Aliyah diary: Eternal kumquats

Aliyah diary: Eternal kumquats

This kumquat tree, planted by mistake, has “a special, holy status” because it began growing during Israel’s sabbatical year. Abigail Klein Leichman

I just read a new philosophy book, Zev Golan’s “God, Man and Nietzsche,” in which I came across this intriguing idea: “All events that occur, occur forever at once, within God, as eternal occurrences. For God the past, present and future are undifferentiated.”

A difficult concept for humans to grasp? Not here. In Israel, ancient and modern are all jumbled together:

“¢ In the valley far below our garden, a Bedouin shepherd whistles to his grazing flocks as I sit outside typing on my laptop.

“¢ A friend and I sip moccachiato and chai latte at a glass-walled café in Ma’aleh Adumim while enjoying a vista virtually unchanged since the days of Joshua.

“¢ The traffic to Jerusalem is at a standstill because workers laying tracks for the Jerusalem Light Rail project discovered what looked like significant artifacts. So, at the height of rush hour, the Antiquities Authority set up a tent over the highway and began evaluating the finds.

Every developed nation has a history beneath its modern surface. But in Israel, the lines between old and new are timelessly blurred.

And what makes it exciting and meaningful to me is the pervasive awareness that this is my own living history. That shepherd in the valley below? Courtesy of Abraham, we are cousins. That biblical vista? It’s what my forebears saw as they journeyed here by foot after 40 years in the wilderness. And the potsherds under the tracks may have been made by people with whom I share DNA.

All of this leads to an indescribable sense of belonging that far overshadows the strangeness of being an American transplanted here in midlife. If my ancient roots are here, then the soil and the stones that surround us are an organic and eternal part of me.

Which brings me to kumquats.

In October, Shmulik the gardener planted six fruit trees in our backyard. He let us choose which varieties we wanted from a list of species that do well in the desert. We chose plum, pomegranate, pear, pecan, nectarine, and … kumquats.

The last was a mistake on my part. Shmulik referred to that choice as “tapuz katan,” “small orange,” and I thought that meant clementines.

Now, the kumquats are beautiful. They punctuate our garden with points of orange. Lots of points. I have rarely seen a more fruitful fruit tree.

The problem is, hardly anybody likes them. I had to watch an Internet video demonstration to understand how to eat them – whole, with the rind – and when I explain this to guests they look askance at me and pass the fruit bowl to the next person. I’ve given bagsful of them away as gifts, hoping somebody will enjoy them.

My mother was visiting us recently and suggested making kumquat preserves. The very idea made me want to gag, but she thought she’d like it, so I picked a bunch of fruit, washed it well, and handed her a knife and a pot.

A few cups of sugar and a few hours later, there was a lovely batch of preserves being ladled into a jar. We enveloped it in bubble wrap and sent it home with my mother for a little taste of Israel in Yonkers.

We had to make sure she understood the ramifications of these particular citrus fruits. Because they began growing during the shmittah (sabbatical) year that ended right before our garden was planted, these kumquats have a special holy status. It is a mitzvah to eat them and it is forbidden to waste them.

According to biblical laws, shmittah produce is ownerless. It is available to anybody and belongs to no one, and yet it has to be handled with care. Any edible part that is not used – say, a peel – must be disposed of in a separate receptacle and left to rot before being thrown away.

This is to ingrain in us the idea that the Land of Israel and its produce are a precious gift to be shared and not hoarded, and by refraining from planting during that time, we understand that even the earth must rest every seven years just as we rest every seven days. These concepts are unique to the Promised Land and add a whole new layer of reverence for the things we eat.

Planted in a brand-new backyard in an ancient setting, the kumquats are an orange link in the chain of the history of Jewish agriculture. They remind us of the many sabbatical years past and give us hope of sabbatical years to come. You could say these odd little fruits symbolize the past, present, and future undifferentiated.

And if you like kumquats, please stop by on your next trip to Israel. Have I got a treat for you!

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