Tu b’Shvat is celebrated today. My oldest child was born on Tu b’Shvat in the United States where the holiday is not celebrated widely, even among the Jewish population. Here in Israel, however, Tu b’Shvat is our mid-winter stretch: a time for people to remember the environment and to plant trees.
The holiday wasn’t always celebrated by tree planting. In Jewish sources, Tu b’Shvat is remembered as the New Year for trees, a date which was used to count years of trees for the purposes of tithes and agricultural laws. During most of history, this holiday was marked by modest celebrations involving eating the fruit of the Land of Israel, mostly in dried form. Some spiritual souls in the 16th century wrote a seder, similar to the seder at Passover, for the holiday. But during the modern era, the holiday became celebrated in Israel by planting trees – a new custom.
Many people have heard about the story surrounding the school teacher from Zichron Yaacov, Ze’ev Yavetz, who took his students out at the end of the 19th century to plant trees on Tu b’Shvat, starting the custom. But the celebration today in Israel of the holiday was bolstered by a Baha’i Englishman who spent his youth as a lumberjack in Canada.
Richard St. Barbe Baker was born in 1889 in England to a family that was involved with horticulture. Young Richard was looking for a life of adventure, though, and so after high school went to wander in Canada where he had an uncle involved with the logging industry. After Richard worked as a lumberjack, he saw first-hand the problems with wide-scale deforestation. He returned to England and got a degree in botany from Cambridge before his next adventure would take him to the British colony of Kenya. There he worked planting trees and founded the organization Men of the Trees in 1922. During one of his visits back to England, he spoke on this important project. After his lecture, an audience member who was a member of the Bahai community introduced Baker to the religion’s worldview. He was so captivated that he adopted the Bahai faith.
“You are the trees of My garden; you must give forth goodly and wondrous fruits, that you yourselves and others may profit therefrom. Thus it is incumbent on everyone to engage in crafts and professions, for therein lies the secret of wealth, O men of understanding! For results depend upon means, and the grace of God shall be all-sufficient unto you. Trees that yield no fruit have been and ever will be for the fire.” Baha’u’llah, founder of Baha’i
His service in Kenya was terminated when he sided with locals against the British. He was transferred to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1929 and established a branch of Men of the Trees there. It was hoped that his experiences in Africa would help him remedy the encroachment of the desert in the Protectorate. Here he met Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i faith, who became the first lifetime member of the Men of the Trees.
Baker and his organization set to work planting trees and saw in Tu b’Shvat a way to combine Jewish religious culture with his own goals for forestation and environmental concern. Even though the Men of the Trees succeeded in garnering cross-cultural support from the Hebrew University, the grand mufti of the Supreme Muslim Council, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the bishop of Jerusalem, formal cooperation with the Jewish National Fund never blossomed. The Men of the Trees did succeed in establishing 42 nurseries as well as cementing Tu b’Shvat as a national day for planting trees. The organization also sponsored competitions between schools for planting trees and caring for saplings.
This extraordinary man would spread his mission to the United States by contributing to the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.
As is so often in the history of Israel, many different faces and viewpoints come together in a seemingly circumstantial way to establish things we take for granted today. My son, the grandson of a one-time lumberjack in Oregon, born on a holiday for planting trees, and now living in Israel. It’s a story that seems random but somehow all the right elements came together to create a story of growth and hope – like planting trees on Tu b’Shvat.