Daniella Levy Interview: “The Olive Harvest”

daniella-levy

Read “The Olive Harvest” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: Thank you so much for sharing this story with me, and for giving me the chance to pepper you with questions about it.

It seems to me it takes a lot of aplomb to tell a story with this level of clarity and directness. I love a parable, I love a folktale, but it’s not easy to tell a new one in a way that feels fresh.

Daniella: Thank you! I didn’t really know that that’s what I was doing at the time!

Michael: I want to ask what sources you were drawing from. I think immediately of Genesis 1:26, where God grants us dominion over all the earth, that phrase so hotly contested between capitalists and conservationists. But I come from an American Catholic background, and I feel like my grasp of the religious lore is very limited. Are there other references you’re making I’m not getting? What about more recent influences on your style and voice?

Daniella: Yes, this story actually draws on quite a number of sources.

The most recent one, the one that really influenced the rhythm and cadence of the story, is a famous folktale of unknown origin, about a pair of brothers who work on a field together and split the portions evenly at the end of every workday. Each brother is concerned that his brother needs more than he does, so in the middle of the night, each of them takes from his own portion and transfers it to the other’s. Every morning they are both mystified as to how the piles are even again. This goes on day after day, until one night, their paths meet in the field, and they understand what has been happening, and they embrace and weep together. Jewish legend teaches that the Holy Temple was built on the spot where those two brothers embraced.

Obviously, there is reference to the story of the Noah and the Ark in chapter 8 of Genesis. It’s a story about a global disaster brought about by human cruelty, and the image of the dove with the olive branch, signaling to Noah that the Flood is receding and that they will soon come upon dry land, has become a universal symbol of peace.

“Between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal” is a direct reference to a mysterious ceremony mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 11 and 27) and the book of Joshua (chapter 8). It took place just after the Israelites entered the Holy Land, on these two mountains, which rise up around the Biblical city of Shekhem, known now as Nablus in Arabic–a hotly contested area in our times.

The purpose of the ceremony was to demonstrate that if the Israelites followed God’s word and carried out His commandments, they would inherit the land and prosper, but if they ignored His commandments, they would experience famine and hardship, and may eventually be expelled from the land. “I call upon the heaven and the earth today as witnesses: I put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Every time I read those words I get a tingle down my spine.

Finally, there is a less obvious, but more fundamental reference to Deuteronomy 20:19. At the end of a chapter about the rules of waging holy war, a rather peculiar, out-of-place commandment pops up. God forbids the Israelites to destroy trees that bear fruit in the process of laying siege upon an enemy city. “For you may eat from it,” He explains. “Is a tree of the field a man, to go into siege before you?”

In Jewish tradition, we believe that the Torah (the Jewish Bible) is centered around the experiences and actions of man. That is its focus. But I see this passage as a little peek into God’s relationship with the rest of His creation. “You go ahead and wage your wars and cleanse the world of human evil as necessary,” He seems to be saying. “Just… leave My trees out of it, okay?”

Michael: I confess, the first time I read “The Olive Harvest”, I hesitated–did I want to open the enormous can of worms that is Middle East Politics, even approaching it from the eminently apolitical position of an olive tree? But I get the sense you’re depicting what may be for you a far more immediate reality.

Daniella: Man, I hear you. Thank you for having the courage to take it on. A few years ago I would never have imagined myself writing fiction about Middle East politics. It’s so very polarizing and emotionally charged, and especially living where I do, the stakes are so high.

But when I started focusing my energies on short fiction, I found that I couldn’t resist.

I think most people don’t realize how much totally normal contact Israeli settlers and Palestinians have with each other on a daily basis. People from the neighboring village come here to do construction or farming work every day. People from here take their cars over there for repairs and washes. Israeli contractors buy construction materials from Bethlehem and Hebron. There is a lot of small-scale commercial cooperation. We drive on the same main roads, shop at the same supermarket at the Gush Etzion Junction. The bizarre paradox of this mundane, day-to-day co-existence alongside the very real violence and injustice is our crazy Middle Eastern reality. It just lends itself to fiction.

I have two other stories on this topic being published soon:Shattered Glass in Newfound, and Scarf Sisters in arc-25 (the literary journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English). The former is about an Israeli settler who gets in a car crash with a Palestinian, and the latter is about an Israeli settler and a Palestinian woman who bond over their identical headscarves at that supermarket. Both of these situations are things that could totally happen to me. (Though I certainly hope the first one won’t!)

Michael: What does environmentalism look like from where you are in the world?

Daniella: Well, the climatic and political conditions of Israel make it very difficult to ignore the environment. It’s a tiny, politically isolated country, more than half desert, with precious little in the way of natural resources. This forces us to be creative with the resources we have. Thankfully, Jews have always been a hopeful and imaginative bunch.

Until very recently, we were entirely dependent on rainfall for our water supply and regularly experienced alarming droughts. One of the responses to that problem was the most well-known Israeli contribution to sustainable agriculture: drip irrigation. I say “until very recently” because in recent years we got some new desalination plants running along the Mediterranean that basically solved our drought problem. These also utilize Israeli innovations that make them particularly efficient and sustainable.

Israel is also a world leader in solar energy innovation. The flat-plate solar heater was perfected by an Israeli engineer in response to the oil crisis of the 1950s, and Israel was the first country in the world to use it on a large scale. Over 90% of Israeli homes use solar energy to heat water.

