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August 29, 2014 | 3rd Elul 5774

Oil and water

Galilee Diary #309, October 29, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, [standing] upright.

-Exodus 26:15

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.

-Deuteronomy 11:13-15

When I was a Sunday school student, there was a Hebrew song we used to sing for Tu Beshvat, the chorus of which went: “Atzei zeitim omdim, atzei zeitim omdim…,” which means, “Olive trees are standing, olive trees are standing.” What I didn’t know then was that the Israeli original of the song was taken from the first biblical verse above, “Atzei shittim omdim, atzei shittim omdim…,” meaning “Acacia trees are standing, acacia trees are standing.” Apparently, American Jewish educators realized that a song containing the word “shittim” would not have a positive impact on the decorum of our music classes, so the biblical acacias morphed into olive trees. Which is probably just as well, because none of us knew what an acacia tree looked like, anyway.

And indeed, from where I sit on my mountainside in the Galilee, there is nary an acacia in sight, but I am surrounded nearly to the horizon by olive trees, many of which have been standing here for centuries. Even the ones that aren’t so old are already twisted and gnarled like their ancient cousins, and the shapes of the trees impart a mysterious and romantic atmosphere to the most prosaic local grove; it’s like walking through a painting.

On Shemini Atzeret, the closing day of the festival of Sukkot, the liturgy includes the annual prayer for rain. At this finale of the High Holy Day period and transition of seasons we remind ourselves – and God - of our dependence, in this region, on the bounty of the heavens. Some synagogues (including ours) have a custom whereby children squirt water on the cantor during the chanting of this prayer; sympathetic magic? release, finally, from weeks of endless holiday services? Whatever. But amazingly (or not), this year the first real rain of the season, a brief cloudburst, fell that very night!

Generally, the olive harvest begins just after the first rain. However, since Ramadan coincided with Tishrei this year (and will again next year; jumping forward to Elul the next time the Jewish calendar has a leap year), our Arab neighbors held off on starting the harvest another week. The daily Ramadan fast is not conducive to the harvest experience – neither the hard work nor the family outing it entails. Last Sunday and Monday were Rosh Hodesh for us, making Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday Id El-Fitr, the “break-the-fast festival” for the Moslems. And then Friday morning, shortly after the call of the muezzin for the dawn prayer, we heard a distant cacophony arising from the valley below us: the voices of children at play, the whine of chain saws, as families came out to their groves with tarps to spread under the trees, poles to beat the branches, sacks for packing the olives, tools for pruning, boomboxes, gas burners to brew coffee, and picnic lunches. This process will go on for a few weeks (for most families the work is concentrated on the weekends, as most people have to go to work). Most of the olives will be taken to a local oil mill, where the machines are basically stainless steel versions of the technology that was used in biblical times. What’s changed, of course, is that our lights are lit by a different oil now, so virtually all the olive oil is used for cooking and eating. And of course some of the fruit will be kept back for pickling; every family has its own recipe – and cupboards full of plastic jugs and recycled soda bottles packed with cracked green olives in seasoned brine. After several years of experiments, this year we have put up a couple of gallons – using lemons and hot peppers we grew ourselves. Most of the Arabs aren’t farmers any more, and neither are we. If only we can succeed in building some kind of common identity based on our respective roots in this land.

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