An Urbanist Tu'b'Shevat Seder

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Next Wednesday night and Thursday, Jews celebrate Tu'b'Shevat, a day that thousands of years ago was the new year for trees- a concept then primarily of relevance to taxes paid on produce.  Several centuries ago, Jewish mystics revitalized this day with a special meal (known as a "seder" - Hebrew for "order") at which participants discussed the relationship between Jewish theology and various foods.  

Because the seder (unlike the more well known Passover seder) is merely an optional custom rather than an obligation of religious law, Jews have a lot of flexibility to mold these seders in their own ideological image.  As a result, this holiday has been discovered by Jewish environmentalists, who have created environmentally minded seders.  (For an example of an environmentalist seder go here; for a more traditional mystical seder go here). 

This year, I am experimenting with an urbanist seder.  It sees to me that a holiday related to trees is just as relevant to cities as it is to raw nature; most cities have quite a few trees, and one distinction between various types of city neighborhoods is the extent of foliage. 

In particular, I am structuring the seder around two traditions common to Tu'b'Shevat seders: the use of four cups of wine and the use of four different types of fruit.  (In addition to what I discuss below, I add more theological content that is probably not of much interest to a general audience). 

Tu'b'Shevat seders often contain four cups of wine (or grape juice for non-wine-drinkers).  The first cup is all white, the second mostly white, the third mostly red, the fourth all red.  This ritual is sometimes used to honor the four seasons- the first cup symbolizes winter, the second spring, and so forth.  But it seems to me that the four cups could easily be used to symbolize the evolution of the city. Just as trees seem lifeless during winter, the rural pre-city may seem lifeless as well, especially during winter: the trees are dead, and humans are few and far between.  But just as winter turns into spring, the rural pre-city turns into a village, which turns into a small town, which sometimes turn into a major metropolitan area.  The red last cup of wine, sometimes used to symbolize the heat and fire of summer, symbolizes the metropolis.  If well managed it can be a colorful, warm place- but if poorly managed a large city can be a place, if not of actual bloodshed, at least of smog and traffic-choked misery. Collectively, we can use our free will to turn the city into the ideal Jerusalem of the Temple or to a less savory environment.  

Similarly, the types of fruit are analogous to the types of urban and suburban neighborhoods.  The first type of fruit often consists of hard fruits such as nuts, which can symbolize the protection that the earth gives us.  These fruits, to me, are analogous to the perceived hardness of the concrete-dominated urban core (such as midtown Manhattan where I live).  But just as the hardness of the earth has its value, so does the urban core.  A strong urban core creates a place for large-scale employers to concentrate, and makes public transit more effective. The second type of fruit is soft, with a pit at its center- for example, peaches and apricots.  It seems to me that these fruits are somewhat analogous to non-core urban neighborhoods like Greenwich Village or Washington's Capitol Hill, where the "softness" of tree-lined residential streets balances out the perceived hardness of the city.  The third type of fruit is soft and completely edible; I use these to symbolize the "softness" of streetcar suburbs that are less intensely developed but still somewhat urban, like Boston's Brookline.  The fourth type of fruit has a tough skin but is soft inside- for example, avocados and bananas.  These neighborhoods are analogous to suburbs- if mismanaged, they can be pretty tough places, with car-choked main streets that are as much of a concrete jungle as any downtown or urban slum.  On the other hand, a well-planned suburb can be a slightly newer version of traditional streetcar suburbs, with all the benefits of such places. 

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.

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