On Tu Bishvat, I Honor My Namesake, My Mother, and the Planet

Elana Spivack hugging a tree. Credit: Leigh Schreiber. 

In Hebrew school, I was taught that Tu Bishvat—which starts this year on the evening of Sunday, January 16—was the birthday of the trees. I’ve always liked this idea; it makes me imagine trees wearing party hats and giving each other gifts of fruit and nuts. In my mind, it’s different from Arbor Day, which never received anywhere near the same amount of reverence in my secular classroom. When I think of Arbor Day, I see small print in a calendar box; when I think of Tu Bishvat, I see a huge celebration.

Of course, I’m biased to like any holiday that celebrates trees. You see, I myself am a tree, as is my mom. My first name, Elana, means “oak tree” in Hebrew, and my mother’s last name is Appelbaum, “apple tree” in German and Yiddish. My mother deliberately gave me a tree name. Together, we’re a pair of strong, stalwart trees. I cherish the image of our literal family tree, a tree that birthed a tree. I’ve tried to draw from arboreal attributes, too: resilience, slow, consistent growth, and adaptability.

My mom is a lot like a tree herself. In fact, I’d compare her to the Giving Tree from the Shel Silverstein book. Like the title character does for the boy in the story, she gave me her entire self. There are some differences, though—despite her generosity, my mom didn’t deplete herself through her giving, because she taught me how to be self-sufficient. Also, I bet the Giving Tree doesn’t swear like my mom does.

As trees, my mom and I are distinct, yet intertwined. The saying is that the apple doesn’t fall from the tree, but I think in our case, the apple tree created an acorn. My mom and I each have our own quirks, yet we have the same smile, same sense of humor, even the same intonation.

The significance of trees goes back even further in my family. In the front yard of my childhood home, where my parents still live, is the “Grandma tree,” a dogwood like the one my mom grew up with in her own yard. Her mother had a tree name, too—Sylvia, which means “forest” in Latin. I never knew my mom’s father, Sidney, who died about three months before I was born and whose name I was given as my middle name. On his 80th birthday, my mom had 80 trees planted in Israel. 

Tu Bishvat is more than just a celebration of trees, though. It’s also a day to consider our impact on the environment, an issue that is especially urgent given our current climate crisis. In this way, the holiday reflects the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Jewish holidays that remind us of our relationship to the natural world, like Sukkot and Shavuot, have always been my favorites. These holidays remind us that in a way, nature is a person who gives to us and mothers us. It can also be a source of strength and inspiration, helping us discover the kind of people we’d like to be.

What can we all learn from nature, and specifically from trees? Change is good, because it usually means growth. Age gracefully. We need different things in different seasons. Don’t be alarmed if you lose your leaves, and trust that they will come back. Branch out. Don't be afraid of breaking, even if you sway or shake in a storm. Be kind to the people in your life, unless they hurt you. No matter what, keep growing.

And a few lessons from my tree-mom: Find the silly in everything. Say “thank you” and show gratitude. Let people know when you're thinking about them. Squeeze the greatest joy from the smallest things: water, birds, squirrels, the sun.

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Great post! Elana, your grandpa Max (my great uncle) was as strong as an oak tree, and was a woodworker. So you come by your treeness on both sides. Very happy to read this delightful essay.

How to cite this page

Spivack, Elana. "On Tu Bishvat, I Honor My Namesake, My Mother, and the Planet." 13 January 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/tu-bishvat-i-honor-my-namesake-my-mother-and-planet>.

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