«If you say ‘Tu BiShvat,’ Bukharians won’t understand,» Rabbi Yehoshua explained over the phone to me. (My editor Rafael Nektalov had mentioned Bukharians have a unique way of celebrating the holiday, instructing me to call Rabbi Yehoshua, his longtime friend.)
Tu BiShvat — the day that marks the beginning of the «new year» or «rosh Hashanah» for trees, which this year will take place from the eve of Wed, Jan. 24 to the eve of Thu, Jan. 25 — is instead known as «Haft Meva Khury» in Bukhari, meaning «the eve of the seven fruits of the land of Israel,» said Rabbi Yehoshua. «It’s like the national holiday of Bukharian Jews.»
Silk Road Jews, otherwise known as Bukharian Jews in Central Asia, maintained a strong connection to the land of Israel despite the geographical distance. Each year, until the Soviet period, they would undertake a challenging journey through the deserts of Central Asia, crossing Afghanistan, Persia, Iraq, Syria and Israel on the backs of camels and donkeys, which spanned approximately three months, according to Rabbi Yehoshua. Upon reaching the land of Israel, they would stay for an extended period, up to one year, before returning. (Traveling to Israel at least once in your life is important, says Rabbi Yehoshua, in order to be a good Jew.) During their time in Israel, they would purchase fruits and vegetables, in particular, olives, which were absent in Central Asia. This connection to Israel became particularly significant during Tu BiShvat.
To preserve these fruits for an extended period, the Bukharian Jews would dry them. This practice of drying fruits became crucial for sustaining their food supplies for more than a year. Even today, Bukharian Jews continue this tradition. On Tu Bishvat, they place seven fruits blessed by the land of Israel on the table— wheat, barley, grapes (or wine), figs, pomegranate, dates, and olives, symbolizing a connection to their roots. («They wouldn’t eat bread on purpose, because all the other brachot on the fruits and vegetables are included in the bread,» said Rabbi Yehoshua.) This celebration reflects the enduring bond between the Jewish people and their ancestral land, emphasizing the importance of preserving traditions across generations. Moreover, it’s a time when everyone gathers to pray for a return to eretz Yisrael, to live there as a nation off the land, and not in a diaspora.
«My great grandfather Shalom was the last to make this journey in 1890, when he came with 20 of his friends on a journey that took three months each way,» said Rabbi Yehoshua. «Richer people would travel via the Black Sea to Turkey. They would make it in one month. This was the fastest way to Israel.»
Despite this, when the Soviets came in 1930s to Central Asia and collected the names of people who were wealthy, i.e. the enemies of communism, «my grandparents fled overnight, traveling through desserts with their children to Israel,» said Rabbi Yehoshua.
For those who remained, there was little if zero access to Israel during that time. Fortunately, Central Asia is renowned for its dried fruits, like apricots, plums, and raisins. «They would take what resembled the dried fruits found in Israel to represent it. And in Central Asia, we had beautiful, dried fruits, totally organic, and they’re kosher because they’re made without any chemicals,» said Rabbi Yehoshua, in contrast with what is found in America.
For this reason, even here in America, Bukharian Jews continue to have the tradition of eating dried fruits at Tu BiShvat.

Arboreal Idioms

Bukharian Jews have several idioms that draw connections to trees:

  1. «Sev az drakht nemafta»: This idiom, meaning «the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,» is widely understood internationally.
  2. «Drakht kach rost nemesho»: Translated as «If the trunk is crooked, you cannot make it straight,» the lesson conveyed is to start things right from the beginning, as it’s challenging to correct later, says Rabbi Yehoshua. He likes to emphasize that if the trunk grows up nicely, it will never grow crooked. «As descendants of Jacob and Abraham, known for their straight trunks, we, Jews, in general, are inherently good people. Wind may move us, but our essence is pure,» he said.
  3. «Olu olu rang negirad ham soya az ham soya faham negirad»: This expression warns about peer pressure, stating, «When your neighbor’s plums start to blossom, you want to imitate them.» It serves as a cautionary reminder to be mindful of the influence of others and resist succumbing to unnecessary pressures.

A Fruitful Story

Rabbi Yehoshua shared a story that was passed down from his great-grandfather to his grandfather and eventually to him:
Once upon a time, a king visited his people and noticed an elderly man planting a date tree.
He questioned the old man, asking why he was planting a tree at his age. He explained that his grandfather had planted the tree when his grandfather was alive, and as his grandson, he had enjoyed the fruits. Now, he was planting for his grandchildren to savor. It wasn’t just for himself; it was for the next generation.
The king, moved by this foresight, blessed the old man. Grateful for his thoughtful consideration of the future, the king rewarded him with a bucket full of gold. The moral of the story is clear – when planting, you think beyond yourself and consider the generations to come.
Recognizing how our actions today shape the world for tomorrow, Rabbi Yehoshua concluded the story by saying, «Continuity is important because life goes on and we need to plant seeds for a better future.»

Erin Levi