Celebrating Rains and Olives

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Text Veronica Yudkevich

Photographs by Talia Ashuach

I like special words that have very narrow, specific meanings. Every language has them. In Hebrew there is ‘hayore’ and ‘malkosh’ (first and last rains of the season, respectively). The Inuit distinguish between different kinds of snow, but in this dry, water-yearning region people have unique names for rains. The first rain of the season is especially honored, and when it first rained a couple of days ago I truly felt that this is a day to celebrate, for me much more so than all the other numerous holidays of this season.  

I opened the front door, brought out a chair and just sat there with my morning coffee; nothing could have ruined this extraordinary day for me. It rained, poured and washed, drizzled and cleansed, and the huge raindrops splashing on the deck broke into tiny balls of water that went on in their merry dance. The intoxicating smell of rain filled the air and you could just feel all the leaves in the garden go “Ahhh!” A couple of days later there were already tiny green sprouts peeking out of the earth. It is not surprising that in all world mythologies, including the Middle-Eastern, there is a rain deity that often, in addition, bears the duty of fertility god.

 
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Like with a conductor’s baton giving the opening wave to the thundering drums, which are then joined by other instruments, so in the concert of nature the skies first ring and pour, and then the little olives shining with water droplets announce that their turn has come. The olive harvest (‘masik’) in the Galilee begins after the first rain. 'Masik' is another cool word, especially reserved for olives alone, that probably derives from the local agricultural history when every fruit was highly valued and accordingly assigned an exclusive name for its harvest.

 
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Olive harvest period is a special time when families gather in the olive groves, usually during the weekends, for the olive harvest “celebration”. It’s actually a very fitting word to describe this event in which children and adults participate. Huge cloths are spread around the trees to catch the little olives trying to roll away, meals are prepared in the field and children run around. Finally, as the trees get a breezy trim, wafts of smoke rise from the fires on the sides of the groves, burning the pruned branches.

 
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We have four olive trees in our garden, not exactly a grove but enough for a few jars of crushed olives - salty, piquant and bitter, they accompany our meals throughout the year. I even like a salty olive with my morning black coffee. So we had a small “celebration” of our own, almost according to tradition. We spread a cloth, picked, gathered, trimmed and rejoiced from the abundance that Earth offers us.

 
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At this time the olive mills in the area also wake up from their sleep. It’s the finest hour for all the machinery and conveyor belts that have been dormant for almost a year, but are now ready, oiled, and waiting for the sacks of olives to arrive. The high, shining oil containers stand still and pallets of the iconic yellow jerry cans are in position. And then one day the lights go on, the machines clang well into the night, a sour-pungent smell spreads in the wind and who knows how many cups of strong black coffee are poured there while waiting for the fresh oil to fill the canisters - dark green, muddy, sharp and aromatic. No kitchen in this region would do without it, even in the years when the price of olive oil goes up due to a smaller yield, because it is the principal ingredient of any local dish. And, frankly, there is nothing better than a warm pita soaked in freshly-milled olive oil with just a touch of labneh and maybe a few slices of tomato and onion for a perfect finish.

 
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It’s the finest hour for all the machinery and conveyor belts that have been dormant for almost a year, but are now ready, oiled, and waiting for the sacks of olives to arrive.

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