Last week our seminar center was asked by the Shorashim kindergarten to provide an enrichment program for parents and children. The teacher wanted the program to connect to the olive season. We all met on a Friday morning at Derech Hatanach el Hateva, one of a number of educational tourism enterprises around the country that base themselves on reenactment of ancient agriculture and crafts (the Middle Eastern version of Sturbridge Village, Colonial Plantation, etc. etc.). Together we harvested olives from the trees and from the ground, crushed them by rolling a huge stone over them, placed the pulp in hemp baskets and watched as the stone weights squeezed out the clear oil. One of those processes that you know about, and read about, and have heard described a hundred times, but are still amazed to see in person.
Between tasks, we did an activity based on Jothams parable of the trees in Judges 9: if trees are like people, then each tree and each person has unique positive characteristcs - so each parent-child team made a poster depicting a tree they like, and also at least one positive characteristic of the child. Interestingly, no two families chose the same tree - or mentioned the same characteristic...
Living in the Galilee for over 11 years now, I have come really to enjoy and appreciate the impact of olives on life and culture here:
The olive tree is the dominant feature of the landscape, with its distinctive gray-green color and gnarled form. These trees really are as romantic as the artists renditions of them; they look ancient even when they are not. From Shorashim, we look out over the Hilazon Valley to the west; the valley floor is wholly carpeted in olive trees. It turns out, by the way, that the weird and hollowed-out shape of the old trees is largely due to the traditional method of harvesting by beating on the branches with sticks: branches are broken off in the process, and if their stumps are left unsealed, insects and decay enter, and the core of the tree rots, leaving only the healthy, living layer just beneath the bark.
The olive harvest, for a few weeks in October-November, is an important family event for the Arabs who own the trees. This year was a sparse year due to last years scant rainfall (in general, whatever the rain situation, good years alternate with bad ones), but in a good year, families will spend several days vacation, or a few weekends, picnicking out in their groves, beating the trees, winnowing out the leaves and twigs that fall with the olives onto the tarps spread on the ground, and bagging the olives. Each family has its own particular recipe for curing a portion of the harvest for eating, but most olives are taken to a local oil press.
Having grown up in an Ashkenazic family in the American midwest, I knew about black olives and green ones with pimiento, both fairly bland, and I knew that gourmet types made a fuss about olive oil, which had a funny taste. Now I know that there are dozens of kinds of olives and many methods of curing them, and I can easily finish off a whole plate of the little bitter cracked ones often served in hummus restaurants. And we go through quarts of olive oil every year, either pressed from olives harvested from trees belonging to Shorashim, or bought from local producers. My children wont eat salad without it.
Its funny how something so trivial can become so much a part of ones identity, how the annual rhythm of the olive (and it should be noted that olive pollen is highly allergenic and causes great suffering to many of us in the spring), no matter how modern and industrialized we have become, is part of our lives and consciousness. And theres something gratifying in realizing that that rhythm connects us to the lives of our forebears all the way back to the Bible and to our neighbors here of every faith and culture.