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Tu B'Shvat Here and There
by Judy Lash Balint
February 13, 2006

Hours later, the scent of citrus is still on my hands. I know Tu B'shvat isn't much of a holiday outside Israel, but here, the New Year for Trees is an opportunity to physically connect with the land and it's bounty. In honor of Tu B'Shvat, my son and I picked tangerines for the Table to Table organization at a citrus grove just outside Ashkelon.

Citrus is just about the easiest fruit to pick--no bending down; everything is at eye level; no prickly thorns and there's a gratifying thunk every time one of the heavy, juice-laden fruit fills up the bag.

It's been years since I last picked fruit as a kibbutz volunteer and I'd forgotten the intoxicating combination of the scent of acres of oranges, grapefruit and tangerines combined with the exhilaration of working outside on the land far away from the noise of the city.

Combine that with the satisfaction of helping out a dynamic organization committed to "food rescue" and the day is just about perfect.

Table To Table is just three years old and was started by a South African immigrant concerned that good food was going to waste while thousands of Israelis rely on food banks and soup kitchens. He started collecting unused food from catered simchas, but in a few short years the effort has grown to incorporate Project Leket that matches volunteers like us with farmers whose end-of-harvest produce would just rot; a trucking program that uses refrigerated trucks to pick up food from army bases, corporate cafeterias, factories, farms and packing houses and delivers it to social service organizations, as well as the original Night Rescue initiative that still collects food from wedding halls and other simcha venues.

Today, at the Pri Or orchards outside Ashkelon, it's two guys from Mercaz Hesed in nearby Sderot, a town under constant Kassam rocket attack, who drive in their truck to load and deliver the freshly picked produce to the needy.

After picking, we're too close to Nitzanim, one of Israel's best beaches, to pass it by. The beautiful beach just beyond the sand dune national park is absolutely deserted. Just down the road, we pay a visit to the new Jewish refugee camp of Nitzan--"home" to more than 350 families kicked out of their homes in Gush Katif. The area has expanded since I was last there a few weeks ago--but the aimless kids with sad faces still roam the streets, and the complete lack of normalcy--no work, no shops, no schools--is still apparent.

On the way back to Jerusalem a brief stop in Abu Ghosh, an Israeli Arab village on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, allows me to indulge my craving for a real cup of Turkish coffee. Just 15 minutes later we're driving through Meah Shearim on the way home. Tu B'Shvat isn't exactly a huge holiday for either of these communities, but the sheer variety of scenery and people we encounter in a few short hours is quite stunning.

Last night, a few of us gathered for a traditional Tu B'shvat seder in a friend's home in Kochav Yakov, just north of Jerusalem. All of us had been affiliated with a Sephardic synagogue back in the US where the Fruticas event was a highlight of the year. The seder incorporates blessing and eating a variety of fruits grown here and someone pointed out how back in the old country we'd always have to say, "this fruit is LIKE what they eat in Israel." Not any more. Here we're picking, eating and blessing the fruit of our own land.

I think that citrus smell will be lingering on my hands--and in my mind for a while.