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December 21, 2014 | 29th Kislev 5775

Wood

Galilee Diary #337, May 13, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?

-Deuteronomy 20:19

Well, we survived another Lag B’omer, though it will probably cost a lot of greenhouse gas credits. From a trivial children’s holiday with a vague rationale that may or may not stem from our having to study Torah under cover during the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 CE), this observance of the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer has become an orgy of giant bonfires reminiscent of winter solstice festivals in northern Europe. Construction sites have to lock down their lumber piles, the fire department is on high alert, and the next morning a pall of wood smoke hangs over the whole country.

For the past century, a central element in many Diaspora Jews’ connection to Israel was the planting of trees, as a physical act and a symbolic gesture of participation in the regeneration of the land and the building of the state. There is, therefore, a certain irony in the fact that the wholesale burning of wood has become such an important ritual for the children who live in the land. Both customs seem to have biblical echoes: Abraham planted a tree in Beersheba (Genesis 21:33) – and in Jotham’s parable (Judges 9:8-15) fire breaks out in the thornbush and consumes the cedars of Lebanon.

While we are told that there were once large areas of natural forest in Israel, it is clear that “forest” doesn’t refer to what North Americans or Europeans think of when they hear that word. The trees of Israel, including those growing in areas that are believed to be the remains of ancient forests, live oaks and atlantic pistachios – tend to be gnarled and bushy, not tall and majestic. When we needed serious lumber, we imported it (Solomon built the Temple of Lebanese cedar – I Kings 5:15-30); and we still do. And even the little forest we did have was largely decimated over by the years by the siege constructions of successive conquerors (where did the Romans get the beams to build their battering rams and catapults?), and later by the Ottoman Turks who needed ties for the railroad tracks to Mecca. Regeneration of forests was inhibited by the ubiquitous black goats, who can often be seen standing on their hind legs to bite off the tender growing tips of young trees, forcing the trees to grow in the habit of bushes.

Our modern attempts at reforestation, romantic as they sounded, have not always been an unqualified success. It took several generations for the Jewish National Fund to realize that planting vast expanses of a particular species (Jerusalem pine) made the new forests susceptible to blights and fires; now, more sophisticated, multi-species forests are standard.

The standard method of home construction used in the lands of vast forests (a “skin” laid over a wood frame) is virtually unknown here, where standard construction is a plaster or stucco or stone “skin” over a frame of reinforced concrete and insulation block. Window frames are aluminum; external doors are usually steel; window shutters are plastic and aluminum. The sure sign of a yuppie here is a home furnished in ostentatiously massive solid wood furniture – called “country style” and apparently referring to the “country” of rural northern and eastern Europe. Traditional rural furnishings in this part of the world have always used wood sparingly.

I can now go to the lumber yard in Karmiel and obtain just about any wood I want, from maple to mahogany, at prices that are not overwhelming. I guess this is what globalization means – and the irony is that while we are busy reforesting our own mountainsides, we can unthinkingly participate in the destruction of someone else’s rain forest.

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