My mother Miriam loved Israel. She defended it passionately and imbued in us a real love for the tiny country. To my sorrow, she never got a chance to actually go there. But I’ll always remember how she talked about the importance of doing our part to help build the young country by having trees planted in someone’s honor or memory.
Each time we received a certificate from the Jewish National Fund acknowledging these gifts, I would imagine rows of lush green trees, each bearing the names of the individual it honored or remembered and the person who donated it.
Last July, I happened to be in Israel on the 30th anniversary of my mom’s passing. I wanted to commemorate the occasion in a way that felt personal and meaningful.
Leafing through a magazine, I saw an ad promoting JNF, and the memory of those certificates came flooding back. I immediately knew I wanted to plant a tree in her memory. I felt strongly that this was something she would want for Israel, too.
I did a search (Google is a huge help in Hebrew, too!) and found what I needed to make the arrangements. I thought I could simply buy a tree at a nursery, find a forested area with a small clearing and plant it myself. But Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (the JNF in Israel) has a sophisticated system in place for people like me, to guide us through the process.
No, the woman on the phone explained, I couldn’t choose a spot myself, nor could I mark it as “mine.” She provided me with information about their two tree planting centers, and I chose the one in the Nachshon Forest about 20 miles west of Jerusalem. It was nearer to my family in Israel and increased the likelihood that I could visit it on a future trip. That was important to me.
The day of the planting was oppressively hot and humid. After our first sighting of the “tree planting ahead” signs, we drove for another 20 minutes on a very dusty and rocky road. When we arrived, my reaction was, “Where’s the forest?!” I anticipated seeing groves of tall green trees. What I saw instead was a craggy area of hard dirt. This is where I would be planting my mother’s tree?
We waited to meet Eran, a park ranger working for JNF. Despite the 90-degree weather, he showed up covered head to toe to protect himself from the elements. What commitment! He gave us a history of the area, of the JNF’s contributions to the forest, and told us why planting trees there is so critical for the State of Israel. Eran had us climb up a small hill and pointed out now almost fully grown forests some distance away, ringing the barren area. He then excused himself, and after a few minutes he returned holding a 1-foot plant. He handed it to me and I began to tear up. This was Miriam’s Tree.
We followed Eran to the planting area a few hundred yards away. He started digging a hole and then handed me the pickaxe. He stood there respectfully, quietly instructing me to dig deeper so that, as promised on the JNF site, I was truly planting this tree myself.
To my dismay, I wasn’t allowed to put any sign or marking on or near my tree, so I took 360-degree photos of the area so that we might be able to find it the next time we visited Israel.
As I sat on a large rock next to my newly planted tree, I closed my eyes and thought about how Miriam had never made it to Israel, despite a lifelong desire to do so. In fact, she had to cancel what would have been her first trip there because of her health just a few months before she died in July 1983. As I opened my eyes, an orange butterfly was flying a few feet away. My mom loved butterflies, especially the earth-toned ones.
It was a bittersweet moment, but I mostly felt a sense of joy that Miriam’s Tree was firmly planted, a fitting tribute to my mom and, most importantly, forever a part of the Israel she loved.
Dee-Dee Sberlo is a writer and community service organizer. She lives in San Francisco and is the mother of four grown children. Reach her at email@example.com.