The Christian, Nebraskan Roots of the Modern Jewish Arbor Day
JNS.org – It’s a little-known quirk of timing and history that the transformation of Tu B’Shvat, which falls on February 11 this year, traces its origins to a Christian-oriented, environmentalist activity in 19th-century Nebraska.
Chaim Aryeh Leib Zuta (1868-1939) landed on Jaffa’s shores in December 1903. He was already a well-known figure in the Zionist world, and one of the first advocates of the “reformed heder” — a schooling system that taught modern secular subjects alongside traditional Jewish ones.
In the early 1900s, the majority of Jewish communities knew Tu B’Shvat, if they knew it at all, as the marginal “holiday of the fruits.”
But just a few weeks after settling in Jaffa, Zuta wrote about two tree festivals that he knew from Russia, in which children planted trees in a festive spring ceremony. The Russian celebration that inspired Zuta was a 19th-century invention from the American Midwest.
As industrialization progressed around the world and forests began shrinking, proto-environmentalist movements began waging pro-forest campaigns. On April 10, 1872, Nebraska declared an “Arbor Day.” More than a million trees were planted. And two years later, the state legislature enshrined Arbor Day as an annual holiday.
Arbor Day planting ceremonies soon sprang up elsewhere; they featured parades of schoolchildren carrying saplings, songs composed for the holiday and the recitation of biblical passages. In many places, the ceremonies had a distinctly Christian tone.
Within two decades, most states in the US and Canada had enacted an Arbor Day meant to inspire a love of nature, environmental awareness and local and national patriotism. By the end of the century, it had spread to Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain — and Russia.
Zuta was the first to suggest a Jewish Arbor Day. In his mind, he was not inventing a tradition but rather innovating it. He argued that Arbor Day “was ours. Its time was the 15th of Shvat, but the gentiles replaced it with a different day, while proclaiming ownership on the festival.”
At the 1906 convention of the Association of Hebrew Teachers in Palestine, Zuta proposed making it obligatory for schools to celebrate a tree-planting holiday on Tu B’Shvat. Despite the overcast weather of this frequently muddy season, Zuta’s proposal was accepted. The next year, the first public tree-planting ceremony on Tu B’Shvat took place at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school, which today is within metropolitan Tel Aviv.
On Tu B’Shvat in 1910, the students of most of Jaffa’s Jewish schools –including the non-Zionist, non-Hebrew speaking Alliance Francaise — held tree-planting ceremonies in the new Jaffa neighborhood of Ahuzat Bayit, which later became Tel Aviv.
In 1913, after Zuta had moved to Jerusalem to serve as the headmaster of the Laemel School, he helped organize a tree-planting ceremony there that drew 1,500 students.
They planted trees in the nearby agricultural colony of Motza, now an upscale Jerusalem suburb. It was one of the most striking festivities yet seen in Palestine, which was not accustomed to Jewish public events. Excited (and likely exaggerated) descriptions in the Hebrew press recounted 10,000 adults traveling from Jerusalem in carriages, on donkeys and by foot to watch the show.
Tu B’Shvat owes its rapid canonization to Zuta, and to those who wanted to build a better Israel for future generations.
Hizky Shoham is a research fellow at the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute and a faculty member at the Interdisciplinary Program for Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies at Bar-Ilan University. His book, “Israel Celebrates: Jewish Festivals and Civic Culture in Israel,” will be released by Brill Publishers this spring.