Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Peach Trees - Omer Day 40

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu, elohei Avraham....
Blessed are You, Lord our God, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham....

My teacher, Rabbi Shohama Weiner, instructed the class: “As you meditate on this prayer, focus on one of your ancestors, either familial or Biblical. Then wait and listen; you may receive a message from him or her.”

I focused on my father, at that time already gone for 27 years, who had been on my mind much of late. Thoughts of him filled my mind, and then, suddenly, powerfully, I felt a message coming from him, “Plant peach trees.”

Peach trees. Not a tree; trees.

Later, I told my teacher about it. “Perhaps they are figurative trees,” she suggested.

But I knew my father. He was a gardener—he’d planted a vineyard and a whole orchard of fruit trees on our rural home in southwestern Wisconsin. No, I knew, these were real trees.

It was November, and not tree-planting time, but the next month, I—far from the gardener my father had been—searched the Internet until I found a nursery that felt comfortable to me, and I ordered two dwarf peach trees, one Alberta and one Red Haven.

It was a long, snowy winter, but spring and my two little peach trees finally arrived. I planted them at the edge of the small meadow that rimmed our back yard. I put a concrete block near the two trees for a seat and in that spot I felt my father’s presence and I felt peace. All spring my father hovered in that space, and I often sat beside the trees to recite Mincha, the afternoon prayers.

When I told my mother about the fruit trees, she gave me a Chinese painting of peaches done by our long-time family friend and neighbor, Karl Lee. She also told me a story I didn't remember. When we had lived in Madison, my parents had a whole extra lot so that my father could have a large vegetable garden, and on that lot he had planted several fruit trees—including a peach tree, its origins lost now to memory, that had borne extra-delicious, sweet and juicy peaches. When my parents decided to move to the country, my father saved pits from the peaches of that tree. It was the only peach tree around, so, as my mother explained, it must have been self-pollinating and true-breeding. My father gave the pits cold treatment and then planted them in the greenhouse at the University, where he was on the faculty of the Botany Department. Once the trees became large enough, my father and Karl poured over garden catalogs, searching for the hardiest peach trees they could find, peach trees that would survive the harsh Wisconsin winters. They ordered the trees, and planted them. Once these commercial trees were well established, the two friends grafted branches that grew from the seeds of the tree in our yard onto the hardy trees they had ordered.

I began to try to connect my experience with peaches to Jewish texts and tradition. I searched and searched for something about afarsakimpeaches—that touched me, but in vain. Nothing spoke to me. I began to despair.

But as time went by, I began to think I was asking the wrong question. Maybe this wasn’t a story about peaches. Maybe this was a story about friendship.

I thought about my father. He was raised in poverty on a New England farm, the only one of six siblings to get a college education; he became a college professor and lived in an entirely different world than the rest of his family. His friend, Karl Lee, was born in China, became a leading member of the Third Party, and was forced to flee his native country after the revolution; he lived the remainder of his life in a foreign country. Both men loved the land. Karl, with his gardens, his chicken hutches, and his falcon pens, recreated a tiny corner of China on the Wisconsin landscape. I pictured the two of them, hunching over garden catalogs, grafting and planting peach trees, pruning the trees, and eventually harvesting plump tawny fruit. The earth brought them together, these two displaced persons, and nourished them. Friendship grew even as the trees grew.

This wasn’t about peach trees. It was about friendship. Friendship and healing, nourished by trees.
Etz chayim hei l’makazikim ba. It [the Torah] is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.

Friendship. It flows now between my mother and I. But I was only 25 when my father died—too young for mature friendship. The message was to plant trees—one is not enough; two are needed for friendship.

My mentor, Sheila Goldberg, reminded me of the story of Honi. Honi, as an old man, planted a carob tree, not for himself, but for future generations.

My father grew trees and friendship with Karl Lee.

Now, I, too, have trees, and through them, I, too, have grown a friendship, with my father. The trees and the friendship are for me, but the fruits will only be fully appreciated in the next generation, for only by becoming friends with my father will I be able to be friends with my sons.

After many months, I received a translation of the Chinese words on Karl’s painting: "Paul, older brother, is deceased. Younger brother Ya and my wife Lan Sun, daughter Shi Ling , grandson Li Ming, granddaughter Li Ling, all together mourn. November, 1976.”

November 1976: that was when my father died. My father was the younger of the two men. I assumed that Karl meant his words as a sign of honor to my father.

I called my mother. She told me that Karl had painted this picture when my father died. At the memorial service, Karl’s painting stood in full view for all to see as they entered.

I was right. The peaches were about friendship.

The next spring, I discovered that one of my peach trees had not survived. The cold winter that year had killed it. But it was only the peach tree that died. I was fine. When the spring garden catalog arrived, I discovered a peach tree bred in New Hampshiresurely it would be hardy enough to survive in Massachusetts. I quickly ordered the tree and planted it, and in doing so I learned that the peach trees had done their work. My heart and my soul were in a different place.

My father and I were friends at last.

Today is Day 40, which is five weeks and five days of the Omer.
Today is Day 40, which is five weeks and five days of the journey from bondage to revelation.

"Peach Trees" is Excerpted from Loss and Transformation: One Woman's Journey Out of Grief to Opportunity, by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen, © Katy Z. Allen, 2015.

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as a Nature Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is a co-convener and coordinator of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network

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