The classic Tu B’Shevat ‘treat’

Are you familiar with the word bokser? Do you possibly know what it is? If your answer is YES, I won’t be singing to you that ancient song with this refrain: “Dearie, you’re much older than I,” because not too many of you are. But I will believe that you have nearly as many years and gray hairs as I, because the dreaded bokser was an annual torture of our Jewish childhood!
“Bokser smells like Limburger cheese,” Mosaic Magazine pronounced five years ago this week. “It’s also an embodiment of Jewish vitality and endurance.” Ten years before that, The Forward recalled: “From childhood on, we celebrated Tu B’Shevat by eating ‘bokser.’ As we matured, we learned that we were eating the pods of the carob tree…” And oh! how we wished that carob had been the “forbidden fruit” eaten by our forever-parents Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden!
Chabad has commented that “The custom of eating carob on ‘the New Year for Trees’ is not cited in the Talmud or in the Code of Jewish Law, yet it is common in many communities…” You don’t have to tell those of us who grew up under the watchful eyes and with the demands of Eastern European immigrant parents and/or grandparents, who used the Yiddish word for what they made sure we at least tasted every spring, on the 15th day of the proper Hebrew month (this year, last Monday). And the custom also crept into our Sunday religious schools. This brief quote from “Bible Belt Balabusta” says it all: “My former school director, now retired, grew up calling carob ‘bokser’ in Yiddish, and she felt it just wasn’t Tu B’Shevat without a carob pod…”
Bokser is indeed a pod, described by “Flipboard” as “a long, flat, curved brown carob-seed.” It’s actually been “adopted” by the company Oh! Nuts and marketed as “…a sweet and healthy snack,” promising that when dried, these pods “are stand-alone treats.” If you feel so inclined, you may go to to purchase one for your own taste-testing. Not I, however. That old distasteful taste still returns to my mouth, unbidden, at this time every year.
The “Jewish Trivia Quiz” ( says it’s the custom to eat bokser on Tu B’Shevat not because the carob tree is a fast grower; indeed, it takes its good sweet time: 70 years before it will produce ripe fruit. This is most likely the source of the one story that kids still learn in Sunday School about the holiday: how an old man is spotted by a young man as he (the former) is planting seeds for a carob tree. “Why are you doing that?” is the question the head-scratching young watcher asks, commenting not too kindly: “You’ll be gone long before it produces anything good to eat.” To which the planter gives this iconic replay: “I’m not planting this for me. I’m planting it for those who come after me, just as my ancestors planted for me…”
Etymologists say that the word bokser comes from the German “Bockshombaum,” which translates to “ram’s horn tree.” This is because the tree’s fruit is a pod that does look like “a dark petrified horn” in which those seeds that the old man was planting originate. The pod itself, however, is disdained by Jewish Week (, which says “in its dried state (it) seems less like a food and more like something with which to make shoes.”
All of the above is verifiable if you trust Google as your source. But here is something that can’t be gleaned on any computer, because it’s from my own experience: For many years, I worked for a chain of newspapers in one of its neighborhood offices that was directly across the street from a health food store. And there, I learned, processed carob is passed off as “natural chocolate.” I was never, ever tempted to give it a try!

Leave a Reply