It’s Hanukkah, and we’ve been hearing a lot about olive oil. But consider the olive tree; its noble wood and generous shade; its gnarled beauty; its fruit, and the pungent oil pressed out of that fruit.
A trip to the Galilee brought me to Druze villages where residents traditionally make their living from the olive harvest. My guide was Nivin, a young Druze woman. We drove past modern olive groves planted against green hills. She indicated where to stop, at the edge of another olive orchard. This one’s trees are 2000 years old.
They thrive on winter rains alone, and for this reason, the ancient farmers spaced them well apart, making room for each one to receive sunshine and moisture without competition. It was a cool, blue afternoon, and we walked between the great, silent trees with a certain awe. They had been set down into that soil as flexible saplings when Solomon’s Temple still stood.
The trees continued to grow slowly throughout the centuries, making new wood that curved outward, so that each tree’s heart was exposed, or curved back towards the mother tree so that a wooden hollow was formed that’s big enough for an adult to stand in. And those ancient trees are still producing fruit. Their branches were so heavy with sun-warmed, blue-black olives that they bowed almost to the ground.
As we walked through the orchard, Nivin told me a Druze folk tale, about the olive and King Solomon. King Solomon had the supernatural power of understanding all living creatures’ languages. He would leave his palace to walk through fields and forests, conversing with beasts and plants, gathering and distilling their wisdom. For this, all natural beings loved him. When the great king died, nature went into mourning. The trees deliberately shed their foliage, so that their bare branches rattled sadly in the winter gusts. But not every tree did this. To the disgust of the others, the olive stood in its full glory of green and silver leaves.
“Why aren’t you mourning the passing of Solomon?” the trees asked the olive. “Don’t you care? Look at us. The mulberry, the almond, the oak — all our greenery has fallen to the ground. Everyone can see how sad we are. Yet you are indifferent. You haven’t shed one leaf. Where’s your heart?”
I’m going to be honest with you. I signed up for Birthright mostly because I wanted to spend ten days eating Israeli food. When I found out I was chosen for a summer 2012 trip, my daydreams were filled with visions of pistachio-studded halvah, mounds of falafel, juicy shawarma, and creamy hummus. You could say I was going on the trip for all the wrong reasons, that gorging oneself on Israeli delicacies was not a moral reason to take advantage of a free 10-day trip to the Holy Land. Well sometimes karma bites you back.
I arrived in Jerusalem on a breezy July night, accompanied by my best friend and about 40 other college students, still strangers to me. Jet-lagged and exhausted from the 11-hour flight, we trudged into the hostel’s dining room. My eyes perked up at the sight of roasted chicken, hummus, and juicy watermelon. Yes, this is why I had traveled for nearly half a day. I happily ate my dinner and played the obligatory name games with the group.
Not even 12 hours after the meal, I was struck with a certain discomfort. I’d been sick from traveling before, and I assured myself this little stomach upset would pass. I sullenly skipped out on the next morning’s breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Israeli salad.