This Saturday is Tu B’Shvat, the so-called New Year for the Trees and everywhere you look in Israel people are trying to sell you dried fruit for the festival. There’s one obvious question. Why?
The shelves in every supermarket are brimming with scrumptious fresh fruit. Israel is famous for its oranges and the season is at its height. There are the numerous citrus varieties with which Jaffa has made its mark — the pomelo, the pomelit etc. And there are fruits that most of the Western world describes as “summer fruits” that, due to feats of farming, are in season here. The most popular is the strawberry, currently being shipped by the crate full across the world from Ben Gurion airport. So why on earth are Israelis going crazy buying dried fruit? It’s like going to the Caribbean and binging on tinned pineapple.
Ask Israelis why they eat it and you will invariably get the same answer — “tradition.” If you unpack this a little you find something fascinating. Dried fruit on Tu B’Shvat is a primarily Ashkenazi tradition, and one which is rather simple to explain. The festival may be the start of the Israeli spring, but it is deep winter in Europe, and historically there was little fresh fruit on the market, hence the dried fruit.
So here we have a most peculiar instance of modern Israelis celebrating a festival that marks the start of the spring and the rhythm of the agricultural cycle in this part of the world by ignoring spring produce and eating preserved fruit instead — because that’s what their ancestors did when they lived thousands of miles from Israel.
This flies in the face of what happened with most Jewish festivals upon the establishment of the State of Israel, with Zionists giving festivals new interpretations and changing the way they were marked. Take Hanukkah for example. It became less about the miracle of the oil and more about the military victory of the Maccabees because that suited the Zionist ethos of Jewish assertiveness. And the modern Hanukkah doughnut came in to being.
So why didn’t Israelis stop marking Tu B’Shvat in this quintessentially Diaspora manner? There seems to be only one convincing explanation. Shops make money out of festivals here by getting people to buy something extra, something that isn’t on their normal shopping list. People buy fresh fruit whether it’s Tu B’Shvat or not, but selling a fancy basket of dried fruit means extra revenue. And so, it seems a Diaspora tradition survives — not due to nostalgia, not due to a desire to preserve Ashkenazic heritage, but due to simple market economics.