Sunday, January 19, 2003

Under The Apple Tree

All over Israel and throughout the Jewish world, children and adults alike have been taking to the fields this week to plant trees. Amir and Merav’s schools both had field trips; Aviv’s kindergarten held a party with symbolic fruits and nuts. At work, they handed out a neatly wrapped package containing a variety of seeds and three small pots of dirt.

Yes, it’s Tu B’Shvat season, the New Year for the Trees. Every January, even the most urbane cafe crawlers rediscover their roots, if only for a few minutes while watching the Nature Channel. Tu B’Shvat is a holiday that everyone can share in equally, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof.

Yet when I think of tree plantings, I can’t help but be reminded of probably the most unusual ceremonies I’ve ever taken part in: the great Placenta Planting Party.

It was the spring of 1994. Our daughter Merav had been born six months earlier. Now, in our Berkeley days, we leaned heavily to the crunchy granola side of the spectrum. So after the birth, we asked the nurse if she could save Merav’s placenta for us. We had heard that there was once a tradition among the Jews to bury the placenta. This being Berkeley, the nurse didn’t even lift a pierced eyebrow.

“What do they do with placenta if you don’t take it home,” I had asked earlier.

“It’s thrown out with the garbage, mainly. Sometimes used for medical research,” the nurse had responded.

That just didn’t sit right. Our taking home the placenta seemed like an act of preservation.

The placenta was delivered to us in an extra large Ziploc baggie, but we transferred it to a plastic chicken soup container (minus the soup), which we had brought along for just this reason. We packed the placenta in the back of the freezer, since we didn’t know where we were going to bury it yet, or exactly the reasons why. We set out to research the matter.

With the help of our community’s Rabbi, we found tantalizing clues. In Tractate Shabbat of the Palestinian Talmud, there is a line: “both the rich and the poor bury it to give a pledge to the earth.” We also learned that, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in the Babylonian Talmud, placentas delivered on Shabbat were preserved in different ways according to status: “daughters of kings in a bowl of oil, daughters of the rich in cotton sponges, the poor in rags.”

And more: Yemenite Jews had the custom to bury the placenta in a deep pit to ensure that it will not “fall into the hands of strangers or evil people.” This stemmed apparently from the belief that if someone has in his or her possession a body part of another person, he has control over that person.

All of this was enough for us.

In the meantime, the placenta in the freezer became a running joke, a means of mercilessly teasing our more squeamish friends, which consisted of basically everyone. For some, we’d bring it out for show and tell. For others, the mere hint of opening the freezer door was enough to generate the desired reaction.

“Can I get you something for dinner, Harry? I’m sure I can defrost something quickly”

“Well, what have you got?”

“Well, let’s see…there’s some frozen tomato and garlic soup, pasta with meatballs. And oh yes, there’s a lovely placenta.”

“Did you say polenta? I love that stuff!”

“Umm, not exactly…”

As the fall turned into winter, we became friends with a number of other families who had also recently given birth and who, remarkably, had also saved their respective placentas. We all shared a desire for some sort of a planting ceremony. We secured a spot in the backyard of the synagogue.

The Placenta Planting Party took place on a warm spring afternoon. There were two placentas, a foreskin, and a couple of shriveled up umbilical cords. Each couple prepared something to say. We wrote down blessings for our children, which we tossed into the hole we had dug. One of the more academically inclined threw down a floppy disc with his best wishes along with a copy of his unfinished novel.

If you have ever seen a placenta spread out in all its glory, it is truly a sight to behold. Deep red bordering on purple, with sinewy spider web tentacles reaching out from a place of nourishment, the long umbilical cord dangling from one end. It is so far from human, yet it is not entirely alien either. Familiar and gross all at once, it is said that its touch is like the smoothest of satin.

We wore gloves.

When everything was in the hole and we had covered it all with dirt, we planted a small apple tree on the spot. We then left for Israel a few months later.

We have visited Berkeley occasionally over the years, but have never had the opportunity to visit the site of that tree. Until last summer. We were invited to a backyard wedding of good friends and by this time had almost forgotten about our adventure from so many years before.

Until we saw it.

The small seedling we had planted those eight years before had grown and blossomed into a magnificent apple tree, full of fruit, healthy, unusually robust. Jody and I stopped and stared at it, and then we just burst out laughing.

As we had our picture taken underneath the tree, we remarked to anyone who would listen that this tree had received special nourishment.

“Why’s that?” the unsuspecting listener would ask.

And then, with a delicious sense of anticipation, we opened the freezer door once more.

Happy planting wherever you are this Tu B’Shvat!

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