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October 5, 2015 | 22nd Tishrei 5776

Olive Oil

Galilee Diary #515, November 10, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

And of Asher he said: Most blessed of sons be Asher, may he be the favorite of his brothers, may he dip his foot in oil...
        -Deuteronomy 33:24

We awakened at 6:00 Saturday morning to a chorus of chain saws and children's voices rising from the Hilazon valley below us. Wood smoke was in the air. The olive harvest had begun. The view west from our bedroom window is out over the valley toward the village of Sha'ab. The flat bottom of the valley is rocky red soil, and is covered in old olive trees. In 1948 some families left Sha'ab, and others settled in it, refugees from destroyed villages in the area. The government redistributed the agricultural land, so that each family received a plot. There are no large holdings that would allow commercial cultivation - the trees are tended for private consumption. In this part of the country, the work is not particularly intensive: there is no need for irrigation; the winter rains are sufficient. In the late spring, tractors make the rounds of the valley, plowing the earth between the trees to aerate it and plow under the weeds. Then, after the first rain in the fall, the olives are harvested and the trees pruned.

Since most of the Arabs work outside the village where the economy is based on the Jewish calendar, many don't have work on Shabbat. So most of the harvesting takes place in the context of family outings on Saturdays. After lunch we took a walk down the hill and strolled among the trees. The valley was really hopping with activity. Families had driven out to their groves with food for the day. The weather this Shabbat was the first perfect day we've had in months: high clouds, warm sun, cool breeze.

The method is to spread plastic tarps on the ground. The men beat the trees with long poles; the women lift the edges of the sheets to roll the fruit into piles and then scoop them into gunny sacks; the children run around helping or getting into trouble; and the older women pick up the olives missed by everyone else. The trees are then pruned (hence the constant buzz of chain saws), and the prunings as well as the twigs and leaves that fall from beating are piled up and burned. Even on commercial olive farms the method is basically the same, except that the tarps are lifted mechanically, and the beating of the trees is supplemented (but not replaced) by the efforts of a hydraulic tree shaker. Most of the sacks of olives will be taken to a local mill and converted into four-gallon jerry-cans of oil; some will be taken home to be cracked, soaked, and cured in brine - every family according to its own special recipe.

By afternoon, when we took our walk, a lot of people were looking pretty tired, and children were getting yelled at. Like so many romantic family customs, sometimes the memories are better than the reality, especially when they involve hard work (an Arab friend once confided to me that as a child he had always hated the olive harvest and wished he hadn't had to go along). In any case, it was a happy scene, and of course the trees themselves are magnificent to walk among. As the heart of the tree is attacked by insects and rots, the growing layer continues to produce new wood along the outside; thus, over the centuries the trees assume their characteristic gnarled, twisted, hollow shapes, each one a striking abstract sculpture.

While the olive harvest is definitely a part of Galilean Arab culture that most of us urban and suburban Jews can only appreciate vicariously (and through olives and oil we purchase or receive as gifts from coworkers), part of that appreciation comes from our knowledge that it is part of our culture too, part of what it means to live here. There is even a word in Hebrew, that we never learned in Hebrew school or even in Ulpan, the root masak, which specifically means "to harvest olives."

There is a certain irony in the fact that since the beginning of Zionist immigration much of our connection to and knowledge of the land has been mediated by the Palestinian Arabs, who knew it and worked it in the kind of intimate, organic way that we had dreamed of for centuries.

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