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"Tu B'Shevat" (2003) by Mark Podwal. Acrylic and colored pencil. Credit: Mark Podwal.
"Tu B'Shevat" (2003) by Mark Podwal. Acrylic and colored pencil. Credit: Mark Podwal.
featureJewish & Israeli Holidays

Tu B’Shevat painting celebrates JNF turning Israel green

Mark Podwal often synthesizes the historical and contemporary in his artwork.

An iconic blue-and-white Jewish National Fund pushke–charity box–bearing the Hebrew inscription Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael is set against an atmospheric tan background. Yet one would have some difficulty inserting coins in this box, as a young fig tree sprouts from the coin slot, bearing three bright green leaves and a deep purple fruit.

N.Y. artist Mark Podwal shared the acrylic paint and colored pencil drawing on Instagram to honor the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees, which this year falls on Feb. 6.

“In contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration,” wrote Podwal. “According to legend, trees kiss and wish one another a happy new year.”

Podwal–whose artistic resume includes illustrating many of Elie Wiesel’s books, designing the parochet (curtain) for the ark in Prague’s Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue) and creating posters for New York’s Metropolitan Opera–told JNS that he hopes the painting will remind viewers about the holiday.

Older people will remember putting coins in the tin JNF boxes, although few will know that those pushkes date back 1894, when those who attended a Workers for Zion meeting were asked to put coins in a box to help reclaim the land of Israel and facilitate immigration to it.

“Tu B’Shevat” by Mark Podwal. Acrylic and colored pencil. Credit: Mark Podwal

“Inspired by the idea of ‘a dime and another dime,’ the first boxes were ready for distribution in 1904, and one of them was placed by Herzl himself in his office,” said Podwal. “Hopefully, the image also is a reminder that Israel’s landscape has been turned green through the donation of funds.”

Podwal, who has created other Tu B’Shevat-related artworks in the past–one of which was part of an exhibition of his at the Israel Museum–had his most memorable experience of the holiday some 10 years ago in Prague, where he is a regular for the High Holidays and other festivals.

Prague’s Jewish community organized a Tu B’Shevat seder, which has its own traditional foods and rituals much like its Passover counterpart, although the latter tends to be far more intense.

“I’m a bit embarrassed to say that is the only Tu B’Shevat celebration I’ve participated in,” said Podwal, noting that it is far too cold to plant trees on his property in New York in February.

Yet trees abound in his art, including taking a central–and oversized–role in a 13-foot-tall mural he designed for his mother’s birthplace, Dąbrowa Białostocka in northeast Poland. Dąbrowa means “oak forest,” so Podwal depicted an oak tree, with Hebrew letters scattered about its leaves.

Podwal told JNS that the saying often believed to derive from a Chinese proverb–that a picture is worth 1,000 words–is actually American in origin. He allows that viewers sometimes have more interesting interpretations of his work than he intended consciously, but he aimed to represent the “direct relationship of monetary contributions to the Jewish National Fund sprouting the beginning of a fig tree, a representation of the biblical seven species of Israel,” and of the land flowing with milk and honey.

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