A Hand-Picked Paradox

Hands-On Research Harvesting Olives

A  few weeks ago, I traveled to Israel with my ten-year-old daughter Sage, to participate in the olive harvest.  This was my long-awaited opportunity to do hands-on research for a picture book  I’m writing and illustrating about an ancient olive tree.  I couldn’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get out in the olive grove.

There’s something special about hands-on research.  In this age of unprecedented convenience, we have the technological ability to access  information from all over the world in a matter of seconds.   But information obtained this way can lack authenticity, and often appears out of context.  Rarely do I have the opportunity to physically experience what I’m drawing or writing about.  But there’s no substitute for direct experience when it
comes to bringing a story to life.  

The morning after we arrived at Kibbutz Gezer, a half a dozen olive pickers gathered by the side of the road that encircles the kibbutz.  Inside the circle, the homes for approximately 400 people are clustered together.  Outside the circle are grassy meadows; a baseball field;  swimming pool; a field of eggplants;  a tel – an ancient town filled in over the centuries by debris until it becomes a flat-topped, man-made hill, now the site of an archeological excavation – and of course, the olive groves.  Hundreds of trees of approximately 30 years of age stood in grassy rows.  Most were heavy with fruit, their branches drooping under the weight of colorful clusters of olives.

The harvest technique is simple:  we spread black plastic tarps under the trees, and used small hand-held rakes to “comb” the olives from the branches.  Most of the fruit could be reached either from the ground or by climbing a few steps up the trunk.  The trees are pruned to stay low, and the limbs are encouraged to spread out like a basket, so that every part of the tree receives maximum sunlight.  It is said that if an olive tree is pruned properly, there’s enough space between the branches to allow a bird to fly through.  Olive trees are uniquely dependent upon humans for this pruning – they cannot thrive without it.  An olive tree that is well-pruned can continue to regenerate from its roots virtually indefinitely, with a lifespan of two thousand years or even longer.  Thus the olive tree has been a symbol of renewal for millennia.

Olive fruits are firm and smooth, with a chalky skin that turns shiny when you rub it.   Each fruit is a unique blend of color ranging from pale yellow-green to soft mauve to dark purple-grey.  Some are faintly spotted.  When they fall to the ground, they slowly turn to charcoal blue as the fruit begins to dry and wrinkle under the hot sun.  I dared myself to bite into one, with the anticipated bitter results.  Olives must be soaked and cured before they become edible.

My daughter Sage quickly discovered that the basket-like shape of a pruned olive tree makes it ideal for climbing – and relaxing.

During our breaks we picnicked on fresh bread dipped in hummus, olive oil, homemade tzchug and za’ater; pickled green olives; oil-cured black olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, and a cultured yogurt-like cheese.   We tried to make up olive songs and olive jokes – but none are worth repeating here.

The olive grove is a peaceful place.  Each tree is uniquely-shaped, and has its own special character.  The soft branches wave in the breeze like hair, causing the tree to change color slightly as each leaf reveals its silvery-white underside.  The blend of colors in an olive tree is a painter’s challenge – for this artist at least.  Flocks of doves rose from the trees and turned as one into the sunshine.  The air in the grove is sweet, as if the trees have cleansed the air of all impurities.  Olive leaves are known for their powerful healing properties.  According to Wikipedia, olive leaf and olive leaf extracts (OLE), are now marketed as anti-aging, immunostimular, and antibiotic agents.  Other reference books claim olive leaf extract is effective against viral infections, parasites, fungi, and even “super-infections” that resist antibiotics.

A study in gouache paint of the olive grove.  © Durga Yael Bernhard; please do not reproduce.

How ironic, in this peaceful place among young trees that promise to live for so long, to hear the concussions of rockets in the distance – for even as we harvested the fruit of the tree that symbolizes peace, hundreds of rockets from Gaza were being fired at the nearby cities of Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, and Rishon Letzion.  And Israel was retaliating with “Operation Pillar of Cloud”, a targeted defensive operation that took place the week we were there.  Truly, Israel is a land of paradox – of cultural, artistic and spiritual riches; unparalleled innovations in education, medicine, agriculture, technology, and energy conservation – not to mention wonderful people – yet Israel is also a troubled place, with internal rifts, economic problems, and seemingly-intractable conflicts with its Arab neighbors.  Traveling in Israel, it is not unusual to feel conflicting emotions.  Even as we worked in such a bucolic place as the olive grove, we were all aware of the location of the closest bomb shelter, which had been unlocked that week for rapid entry.

Sorting olives: After the olives have dropped to the ground, leaves and twigs are picked out by hand.

And we all knew that beyond the “green line” (the disputed border between Israel and the West Bank), Palestinians were harvesting olive trees just like ours.  This is not the first century, or even the first millennium, in which olive trees have been implicated in matters of territorial conflict.  For the olive tree is native to a region that is rife with inescapable complexities.  Rooted in a shifting tapestry of peoples and conquests, the olive tree stands constant as a living organism of renewal and peace.

A happy picker!

I loved the olive grove, and got into a groove with my yellow rake.   The conversation was lively: there were kibbutz members who had come to help, along with dogs of all shapes and sizes.  There were friends from Jerusalem, a traveling post-grad student from the U.S., and visitors from Norway.  Everyone was in good spirits as we gathered up the tarps and poured the fruit into crates.  These would be taken to the olive press at nearby Latroun.  An olive press is a huge industrial machine that is necessarily communal; no one can own their own olive press.  At Latroun, we saw Jews and Arabs alike waiting for the yield of their harvest, chatting in English, Hebrew, and Arabic as the olives were pressed, separated by centrifuge into pomace and oil, and finally decanted into containers.

The olive press at Latroun.

The leftover “mash” of fiber and pits is sometimes pressed into dry cakes to be burned as fuel – a great idea!

A 30-year-old olive tree

Hours after the picking was done, at the end of the day I returned to the olive grove to sketch.  I did pencil drawings and brush drawings, trying to capture the shapes of the trees, the texture of the leaves.  I tested a few colors, and tried to catch the contour of the land.  Birds twittered from opposite sides of the grove, calling to each other.  Dogs barked in the distance as the sun went down, mingled with the sound of a child’s laughter.

A 100-year-old olive trunk.

In the hush that followed, the peace of the olive grove was palpable.  My daughter sat beside me with her own drawing book, both of us sitting on torn pieces of cardboard on the ground while we sketched.  She drew a twisted olive trunk, then switched to fashion designs.  I hope when she grows up, she’ll remember that day.

In addition to the jug of fresh olive oil I brought home, I also harvested something else:  photos, sketches, notes, and memories.  These impressions from my week of picking olives will be gathered and pressed, spun and separated into the many components of a book.  This book has taken its time to ripen and grow, but I hope in the end it will be worth it.  The more I learn about olives, the more there is to know – from cultivation techniques to nutritional and medicinal benefits, from historical facts to political implications.  And the more I learn about olives, the more I love them.

Special thanks to Dani Livney and all the wonderful folks at Kibbutz Gezer for making this trip possible.   We hope to return next year to pick olives again!

חג החנוכה שמח!
We are about to celebrate Chanukah, the festival of light that remembers each year the miracle of oil – olive oil – in a story that is rooted a mere bike ride’s distance from Gezer.  The Maccabean graves in nearby Modi’in is where the Hasmoneans, who ruled a Jewish dynasty in Israel, have been buried in the ground for more than 2,100 years.  Some of the olive trees that lived then are still alive today.

Happy Holidays to all –

D Yael








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