I have two weeks left. That isn’t a lot of time to plant a tree and make it grow fifty different branches.
I’m planting it for the woman sitting next to me . . . She asked to borrow my fondness for the digital arts for a family project, and I agreed, of course. She's my teacher, my mentor and my friend, and in the past five months I feel as if I’ve become a part of the family that I’m planting into a poster-sized tree. Her children have become my little siblings; her living-room couch has become the place in Israel where I feel the most comfortable. This tree I’m planting for her family feels like one that I’m a part of.
I pull up a chair and begin to navigate through her computer, a feat that is more difficult than usual due to the fact that her kids have changed the Windows menus into Hebrew. As I find my way into the folder labeled “Family Tree,” “Etz haMishpachah,” I am confronted by a horde of photos of people of all ages, from a few years old to many decades . . . four generations in one file, one family.
This tree I’m planting for her family feels like one that I’m a part ofWe start by sorting the people into their respective sub-families. “That’s Mendy and his wife there, and those eight kids are his too. And there is Yitzy and his wife. Their seven kids are at the bottom. There’s Levi and his wife. Those are his kids: one, two, three, four, five and six. Wait, don’t they have a seventh also?” Chaos temporarily breaks out among the family. My friend calls over some of her older kids, and the debate begins. “No, they have only six kids!” “What are you talking about? They just had a baby last year!” “Oh yeah . . . wait, which photos do we have, Mom? Is that the four-year-old or the six-year-old?" Enough debating. She picks up the phone and calls her mother. “Mom, how many kids does Levi have? Seven? Okay, when was the last one born? Last year. Okay, thanks, Mom.” The “I told you so” phrase rings out in the background as my friend dials her sister-in-law. “Chaya, I’m missing a photo of one of your kids, and I don’t know which one. Yeah, just resend them, okay? Thank you!”
That is the reason that I’m planting this tree for their family . . . it’s a tree that is blessed with so many branches that they have spread out all over the world. It’s amazing, but it has resulted in some confusion. It seems pretty understandable to me; when you have over 40 cousins who live anywhere from a twelve- to a twenty-hour plane ride away from you, it can be hard to get to know all of them. Yet, something as simple as a poster on a wall can bring a sense of family unity and the knowledge that everyone shares the same roots.
Family life is a piece of art in of itselfIt’s a daunting project, a family tree with fifty people on it. People have asked me why I can’t just plug the photos into one of those programs online, and then just put a pretty background behind it. Yeah, it would be easier, but it wouldn’t do this amazing family any justice. After all, family life is a piece of art in of itself. It’s all about taking people, placing them on the same canvas, and making them interact in a way that creates a beautiful combination of personalities. It’s a display of the depth of life, giving a higher meaning and purpose to our existence. The dilemma I’m having is how best to portray that in a visual form . . . How do I turn a family’s living, breathing canvas into a 90 × 60 cm poster?
I haven’t figured it out yet, but the concept has me thinking, breathing and dreaming of family trees. What will mine look like? How many branches will stem out from the roots and trunk that I will plant with my future husband one day? And how many branches will stem off those? Even more importantly, how will we make sure that the little tree that we plant will grow into a trunk strong enough to support all of those branches?
I come from Florida, a place where a hurricane or two a year is not such a crazy thing. When I was little, I used to wonder how any trees were able to make it through those violent storms, when the winds are strong enough to pull the roof off of our house. One summer a long time ago, our neighborhood did a “beautification project” and upgraded the landscaping around town. A few months later, a hurricane came through and uprooted over half of the newly planted trees. There was one type that didn’t lose a single sapling, though, and I asked my teacher to explain.
“Those trees have stronger roots than the other trees . . . they spread out wide and deep. When the wind comes, the trees with the smaller roots have less ground to hold onto, but these trees are different. These trees stay planted firmly on top of their roots. Not only that, but the wind’s pushing and pulling actually makes the roots grow even faster, and it helps them become bigger and taller than the rest.”
So it’s all about the roots. The thought is a little scary at first . . . my family tree is small. With so few roots, what kind of tree will I be able to plant? Will it be strong enough to hold up in the rushing wind of life? But those questions really apply only when you look at the surface level. If you dig a little deeper into the ground, and uncover the roots that go back generations, it becomes an entirely different story. The roots get stronger, wider, and deeper as you peel back the layers that time has added. You find Holocaust survivors, Torah scholars, Jewish leaders. Further back and you find sages, priests in the Holy Temples, and the Levites who left Egypt with Moses. You’ll find Jacob, Isaac and Abraham. Those are my ancestors, those are my family members, and those will be the roots of my tree.
With so few roots, what kind of tree will I be able to plant?All of us have the job of planting our own family tree when G‑d decides it’s the right time in our life. At first glance it seems to be a completely overwhelming task that He has entrusted us with, but we are planting trees in G‑d’s forest. In His forest, if you dig deep enough, each of our trees share the same roots. All of us are branches off of the same Fathers and the same Mothers, and those roots are strong enough to hold up in any wind that life will send our way.
I have two weeks left to help the fifty branches of this tree find their roots, but I have a lifetime to plant and grow my own. There’s a long way to go from where I am right now, but one day I will also be able to see how my Jewish roots have flourished into my own tree, displayed as a beautiful piece of living art on a 90 × 60 cm canvas. Yet, even though artwork may stand alone on our living-room walls, in life we are never by ourselves. We all are part of G‑d’s forest, with the very strongest of foundations, and no matter how hard the wind will blow, that unity is something that can never be uprooted.