Saturday, January 26, 2013

D'var on Tu B'Shevat


You might not realize it, but today is not only Sisterhood Shabbat and Shabbat Shira, but it is also Tu B’Shevat– literally, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat -  and it is the new year of the trees. It always seems so incongruous in New England, where spring is still far away, and the trees are often covered with snow.  But in Israel, it’s the beginning of spring. 

When I was growing up, my dad was the Hebrew school principal at Temple Emanuel in Newton, so most of my childhood memories of Tu B’Shevat revolve around packaging up what seemed like mountains of almonds, figs, dates, and little boxes of raisins into baggies for the Hebrew school kids. This was no small task since, at the time, there were about 600 or 700 kids in the Hebrew school there.  

Like most American kids in the 60s and 70s, we ate common fruits like apples and bananas all the time, but Tu B’Shevat was the only time of year we ate dates and figs. They were so chewy and so sweet, with a strange thick texture on your tongue. 

Another memory from the Tu B’Shevat is those little blue and white metal JNF boxes. I know they are still around today, and I found out from my research  that they have been around for over 100 years. We were encouraged to go around our neighborhood collecting money that would then be used to plant trees in Israel. 

My next Tu B’Shevat memory is from my time with the Progressive Chavurah, a religious and social group I belonged to in my 20s and 30s. That was the first time I experienced a Tu B’Shevat seder, the kabbalistic and delicious ceremony that involved eating many different kinds of fruits and drinking many different kinds of wine. If you’ve never experienced a Tu B’Shevat seder, I urge you to do so. There is something so wonderful about eating many many different kinds of fruits during the coldest part of the winter. It warms your soul. Not to mention the wine part.

Another fond memory is when my husband Arnie and I flew to someplace warm on Tu B’Shevat, and we took with us what we called “Tu B’Shevat Mix”, a combination of nuts, dates, raisins, and other dried fruits so we could have our own little Tu B’Shevat celebration on the plane.

In ancient times, Tu B’Shevat was really just a date on the calendar to help Jewish farmers establish exactly when they should bring their produce from recently planted trees to the Temple as first fruit offerings.  Once the second temple was destroyed, there were no more fruit offerings, and this holiday could have easily disappeared. However, it was revived in the 16th century by the kabbalists (mystics) of Safed in Israel as a new ritual called the Feast of Fruits.  Somewhat similar to a Passover seder – but with less cleaning and rules – participants would read selections from the bible and rabbinic literature, and eat fruits and nuts associated with the land of Israel. According to the Torah, there are 2 grains  and 5 fruits associated with Israel, known at the shivat haminim, or seven species: wheat and barley, fruit of the vine (grapes), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Almonds were also included as almond trees were the first to blossom in Israel. The first Tu B’Shevat Haggadah was produced in 1753.

Now this custom is experiencing a renewal in the U.S. and elsewhere. In creating a Tu B’Shevat seder, you have lots of license, and you can really do anything you want, but most Tu B’Shevat seders have a basic structure in that they divide fruits into categories, according to their shell or skin – is it edible or not?, and whether they have a pit or core. For example, one category is fruit or nuts with a hard or inedible shell but an edible inner core. A second is a category in which the core is inedible, but the outside is edible. A third is those fruits that are edible throughout.

In addition, there are four cups of wine:  all white, white with a bit of red, red with some white, and all red. There are different explanations for this practice, most of which have to do with the transformation of winter into spring and summer, and all of them very tasty.

Thinking about the descriptions of the different fruit categories, what struck me is how these relate to human qualities or characteristics as well. 

The first category is fruits or nuts with an inedible outer shell and an edible inner core: examples are pineapple, coconut, orange, banana, walnut, pecan, grapefruit, pomegranate, papaya, brazil nut, pistachio, or almond.  Can you think of people who fit this description? Hard on the outside, soft on the inside? Joel Ziff, in his book Mirrors in Time, describes this type of person as someone “who has developed a shell to protect from real and imagined assault.” 

