The song of the trees mirror the story of our own history.
Today is my mother’s yahrtzeit. She passed away 30 years ago at the tender age of 57. Like many of you, I become very introspective on a yahrtzeit day. I find myself reflecting on the past and how it connects me to the present.
A few days ago I was in the Caribbean, viewing the bluer-than-blue water and the greener-than-green rain forest. In contrast, I woke up this morning in Toronto to see a completely different world. The snow that fell all through the night, and which continues to fall now, has blanketed the city in powdery white.
While we Torontonians are maybe shoveling walkways and carefully maneuvering vehicles around snowdrifts, and while vacationers down south are touring the tropics, Israelis on the other side of the world are getting ready to plant trees for Tu B’Shevat. In my column last month, I mentioned the sight of the tree-covered hills on the roads leading up to Jerusalem. In fact, the last time I was in Israel, I planted a sapling in what will hopefully be a forest one day. This ritualistic ceremony of tourists planting was created many decades ago when we in the Diaspora began to express a need to do more than simply “Plant A Tree” by giving donations to JNF. (I chuckle as I write this, remembering the JNF tree-planting scene in the classic Israeli film Sallach Shabati, starring the ever-brilliant Topol. If you’re not familiar with it, please see this film. It will give you warm memories of a young Israel.)
What was poignant about my Israeli tree-planting experience was that it immediately followed my visit to Poland, a country filled with natural forests. The old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw is so overgrown with trees, even some breaking through tombstones, that one of the people with me was led to ask, “Why would the Jews decide to put a cemetery in a forest?!”
In Poland, it seemed that everywhere we traveled we saw trees—glorious, majestic, deep-rooted trees.
That’s the thing about trees. They grow strong and outlive us. Although the common saying goes, “If the walls could talk,” I always think, “If the trees could talk, what would they tell us? What have they seen?!” The forests of Europe were often a haven for Jews hiding from Nazis and, sadly, they were also where countless Jews were captured, or taken, and shot. My mother hid in the Belgian woods while en route to England after her family fled Berlin. It was in these woods that she contracted rheumatic fever, which would leave lasting health issues to plague her for the rest of her life, health issues that ultimately took her from us 30 years ago. Try as I might, I can’t imagine that forest.
In Poland, I visited Chelmno, where my father’s entire family perished. Again, dense green trees surround the vast empty clearing where the Nazis piled and burned the bodies of hundreds and thousands of men, women and children. This same thick foliage concealed the unspeakable crimes, although I was told by a local old man that, as a boy, he had seen the smoke come over the forest treetops into the town. How much sorrow and wickedness had these trees witnessed?
And now, the contrast of the trees in Israel: From the get-go, trees in a desert have a battle to survive, yet that is a battle won in Israel every day. If the Israeli trees could talk, they would speak of throngs of school children coming out every year and, one by one, tree by tree, adding to the country’s green landscape. Each sapling is carefully placed in a hole in the dry ground and nurtured over time by man-made irrigation devices. If those trees could talk, they would share songs they have heard over the generations which Israelis have written about planting trees, digging holes, carrying shovels, “flowering the wilderness” (le-hafriach et haShmamah is an actual expression in Hebrew).
The songs of the trees mirror the story of our own history. Our People’s survival is a struggle, yet we have managed over thousands of years to endure, flourish and grow strong. Indeed, as the psalmist writes, like a Cedar in Lebanon.
As I think of my mother today, I consider the seeds that she planted and nurtured in me, particularly the music that took root. Although she left this world too early, that seed led me to where I am today.
Her seed was well-planted…