratively.

It is a blessing on all those who live in this home, and all those who are invited in. It is a reminder to consider this home a safe place and to make it so through our actions. And as it marks the threshold between the outside world and the inside, it is a reminder and commitment to regard the homes of our ecosystems with equal deference, to thereby blur this line rather than harden it to a point of rigid containment.

It is a reminder of the family trees that have brought me here - the long outstretched branches, the curled limbs, the ones missing or torn. It is a reminder of my roots, and a reminder of the responsibilities I have to those roots, these epic seeking networks of life that span beyond time and before distinction. It is a reminder of relation, outside of self, outside of human shells and the borders of skin and bone.

On this new year of the trees, these are my thoughts, this is the forest where my mind wanders.

I do think briefly of the teachings of Judaism - that in scripture, the just are often compared to trees, and that we are taught to care for trees. I recall that in Jewish mysticism, the tree of life is not only a central character but a representation of how to live, how to shorten the gap between ourselves and our god. And at Temple when returning the Torah to its ark (its little closet, as it were), we sing a a song about trees, that as trees give us physical nourishment, the Torah gives us spiritual nourishment.

I think of this, but briefly. I respect and embrace many Jewish teachings - not least of all Kabbalah, what my dad calls a kind of yoga for the soul. But I do so from a place without religious zeal, indeed a place with more disdain for religion than respect. I do not believe in god - I believe he is a creation of our imaginative minds just like faeries and goblins. I believe he is a crutch in the best of times and at worst, well, as George Carlin put it, god is the leading cause of death.

So I page through my Jewish teachings with a skeptic's mind and I piece together from what I find, a connection - a rooted network that is myself and my ancestors, a future of my history.

It is a bold blend, a strong and soft fluid resilience that is as much self as it is reflection. I recognize myself in these liminal spaces where distinction is but a philosophical discourse rather than a lived reality - where both time and category are flimsy playthings. Where norns sit by the roots of etz chaim and weave blue and silver threads, munching on pomegranates; the nine Norse worlds blurring into the four worlds of the Kabbalah like layered images in photoshop.

Might sound like a fever dream but hey, doesn't all religion once you take a step back?

Like the mezuzah, these dreams, these teachings, these stories are about the intention, the action created by the thought. So from these wacky roots, from this full mooned birthday of the trees I sit and meditate, beneath a winter's naked crown. And I send out my atheist blessings to the trees, to the reflections of ourselves and our world, to our grounding and our unabashed reach for the heavens. I send out my love and camaraderie to all those who protect trees and thereby protect us. And I breathe deeply the promise to defend what I love - to care for these roots, these limbs.

Happy Tu Bishvat.

Partially inspired by the ongoing fight to protect the Atlanta Forest from destruction. Please check out Defend Atlanta Forest to learn more and donate. And please connect to the trees wherever you may be.