Bloom Is A Jewish Name


Flowers don’t give a shit about Jesus. They don’t care about holidays or Jewish life-cycle events or hairline fractures or any human construct or concern, even though we name them as if they do. We layer plants with meaning based on how we ask them to function, and we tag accordingly. Look at pilewort, an old hemorrhoid remedy; or bindweed, a twining garden pest; or teasel, a natural comb to tease or card wool; or morning glory, a bright trumpet that blooms with the sun. Oh, and boneset, for fractures. Common names are everyday taxonomy, informal conventions that identify and classify, and that are subject to no standard other than utility. Names are useful. I have an uncommon love of common names. Latinized binomial names can be enlightening, too, but right now I am more interested in the common names and peculiar associations of a trinity of plants abloom in my own yard: the redbud, the Lenten rose, and the crown of thorns.

If spring progresses properly, the trinity opens just in time for Passover. I wait and hope for that bright triangulation dependent upon weather and whatnot, so I can sit on my porch and see all three at the same time, a glory which gives me so much pleasure I’d be tempted to describe it as religious experience were the word religious not so problematic. I’m not religious, per se, even though I’m Jewish, but the three flowers are, sort of, if only in Christian name and Easter symbolism. I’ve converted each for use at Jewish events, which I admit sounds pretty darn religious, as does the fact that I’ve framed the timing of these plants by invoking Passover. Of course, the plants don’t care. They are, after all, just flowers, busy with the proto-religion of reproduction. Botanical cynicism adds another delicious layer to the conversionary spectacle in view right this minute. Do let me tell you about my flowers.

The Redbud

I am responsible for the redbud. The year my daughter was born, it was a sapling, skewer-thin, gouged from the orange clay behind my grandmother’s house in Coal Creek, Tennessee. Mom drove it 171 miles to me in Nashville, where I poked it into the chocolate-cake loam outside the bedroom. And here it is, now taller than the mock-Tudor gables, vibrating with bees.

The tree is a cloud, pink-y lilac. Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are not red, not even in bud, despite the common name, not even the fancy “red” cultivar my landscape-artist neighbor brought in special. His is planted not five meters from my ordinary one. He was thrilled with the promise of having a real red redbud, but that first spring it just sprang a redder purple—more of a Red Violet Crayola crayon, rather than the usual Lilac or Pink Flamingo—and boy, was he bummed. All redbuds are misnamed.

Another common name for redbud is Judas tree. “[Judas] went and hanged himself” is all Matthew 27:5 says, but somehow the legend that Judas hung himself from a tree, and specifically a redbud tree took root and grew.[1] Have you ever seen a redbud begin to bloom in early spring? While the arching gray branches are still bare of leaves, tiny, purple-pink drops emerge, and not just from the tips of twigs, but along the branches and even the trunk. Very few other tree species produce flower buds smack-dab on mature bark (the term is cauliflory, which means stem-flower)[2]. Redbuds are in the pea family, and if you know sweet peas, you know the basic shape of a redbud blossom. It’s a tiny, five-part structure, irregular with a hollow keel shaped like a droplet—a purple-pink droplet, with hardly a stem for anchor. It is as if plump beads weep from a smooth, slender body. Or, as if tiny Judases dangle from wee ropes. This miracle happens every year, just around Easter. To a particular religious imagination the connection is obvious. The blood of Jesus is on Judas’s head, and Judas’s blood is on the redbud. It is as if the tree is being punished—or praised—for its role in aiding Judas his cowardly escape.

I waited too late to ask my Southern Baptist grandmother if she knew redbuds as Judas trees. She knew her Bible backward and forward, though. It was the center of her Coal Creek universe. At the bottom of every Hallmark card, underneath her spidery signature—a formal “Grandmother McGhee”—she always added the words “John 3:16,” in case any of us needed reminding about what ought to be our Center, too. The reminders were not enough. Thank God no one had the heart to tell Grandmother that the nice man I married was a Jew, or worse, that I’d gone Jewish, myself.

The Lenten Rose

The Lenten roses I am not responsible for, except for when I stole them. My neighbor installed swathes of Lenten rose—Hellebore orientalis—next to our mutual property line, and I can see the nodding blooms as I sit on my front steps. I saw them when we had my son’s Naming party five years ago. Not the actual bris—the Jewish circumcision ceremony mandatory on the eighth day after birth—but the party we had a month later. The bris was private, which bucked tradition but seemed more humane for my boy and for me, and the public celebratory component waited until we both had more time to heal in every way. Four weeks later, I was postpartum and dizzy with anxiety and party details. I needed centerpieces. I had no budget. I took the hellebore. Not all of it, just every fourth stem or so, and I staggered my assault so no one would notice gaps. I tell myself I would not have done it if the landscape designer still lived there, because he was proud of his borders (and vigilant), but by then a new neighbor arose who did not know hellebore. She was away on business most of the time and let the mulched beds revert to chickweed and monkey grass. As she was out of town during the party planning, I helped myself to the Lenten roses.

My friend Taunia and I arranged the stems inside baby bottles: 8-ounce Playtex nursers. I remember she poured water through the first bottle straight out the bottom, not realizing it needed a disposable bag insert. She’d breastfed her son and had never needed to learn bottle anatomy. I also remember a sting of hurt and guilt at that moment, not having been able to nurse either of my children despite lactation consultants, La Leche ladies, hospital-grade pumps and every plausible suggestion handed down from juicy moms throughout the ages. At the time, I would have traded years of my life to be able to force my boobs to produce something more than pink bubbles for my babies, but no, “this is my blood” is all I could offer, a postpartum twist on the Eucharist I would rather never have thought of. The anatomy of bottles was no mystery to me. Neither was the flower.

