4:32pm

Tue March 13, 2012
Arts & Culture

A New Year for Trees at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum

At a Berkeley city farm called Urban Adamah, about 100 people are gathered under a large, white, open-air tent. It’s a cold, raining evening in early February – but nevermind the weather. This is a festive occasion. Pomegranates, olives and other fruits and wines fill the tables to celebrate a little-known Jewish holiday called Tu B’shevat.

Tu B’shevat is the New Year for Trees, and takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which is January or February, depending on the year. In ancient times, This new year for trees had practical meaning: the Torah commanded the Israelites not to harvest fruit for three years after planting, and trees planted before Tu B’shevat were considered one year old on that day.  

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Kabbalist mystics revived Tu B’Shevat. They added festive customs, imbued with spirituality. About 100 years ago, the holiday became a day of tree planting, especially in Israel. More recently, Jewish environmentalists embraced the holiday as a way of appreciating, connecting with, and caring for the Earth. And celebrations like that at Urban Adamah are increasingly popular.

“In the past few years we've really noticed this new interest in the holiday of Tu B'shevat,” says Dara Solomon, the curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Every few years, the museum invites artists to create new pieces around a holiday theme. This year is the 9th such exhibit.

“We had sort of run out of Jewish holidays,” Solomon says of this year. “Last time we did the seder plate. Before that, we did the spice box. So we’d done the more expected and little more of the unusual rituals.”

And she says, the growing popularity of Tu B’shevat convinced the museum that the holiday was worth an exhibit. They chose the title Do Not Destroy, a nod to a Bible verse that forbids the destruction of trees during wartime: “When in your war against a city you have to beseige it a long time in order to capture it, do not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.”

The exhibit feauters trees of all kinds. There’s a large painting of a fallen trunk, a photograph of an upside down oak, a mythical depiction of a German birch forest.

High on a monitor, a video camera lens stays fixed on the top of a chestnut tree, whose leaves wave softly in the wind. It’s a piece by artist Jason Lazarus. Anne Frank wrote about this tree, which she could see from her hiding place in an Amsterdam Attic during World War II. Solomon says that tree was a witness to history, as are all the trees that surround us every day.

“We live here. We die,” she says. “But often trees stay, and they’ve seen so much that’s happened around us.”

The second part of the show displays pieces from 50 artists who were invited to create new works from reclaimed wood. A piece by San Francisco artist Luke Bartels comprises of a series of wood blocks molded like gold bars and stacked in the shape of a pyramid. They’re stamped with the words “Pure Wood.”

It’s a commentary, the artist says, on the way we assign values to commodities. And it’s meant to make us think: What is our relationship to trees? Do we appreciate the source of fruit, wood and paper? And just what is the value of the serenity trees can provide?

A work by a Portuguese artist named Gabriele Albergaria originates from two trees that were taken down from Golden Gate Park. I wonder how many people walked by without ever noticing how truly incredible they are. In the museum, you can’t help but notice: you’re meant to look at their thick, twisting branches weaving upward toward the sky.

I think of the opening lines children’s book by Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree: "Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest." The boy grows up. When he needs money, the tree tells him to sell her apples. When he needs a house, she instructs him to cut down her branches. And when he’s old and needs a place to rest, she invites him to sit on her stump.

The story is a reminder that trees stand for life, giving and serenity. Inspired by the holiday Tu B’shevat, the works in Do Not Destroy ask us if these are values we want to preserve.

Do Not Destroy will be at San Francisco’s Jewish Contemporary Museum through May 28.

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