It never fails—just when the worst of my seasonal affective “blahs” kicks in, it’s time for Tu Bishevat, the Jewish celebration of trees, taking care of the earth and celebrating the cycles of nature. Tu Bishevat is an evolving Jewish holiday, whose meaning and symbolism touches on the kabbalistic spiritual worlds, our connection to Israel and to contemporary eco-Judaism.
Tu Bishevat lifts my spirit—helping me to dream about spring coming, even as I’m slushing through the snow; inspiring me to notice the beauty of winter’s landscape, the bare branches reaching into the cold, blue sky.
My son George, 12, was born on Tu Bishevat, making my connection to the holiday even deeper. George has autism and intellectual disabilities and many of the ways that I’ve taught him about Jewish life are through experiences. He loves to sing Jewish songs, to lift his cup on Friday night and lead the Kiddush at our Shabbat table and he loves to cook Jewish foods.
It’s customary at Tu Bishevat to eat fruits and nuts that grow on trees—and for many of us in the autism world whose children are gluten and dairy-free—this is one holiday where our kids can actually eat everything on the table!
Tu Bishevat is a time to experiment with some new fruits—if your child has never tasted some of Israel’s sweet varieties like dates or figs, you can introduce them now. Many of our kids get stuck in ruts, have sensory issues that affect feeding and/or can be hesitant to try variations in diet.
Getting kids into the kitchen to help prepare food can be a helpful way to move them towards the next step of tasting a new food. Cooking helps to give children a sense of power—they get the opportunity to touch, smell and observe what goes into the food that we are asking them to taste.
One simple recipe that I started working on with George when he was only four years old was making a fruit salad. You can download a copy of the step-by-step visual directions for fruit salad that I wrote for my children’s cookbook The Kitchen Classroom. I’ve used this recipe with children who have very complicated motor issues and have found something that everyone can do—from washing and pulling grapes off the stems to slicing bananas with a plastic knife.
To make it a special Tu Bishevat fruit salad, be sure to include:
- A fruit native to Israel (oranges, dates, figs, pomegranate, etc.)
- A fruit with a peel (banana, clementine, etc.)
- A fruit with a pit (apricot, mango, peach, etc.)
- A fruit that can be eaten all of the way through (grapes, strawberries, etc.)
As you and your children prepare the fruit together, you can point out these differences. When it’s all mixed together, encourage your child to try it. It’s okay to pick out his/her favorite fruit. Depending on where your child is with eating, just tolerating having the new fruits on his/her plate is a successful first step.
When you establish the tradition of celebrating Tu Bishevat by preparing the delicious, sweet, perfect foods that come to us on trees with your child, you can return to this custom each year and encourage your child to try more and more new fruits each season.
If you want to try another fun Tu Bishevat cooking activity, check out this video clip of my colleague Lori Rubin and I making Tu Bishevat chocolate bark—yum!
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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is the author of The Kitchen Classroom and loves teaching inclusive cooking classes. She directs Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture and coordinates Celebrations! at Mishkan Shalom.