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October 31, 2014 | 7th Cheshvan 5775

Capers

It once happened that a very pious man noticed that the fence around his field had been breached, and he was thinking about repairing it, when he realized that it was Shabbat; thus, he decided to take no action. A miracle occurred, and a caper bush grew up in the breach, and provided a living for him and his family thereafter.
-Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 150b

There is a couple from a nearby community who have been after me for some months to come visit their incipient caper farm; last week I finally ran out of excuses, and spent a few hours with them. How exactly they developed their fascination with capers was not clear to me, but their knowledge and enthusiasm were impressive. I was welcomed with a plate of hors d’oeuvres featuring, of course lox with capers, which I ate while watching a slide show about the cultivation of capers and their significance in our tradition. My hosts had visited extensively an island off the coast of Sicily where capers are a major crop, sold dry and salted, in bulk, in the local markets. They received a plot of agricultural land from their community here, and have now planted it with seedlings they brought back with them from Italy. They are hoping to make a living not only from the crop, but from educational activities associated with it – “pick your own,” “pickle your own,” study the relevant traditional sources, participate in workshops on the spices and medicinal plants of Eretz Yisrael, etc. (Why import seedlings? The Sicilian capers are much less prickly than the native Israeli ones, hence easier to harvest).

Today in Israel, we all know the caper as a thorny bush with a strikingly beautiful flower, that grows wild in dry places, especially in poor rocky soil and along roadsides (and in the cracks of the Western Wall). As far as I know it is not cultivated commercially, though apparently it was in ancient times. For example, we know that there was a prominent rabbi in the Mishnaic period named Eleazar Hakappar; it seems that “hakappar,” whose grammatical structure is that of the name of a profession, may refer to the rabbi’s livelihood as a grower of capers. Mostly, it is the pickled buds that are used, as a condiment; apparently, it is also possible to pickle and eat the fruits. The main medicinal quality is as a preventative of arthritic pain.

I referred the couple to a number of similar enterprises in the area – a woman who turned her honey business into a lovely experiential learning “park” where one can press olive oil, grind wheat, etc.; and another reconstructed “village” where one can do the same activities along with a donkey ride. There are actually many other examples, all around the country, but especially in the Golan, the Galilee, and the Negev. While not all are successful, in general “living history” with specific reference to ancient agriculture seems to be a growth industry in Israel. You can pickle capers, shear sheep, curdle cheese, press olives, grind wheat, make oil lamps, ride donkeys, tread grapes… whatever. Some of this is just good entrepreneurial tourism: travel agents are looking for fun/educational experiences for groups for whom straightforward history and geography are too dry. The village with the donkey rides, near Nazareth, has been a huge hit with Christian pilgrims and with the cruise ship day-excursion trade. Another reason, of course, as in the case of the caper caper, is a sincere belief that Israeli identity should include a connection to the land itself, not just geography and history, but the history of our relationship to the soil. It is important to know that Rabbi Eleazar Hakappar is not just another rabbi in the Mishnah, but reveals to us through his name a whole chapter in the way our ancestors lived on this land – and by making that knowledge come alive, we can deepen our present roots here.

We love to talk about Israel as a high-tech power. But as such, Israel is really just another chip on a global circuit board, cashing in, while it still can, on intense educational motivation and quality and low labor costs. That’s why robotics and biotechnology are such popular majors today.

Capers are another story.

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