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Some Thoughts about Olive Trees - inspired by the Jewish New Year for Trees

Posted by Janice Kaye on 17th Jan 2022

Happy Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish birthday of the trees! Also known as the Jewish New Year for Trees or the Jewish Arbor Day, it is celebrated on the 15th day of the Jewish Month of Shvat and it is about the time that the almond trees start to flower in Israel.

Almond Trees Blossoming in Israel - picture by Merav Mizrachi

It seems an appropriate time to share some of my thoughts and ramblings about olive wood, trees and sustainablity – subjects which are often on my mind these days.

Growing up in Manchester in the 1970’s there wasn’t much need to change the furniture. Back in those days things were built to last and back in England we hadn’t yet heard of single use and disposable products. The materials used to make the furniture – the wood, the cloth and the workmanship – were of excellent quality and would last forever. My parents only changed their furniture, once their children had all left home, just because they were fed up of it, and not because it needed replacing. I never really gave much attention to what that furniture was made of until I started selling products made from wood.

Back then most of our furniture was dark in color and was probably made of oak. Oak trees were the most well known tree in my childhood. The forests and parks around where I grew up were full of oak trees, and when we went on country walks – my parents took us out walking almost every Sunday - we would collect the acorns and take them home to play with them. It was always fun to spot a squirrel nibbling on an acorn and taking them back to its tree to stock up for winter! My nature guide friend, Joanna Maissel, (find her on Instagram - nature_n_nosh) tells me that nowadays when she plants trees in Israel with young groups, she shows them an acorn and asks what tree will grow from it and most people will answer with great enthusiasm: ‘An acorn tree!!”

Lyme Park, Disley, UK - one of my favourite places growing up. Photo by Natalie Thornley

When I moved to Israel in the 90’s we needed to buy as cheaply as possible and most products were made of MDF covered in Formica. Even though it really has seen better days, I really can’t bear to part with my MDF folding table that I bought in England in 1994 and sent in my shipment to Israel. It was a huge excitement in our lives when Ikea opened in Netanya, on the Coastal Plain of Israel in 2002 and suddenly we could buy lots of pine products that were cheap, easy to assemble and light to move around. I began to understood that there is very little wood industry for furniture in Israel mainly because we have had a very difficult past concerning our trees and are now very protective of them. Most wood sold in Israel for furniture and construction is imported.

Israel planted more trees in the last century than any other country in the world. However this was to make up for 2000 years of misuse of the land where we lost most of the trees that were here since Biblical times. These trees were lost to consistent abuse and overuse of the trees for fuel, war, and railway tracks. Over grazing also prevented any new trees from growing back so by the beginning of the 20th century we were left with 500,000 trees in the land. We have since planted 300 million trees which now provide greenery, shade, biodiversity and beauty. Cutting down trees in Israel is against the law or requires special permission and generally requires planting something else to compensate for it.

There is one tree which is as important and indigenous to Israel as the Maple is to Canada, or the Pine is to Scandinavia, and that is the olive tree. It is documented in the Old Testament as far back as the story of Noah and Jesus prayed near an olive tree in Gethsemane, which is still there to this day and has held spiritual, religious, and physical significance ever since.

An ancient Olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane - picture by Yoav Dothan

When the children of Israel were wandering in the desert for 40 years they were tired and hungry, so like any tired and hungry person their leaders gave them some encouragement. They told them they were going to a land with 7 different delicious things to eat. Now don’t forget this was 3000 years ago so they weren’t expecting falafel, schnitzel or the ubiquitous Israeli peanut snack – Bamba. The list included olive trees, which was important since none of the other 7 species provided enough wood for doing anything substantial with.  However, The rest of the 7 species,  wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates and grapes along with the olives, were important for sustenance. 

The olive tree went on to become part of Israel’s greatest industry and also its most significant symbol. The olives provided oil for every possible need – cooking, medicine, cosmetics, perfumes, religious ceremonies (anointing) and most importantly they provided light for the menorah in the temple and fuel for the oil lamps that lit the homes of everyone in the land.

Because of the proliferation of olive trees in the holy land, its resistance to decay and its malleability, it became a prime material for wood carving over the centuries. Olive trees grow new shoots and trunks when old parts die, so it is self sustainable. Most importantly in a country with so little water the olive tree needs very little irrigation and is mostly sustained by the winter rains. The people who work with olive wood are very conscious of cutting the branches in the correct way, so as not to damage the tree, and even to encourage new growth. It is in their interest after all to make sure these trees keep on growing and giving.

The olive wood tree industry is mostly centred around the town of Bethlehem, where word carvers have passed down their art since Crusader times, from father to son, using wood from trees which have been growing in the area for hundreds of years, or even longer.

As for the wood itself, you just have to glance at a piece carved out of olive wood and be enchanted by its beauty and unique qualities! It has a rich array of swirls and lines in varying colours of golden pale brown to a deep rich mahogany like brown. Every piece is unique and once glossed and varnished almost looks like it is still alive.

      In our modern era where sustainability, local produce and minimal use of water and energy are common buzz words, then I am so happy and proud to be passing on these beautiful items  They can be used for both religious articles, such as statues and crosses, and for regular household items, like bowls, lemon squeezers and chess sets. The items I sell on my website are just a fraction of the items that are available from the Bethlehem region. Please contact me if you are looking for something specific that you do not see here.