The second category is fruit with edible outer flesh and inedible cores: olive, date, cherry, peach, apricot, avocado, or plum.  Can you think of people who fit this description? Soft on the outside but tough on the inside. Ziff describes this as a stage in which we expose our vulnerability.

The third category is fruits which are edible throughout. These have no protective shells, and may be eaten entirely and include: strawberry, grape, raisin, fig, raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, carob, apple, pear.  Can you think of people who have no protective shell at all, who are soft and yielding both inside and out? Ziff describes this stage as one in which we are fully integrated,  we can both contain and express our feelings appropriately. 

According to one school of Kabbalah called Lurianic Kabbalah (which is a form of mysticism studied by the students of Isaac Luria), every living thing – people as well as fruits and nuts - hides within them a spark of the Divine Presence. In Jewish mysticism, human actions can release these sparks and help increase G-d's presence in the world. On Tu Bishvat, the kabbalists would eat certain fruits associated with the land of Israel as a symbolic way of releasing these divine sparks.

May our enjoyment of different types of fruits release new life and growth within us at this cold time of year, reminding us that spring will eventually come. And may our actions release divine sparks, increasing G-d’s presence in the world.

Shabbat Shalom

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Reflection on four years

It's exactly four years since my breast cancer diagnosis in early January 2009, and I thought I'd take a moment for some reflection.

Since that time, I've endured two surgeries, radiation, daily doses of tamoxifen, taken part in a study that made me quite sick, dealt with multiple doctors and therapists in order to recover from that, joined the board of a breast cancer organization that had a good mission but bad karma, endured that for two years and then quit, and now...I'm not sure what I will do next. I have a scar on my breast and one under my arm from the sentinel node biopsy, tiny black "tattoos" on my torso from the radiation treatments, I'm in pseudo-menopause from the tamoxifen (hot flashes, putting on weight), and as far as I can tell I don't have breast cancer anymore. Although it could come back, and that's a fear that I have to live with for the rest of my life.

I am still firmly convinced that chemicals in our environment are causing the increase in breast cancer, in other cancers, and in all sorts of diseases and syndromes (ADD, ADHD, autism spectrum diseases, autoimmune diseases, etc.). The evidence points toward this. But because it is difficult to prove that this particular exposure causes this particular cancer or disease, most people just don't put two and two together.

On the flip side, I still think that many, many women are over-diagnosed with breast cancer and then over-treated (you can read about it here and here). That is to say, a small tumor is seen on a mammogram and because we don't have the capability yet of determining if this cancer will grow or stay put, it is treated with guns blazing (surgery, radiation, chemo, and even prophylactic mastectomy) even though it is probably not necessary.
"For mammography screening to work, it must take women who are destined to develop late-stage cancers and find them when they're early-stage," [says] Dr. H. Gilbert Welch... "Unfortunately, it looks like screening has had very little impact on the rate at which women present with late-stage cancer." 
In other words, all these breast cancers that we are catching early don't mean that women aren't progressing to late-stage cancer. It just means that more women whose cancers wouldn't have ever progressed are being over-treated. There are still plenty of women who are treated early and still go on to have metastatic disease. And people die of metastatic disease, not of breast tumors.

There are some organizations that I have found helpful in this journey. Breastcancer.org is a great place to go for solid information. I like using the discussion boards, too, although I find that the women there tend to opt for over-treatment instead of more conservative approaches. Breast Cancer Action is a great advocacy organization, and I like Breast Cancer Fund as well although I feel they are a bit too sure of themselves (i.e. ahead of the science) about the links between consumer products and breast cancer. Silent Spring is my favorite scientific organization, doing important research into the actual causes of breast cancer with an eye toward prevention.

I know lots of people who have had breast cancer, including some very young, and some who have died. I know some whose breast cancer metastasized and they don't know what will happen next. I know someone with ovarian and uterine cancer, who is in remission, but will never be cured. I know someone who died of lung cancer when her kids were teenagers, and she never smoked or had other risk factors. There is way too much cancer happening to people....way too much. And we still have so much to learn about cancer.

I'm grateful for my health, but angry about certain aspects of my experience, and even angrier about all the cancer that is happening around me. And I don't know exactly what to do about it.