My First Tu B’Shvat as an Adult

Wednesday, 27 January, 2021 - 5:30 pm

When I think of my memories of celebrating Tu B’Shvat in my formative years, my mind inevitably turns to a dreary, rainy evening in 1991, in Brooklyn, NY.

Then just a couple of weeks post-Bar Mitzvah, I had travelled to NYC with my classmates and our teacher, to spend time in Crown Heights with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and receive his personal blessing in honour of our Bar Mitzvahs.

At the time, my eldest sister was studying in NY. One afternoon she took me to another Jewish enclave, Borough Park, for dinner at what is allegedly one of NY’s best Kosher pizza places.

When we arrived back in Crown Heights, my sister had the taxi drop me off at my host family. Upon entering the house, I found it eerily quiet and wondered where they might be on a rainy and cold winter’s evening.

A few minutes later, the phone began to ring incessantly. After a few minutes of constant ringing, I plucked the courage to answer the phone, to discover that it was my sister on the line.

“Zalmy”, she said excitedly, “the Rebbe is giving out $5 bills in honour of Tu B’Shvat. Come quickly to 770 [Chabad HQ and the Rebbe’s Synagogue], so you don’t miss out!”

Yup. It’s true. As a kid, I was known as Zalmy. What’s also true is that as a child I had a pretty intense fear of the dark. But that’s not all. Coming from my own safe and familiar territory of Stamford Hill in North London, 13 year old Zalmy considered Crown Heights and Brooklyn a crime ridden slum. Walking alone down the streets of the neighbourhood was a terrifying experience for me; even in broad daylight.

But the great Lubavitcher Rebbe was giving out $5 bills and blessings. How could I possibly miss out on this unbelievable opportunity?!

By the early 1980s, with the Rebbe’s famous ability to display genuine care, concern and sage advice then world-renowned, many Jews and non-Jews from every walk of life wished to meet him. It had become impossible for the Rebbe to give every individual a chance for a personal meeting, so in the late 1980s he devised a system where he would stand for many hours each Sunday afternoon/evening, and occasionally on other special occasions, handing out a dollar bill to be given to charity, together with a blessing, to every person who sought a moment of his precious time.

During our week-and-a-half visit that January, my classmates and I were privileged to pass by the Rebbe and receive his personal blessing on 5 occasions.

“I can’t come”, I found myself telling my sister. “Why not?” she countered. “I’m scared to walk alone at night here”, I responded.

Two minutes later, the phone rings again. My sister had just seen my host outside the Synagogue. “Mrs Laine is coming in the car to pick you up”.

I replaced the phone on the cradle, (this was 1991… remember), and allowed myself just a few short seconds to size up the situation. 

I then quickly grabbed my coat and ran through the rain, faster than I’d probably ran in my life, with crazed images of muggers chasing me. I only slowed my pace when I’d completed the three long, dark blocks of Carroll Street and had reached the corner of the busy and lit up Kingston Avenue, filled with its Jewish owned shops and businesses.

By the time I arrived at 770 that evening, most of the thousands there had already received their $5 bill and blessing, and I quickly rushed to join the dwindling queue and receive mine.

But the excitement on that memorable evening wasn't yet over. I soon met up with my classmates, and together with our teacher, we headed over to the home of a generous philanthropist, who had managed to get hold of a small quantity of fruit from the Rebbe’s own Tu B’Shvat bowl. 

Our teacher sat at the table cutting little pieces of fruit into even smaller pieces, so we can each partake in these precious fruits.

Tu B’Shvat. Precious fruits. What’s this all supposed to mean?

I don’t profess to have enough of my own novel interpretations, but I am thankful that the Rebbe’s talks from that visit are published. 

The Talmud relates that the 1st Century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa lived in abject poverty and sufficed on just a 1.4 litre bowl of carobs for an entire week. Google what a carob is and let that sink in!

The Talmud also tells us, on the same page, that Rabbi Chanina was accustomed to having miracles in his life.

In fact, many have the custom to eat carobs on Tu B’Shvat. One reason given for this is to emphasis the awareness of miracles in daily life.

Which leads me to another feature in the story of that trip to NY. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and the world was in the thick of the first Gulf War. The USA and allies were threatening a massive offensive to push the Iraqis back, so Saddam turned his missile launchers on America’s other Middle-Eastern ally—Israel.

The fear that engulfed Jewish communities across the world was overwhelming. In Israel, the national mood was somber and apprehensive. Every citizen was given a gas mask, with growing concern from international intelligence that Saddam would unleash his store of chemical weapons on the country. Every family created a secure ‘sealed room’ in case of a strike.

When we boarded the Air India flight at Heathrow, I glanced out of the window and was shocked to see army personnel and army vehicles filling the tarmac.

The world held its breath.

But from NY, one single voice of optimism reassured the world. “The Land of Israel is safe”, the Rebbe declared. 

On the first Thursday evening of our visit, we all lined up, together with thousands of others, to receive a booklet (and another two crisp dollar bills) from the Rebbe. The booklet contained a Chassidic essay on miracles by the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, titled “Blessed is He Who makes Miracles”.

The Rebbe’s relentless message was absolute. Don’t succumb to the harsh realities. We can change reality.

The Rebbe urged us all to believe in miracles. They can and do happen. That Shabbat, I stood packed like a sardine in an audience of thousands and listened as the Rebbe quoted from this week’s Torah portion, when we read of the exodus and the crossing of the sea. In just this one portion, we read of a whole host of miracles that surrounded our ancestors as they began their journey across the desert. 

The Torah isn’t just telling us about something that happened 3,500 years ago. It’s teaching us what really should define us as a people today. Nothing really needs to be limited to what it may look like on its superficial surface. Dig deeper, and discover the miracles that are hidden within.

If you’d step outside and look at a tree now, you could easily argue that all you see are bare, stone cold branches. But we all know that in just a few short weeks, those branches will sprout buds, then leaves and fruit, and a whole new cycle of life and hope will emerge.

This Tu B’Shvat, take a bright, colourful fruit. Hold it in your palm. Make a blessing. For just a moment, consider that someone took a little seed and stuffed it into the dark, cold, dull brown earth. 

But because someone believed, that little buried seed was filled with hope. It grew roots and sprouted as a tiny sapling out of the dark and the cold. Then it grew branches, buds and leaves. Those buds developed into a full-blown colourful, sweet and delicious fruit, filled in turn with its own promising seeds, for even greater future potential.

Don’t be afraid of the dark. There are miracles there, waiting for you to discover and unleash!

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