We will soon be celebrating Tu b’Shvat, the day that marks the new year for trees, and while it is cold and grim in New York, the plant world is awakening in Israel and the agricultural year is coming to life. Think of it as the beginning of the magic that leads to the harvest festival of Sukkot.
Last Sukkot, which fell in October, I was again in Israel; I will always associate the harvest festival with olives. In Hebrew there is a special term reserved just for harvesting olives — masik — which suggests just how important olives were to the ancient economy.
Last October I found myself on a hillside overlooking Wadi Zarka — adjacent to Neve Tzuf /Halamish in the Samarian hills — contemplating the expanding number of olive trees belonging to Amy and Michael Rosenbluh, and where I have enjoyed being part of the actual process of yishuv ha’aretz — reclaiming the land for its original agricultural purposes — for several years.
Since I come only once a year, the maturation I see is palpable. It’s almost like visiting with a seldom-seen child whose growth and change is staggering. The trees are growing upward to the point that they require pruning to ease harvesting. There are better and poorer years, and they seem to alternate.
This year the boughs were laden with fruit in various stages of ripening. They ranged from light green to reddish to purple. As you reach upward to grasp a branch and remove the fruit by “milking” downward, you expect resistance. However, the olives just seem to pop off in your hand and you throw them onto the tarpaulin spread around the base of the tree. This tarpaulin is later scrunched up to concentrate the olives into the center; they are then poured into burlap bags. The younger workers use ladders to reach the upper branches. The work is steady but not exhausting, and lunch is a welcome break, compliments of the Rosenbluhs.
In their professional lives, the M.I.T.-trained Michael is chairman of the physics department at Bar Ilan University; his specialty is light and its interaction with matter. Amy works as both laboratory and production director for Izun Pharma, Ltd., a research company that develops medical devices and pharmaceuticals to treat inflammatory and chronic wound conditions.
Growing olives is neither simple nor easy. Despite the perfect climatic conditions, olives are subject to diseases and pests just like other crops. Those include the olive fly, Peacock spot fungus and the olive moth. Since the Rosenbluhs are growing their olives according to organic standards, there are limited ways available to control these pests. As if that were not enough, feral pigs are also a terrible problem. They enter the orchard at night, uproot new saplings, chew up young trees and destroy the irrigation system.
The Rosenbluhs began this project in 2000 at the inspiration of their neighbor, Rafi Ben Basat, who also raises olives as a way to reconnect to the land. Their orchard is planted with two species of olive trees, the Barnea, developed at the Volcani Institute in Israel, and the Tzouri. The Barnea was chosen because it has a high oil yield, and its milder taste appeals more to Western palates. Its disadvantage is that it requires irrigation. The Tzouri has a larger, rounder fruit, yielding a more pungent oil that does not require additional irrigation. The combination of the two varieties allows the Rosenbluhs a more reliable harvest and a unique blend of oil bouquets.
It is a pity that politics intrudes on so much normal activity in Israel, so that even picking olives receives scrutiny. Yet, it is inspiring to see people working steadily, following a tradition that goes back to ancient times when the Land of Israel was renowned for its high-quality olive oil; the oil is considered one of the special Seven Fruits with which Israel is blessed.
Many volunteers at Israeli kibbutzim have talked about the satisfaction that comes from harvesting — the final act of that season’s farming and the culmination of all their labor.
Every year I arrive to find tarpaulins stretched beneath the trees, young people standing on ladders to both reach the higher fruit and prune down the lengthening tree limbs that are reaching for the sky, the children trying to help with the low-hanging fruit, and the effort that comes from work well done.
Sura Jeselson is a long-time resident of Riverdale involved in community matters. She has a deep interest in gardening and botany and volunteers at the New York Botanical Garden.