Jan 24, 2016  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Environment,

For Tu BiShvat, going back to nature as it was in biblical times

Tu BiShvat, the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar, marks the new year for trees in Israel. It's a time of renewal in nature when the earliest-blooming trees awaken from their dormant winter state and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. 

There is perhaps no better place in Israel to observe this process than at Neot Kedumim, a reserve that's host to a biblical landscape in the heart of the country. Neot Kedumim was founded in 1964 near the city of Modi'in, and was once a barren no-man's land on the border with Jordan. Its founder, the late Israel Prize winner Nogah Hareuveini, turned it into a lush re-creation of Israel's ancient landscape that today serves as both a 625-acre park and a learning center. It also encompasses the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Harvey Hertz Ceremonial Tree Planting Center.

"The word neot means pasture or places of beauty, and we see it used in Psalm 23: 'He makes me lie down in green pastures,'" said Miriam Laor, an English and Spanish language guide at Neot Kedumim who also is the coordinator of incoming groups there. "The word kedumim, meaning ancient, contains the Hebrew root letters that also indicate a forward movement in time.  At Neot Kedumim we show you your past roots so you will have hope for growth in the future."

On a walk with Laor through Neot Kedumim some two weeks before the holiday of Tu BiShvat, all was green and lush, just as it would have been at this time of year during the days of the Bible. "If you read the text, you will see that it's all about nature as well as the time and season of the year. All of the Jewish holidays have to do with different harvesting seasons and the fruits harvested at that time. We are very much a people of the land, and it’s obvious when you read the Bible," Laor said.

Neot Kedumim planting
In addition to the hundreds of varieties of biblical and Talmudic plants that have been cultivated at Neot Kedumim, the park includes wild and domesticated animals, ancient and reconstructed olive and wine presses, threshing floors, cisterns, and ritual baths. All of these things have either been found in the vicinity or brought there from local Arab villages that still maintain the agricultural traditions of the past. 

"A lot of Nogah's knowledge came from the Arab villages around us," Laor said. "We still have the sons of those who helped Nogah continue to work with us today. They maintain the park lands by traditional methods, which they still use. The Arab residents continued these agricultural methods after the Jewish people went into exile and Nogah brought these methods after learning from the Arabs."

The quintessential symbol of Tu BiShvat is the almond tree, and Laor notes their presence in the park with anticipation of their imminent flowering.  

"The word for almond in Hebrew is shaked, which comes from the root of a verb that means diligence. The almond tree is the first tree to blossom, and it takes half a year from flower to fruit. That’s a long time. It’s a lot of work for a tree to produce," Laor said.

Come Tu BiShvat, the almond trees in Neot Kedumim and all over Israel will be covered in a cascade of white and light pink flowers. It is the first visual sign of the process of rejuvenation that starts the new agricultural cycle.  

"At Tu BiShvat time, those of us who work at Neot Kedumim step outside and go, 'Wow!' It's so lush and beautiful. It is truly a time of revival," Laor said. 

In the U.S., Jewish National Fund's lay leaders and staff will be hosting dozens of events throughout the country to mark the festival. Visit JNF's national Tu BiShvat Center webpage to find a celebration near you. In Israel, JNFuture Israel hosted a one-of-a-kind Tu BiShvat celebration and tasting seder on Sunday, January 24 in Tel Aviv. 

Celebrate Tu BiShvat with this almond-based treat from Neot Kedumim. 

Tahini and almond cookies
(Makes 35-40) 
Recipe by Natalie Levin of Oogio.net

1 cup all-purpose flour 
1 cup and 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour 
2.5 ounces ground almonds 
5.5 ounces unsalted butter, cut into cubes 
3/4 cup sugar 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
Pinch of salt 
2 tablespoons water 
3/4 cup and 2 tablespoons tahini paste

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a food processor, blend the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, ground almonds, butter, sugar, vanilla and salt, and process until the mixture has a crumbly consistency.

3. Add water and tahini and process until a smooth dough begins to form. Remove the dough from the food processor bowl and knead it until smooth. (If the dough feels very dry, dampen your hands and knead the dough slightly)

4. Create small balls of the dough, place them on the baking sheet, then flatten each one slightly with your fingers.

5. Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool completely and serve.

Note: Ground almonds are also called almond meal, almond flour, or almond powder, which is available at specialty markets or online. If you are unable to find it, grind ¾ cup of sliced blanched almonds in the food processor with the flours until powdery consistency is achieved.