I knew all about the Easter connotations of Lenten rose: the coincident, bloody blooms, purplish, like the color of Jesus’s robe; the solitary heads, drooping like Jesus on the cross; the evergreen foliage a sign of eternal Life. This is standard flower folklore. Catholics are particularly good at this sort of thing—look at the marvelous Mary Gardens, cloistered havens for plants associated with the Virgin Mary, plus Rosary Gardens and even Stations of the Cross gardens—and the more common (and more ecumenical) Bible Gardens, comprised of plants mentioned in the particular Bible authoritative to the denomination at hand.

Need examples? Dogwood tree blossoms are famously Easter-esque: a green crown of thorns surrounded by four petals like a cross, each tipped with a red-stained wound. Blooming a bit later in the spring is crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), named by a Jesuit missionary for the mini cross visible only inside the stem. Far more showy is native passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) which should win a prize for number of symbols in a single blossom: reproductive organs and pollinator lures are interpreted as the ten faithful apostles, the lash and column of the Scourging, a thorn crown, three nails, five wounds, blood, the sponge and the spearhead. By the way, all three examples are indigenous here and grow in my yard. Two “came up volunteer,” which is how an old Nashville friend explains the presence of yard plants that just happen, like miracles (or curses, depending).

Hellebore, by comparison, is subtle. It can “pass” as just a flower. Taunia and I were pleased: the pale, greeny-purple heads complemented unisex pastel Playtex collars nicely, and our centerpieces were lovely and priceless in every way. I wonder how many guests, Jewish and non, recognized the Lenten rose, a symbol of the Easter season, at a very Jewish simcha?

The Crown of Thorns

The crown of thorns is not mine, either. It belongs to the long-time neighbor on my right, opposite the hellebore patch. Chaenomeles speciosa, a.k.a. flowering quince, japonica, or, occasionally, crown of thorns. I stole these, too. Pruned, really. This neighbor has a laissez-faire notion of yard care, as did her sweet, elderly mom before her, and to my knowledge neither lady ever came near the crown of thorns, which is still being slowly, inexorably hijacked by wintercreeper, Japanese privet, bush honeysuckle, and English ivy. After a few years of watching the host plant shrink and the exotic pests expand, I started hacking the thorny branches free. The shrub began blooming again, thanks to my care. So, when the early spring date for my daughter’s bat mitzvah drew near and I needed a striking centerpiece for the synagogue dessert table, I pruned the crown of thorns. I wish I’d been a bit more aggressive, actually. A few extra thorny wands poised in the gigantic, borrowed vase would have balanced the platters of brownies and kosher candy even better. I was trying not to be too greedy. Apparently, even when I steal, I scrimp.

The eponymous crown, one of the wicked instruments of the Passion, was supposedly plaited by the Roman soldiers, who also robed Jesus in royal purple (or scarlet, depending on the verse). This is after the Scourging and before the Smiting. Jesus wears both the crown and robe in artworks that depict Ecce Homo, a grisly Station in the Life of Christ. I cannot look at any of these paintings without feeling ill.

Whomever named the flowering quince a crown of thorns did not have to exercise much fancy to do so. The thorns on this one are an inch long, fat like embroidery needles, and staggered alternately along tortuous twigs of a size convenient for crown-plaiting. Blooms begin before leaves emerge: coral-pink, maybe salmon, splashed from nodes here and there like wounds on naked bark. And they appear, like my redbud and Lenten rose, at Easter-time.

What do these three flowers—on tree, perennial, and shrub—have in common? They’ve all been appropriated by Christian folklore and given meanings to deepen a believer’s connection to the Passion. These are Easter plants, offering their pious heads in anticipation of the festival that commemorates the murder and resurrection of Jesus. They are useful. They are lessons writ in blossom, texts for the illiterate, Bible story supplements, devotionals, annual mnemonic devices. They remind, and so make more mindful those who believe.

Because they grow nearly on my Jewish doorstep, I’ve appropriated them for my own use: the Lenten rose and crown of thorns to ornament two of my family’s Jewish life-cycle events, and the redbud for a Jewish holiday, when fallen branches pretty up the house for Passover. I enjoy the private irony. I savor it all the more because I used to “do” Easter, way back when, when I was Southern Baptist. I woke every Easter Sunday to a basket of plastic grass, chocolate bunnies, and Peeps, and then had to put on a dress and go sit through a sermon with Jews in it, those strangers who killed Jesus. The dresses irked me. The Jew thing passed right over my head. After college, I actually met a Jew. The second one I met, I married.

So, to me, too, these flowers are lessons writ in blossom: reminders that I am from a culture wherein Christian flower symbolism is still taken for granted, and that I am still part of that culture by blood and bone and love, even if I am now playing for the other team and doomed quite to Hell.

Still, flowers are flowers. No matter what or how we call them, they are here right now—including the dogwood tree in full bloom by the mailbox—resurrected from winter sleep, minding their own botanical business, which means not giving a shit about ours. And they sure are pretty.

[1] I do wonder if the idea of the redbud as Judas tree isn’t a conflation of the two conflicting Scriptural accounts of Judas’s death. Matthew 27:5 states he “hanged himself.” Acts 1:18 says Judas exploded: “Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (NRSV). The redbud’s early buds look like blood oozing, sure, but in a few days, when the blossoms get bigger, still before the leaves emerge, they can also look like a body bursting open. Or so I imagine. And isn’t imagination what it’s all about?

[2] Cauliflory = stem + flower. Wouldn’t you imagine that the prime exemplar of cauliflory should be cauliflower? But no, cauliflower isn’t cauliflouris at all.

Joanna Brichetto lives in Nashville, runs Bible Belt Balabusta and Gone Jewish, and is a Jewish educator and volunteer Tennessee Naturalist.