Thanks to our vigorous afforestation efforts in the 20th century, Israel was one of only two countries in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in trees.

The government recently legislated a tax on plastic shopping bags to discourage their use in the big supermarket chains. My local municipality (the Gush Etzion Regional Council) implemented a highly successful waste separation and recycling program a few years ago.

Don’t let me paint too rosy a picture, however. Our two major power plants still run on coal, despite the recent discovery of plentiful natural gas fields beneath the Mediterranean. When I first moved here 20 years ago, the littering culture was truly appalling. Thankfully, this has improved a lot, but there is still much work to be done.

In the Palestinian territories, a lack of functional cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli authorities leads to some serious infrastructural issues, including open sewage. We often see and smell burning garbage in the neighboring villages.

So, there are problems, some of them highly political. But the general feeling I get is that there is motivation to improve things. Like I said, we are a hopeful people.

Michael: Have you found ways to be like the olive tree in the story, to bridge otherness and bring people together?

Daniella: I try to do so through my writing. My blog, Letters to Josep, is a collection of letters to a Catholic friend of mine in Barcelona about Judaism and life in Israel. In addition to my own letters, I invite people from all walks of life to write “guest letters” about their own cultures and religions. So far I’ve hosted letters from a Puerto-Rican-American Catholic, a Chinese-American Protestant, a Palestinian-American Orthodox Christian, a Pakistani-American Muslim, a French Jew, and an American Baha’i, to name a few!

I love to learn about people who are different than me: how they see the world, what is important to them, and what we have in common. I hope and pray that my writing helps inspire others to get curious about each other and see people who are different from them in a new light.

Michael: You mention that an olive tree takes seven years to bear fruit–is it possible to cultivate that kind of patience when there’s so much animosity in our day to day?

Daniella: You know, until you mentioned it I hadn’t even thought about the symbolism in that.

Michael: I ought to give credit where credit is due: Marissa Lingen is the one who pointed that out to me.

Daniella: I think the lack of patience we have in the Western world is a major part of the problem. We want clear-cut solutions, we want to fix things, draw lines, wrap things up in neat packages and stamp a label on them—and we want it now! Things don’t work that way around here. The trees that are native to this region, like the olive, are very slow-paced. They grow very slowly, reaching relatively unimpressive heights, but because of their slow, steady growth, their wood is very dense, strong, and fire-resistant.

It’s interesting to note that during the first afforestation efforts in the early 20th century, the Jewish National Fund wanted to plant trees that would grow quickly, to bring about a quick reversal of desertification and make the land more fertile. So they planted imported pine trees of a variety that is known for growing quickly. Unfortunately, they are also known for being highly flammable.

There’s definitely a metaphor in there somewhere.

Michael: Your descriptions of the olive grove are very vivid–have you had experience with olive trees yourself, cultivating or harvesting them? Do you garden? I’d love to hear a little about what personal experience with nature motivated you to write a story like this.

Daniella: Since I was a little girl I’ve felt very connected to trees. My mom used to tease me for being a natural tree-hugger! I loved to hold my face up to the bark and breathe in the fragrance of wood and sap. As a child in Pennsylvania I favored the maple trees with their sturdy trunks and brilliant foliage. When I moved here, I fell in love with the ubiquitous olive trees, especially the gnarled, ancient ones. They tell so many stories. Though admittedly, they are harder to hug!

Sadly, I have no garden now, but I would love to have a yard with an olive tree someday.

I came up with the concept for the story when I was driving home one day, listening to the radio, and I overheard talk of some concern about possible clashes because of the olive harvest. It’s a time when people are going out into the fields to tend to the olive trees, and this increases the likelihood of flare-ups. In general, there is a lot of tension around olive trees in this area. They are planted sometimes by people who wish to claim land that does not belong to them, and then destroyed by other people who wish to negate that claim, or cause financial harm to the other side. This kind of selfish and destructive behavior is done by both Israelis and Palestinians. And I thought, how ironic is it that this universal symbol of peace has become a target in this conflict?

If there is one thing Israelis and Palestinians have in common, it is our intense and deep-rooted love for this land. If anything, we should be working together to nurture and protect it, and invest in the futures of our children. We have very real grievances against one another and many injustices to rectify. But it is a travesty to make the land pay the price for those grievances.

The tree in The Olive Harvest is not planted by an Israeli or a Palestinian; it is planted by God. This land belongs to God. And He sets before us life and death, the blessing and the curse. We must choose life.

Michael: Thank you again!

Daniella: Thank you!

Facebooktwittertumblrmail
mm

Author: Daniella Levy

Daniella Levy was born in the United States and moved to Israel with her family as a child. She currently lives in Tekoa, a settlement at the edge of the Judean Desert known for its artists, poets, peace activists, and dreamers. She is the author of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and her debut novel, An Ancient Whisper, is forthcoming from Kasva Press. Her short fiction, poetry, and articles have been published in English and Hebrew in the Jewish Literary Journal, Pnima Magazine, the Shaharitekoa Journal of Literature and Art, and Veils, Halos & Shackles as well as websites such as Kveller, Aish.com, Ynet News, and J-Wire. She blogs about Judaism and life in Israel at LetterstoJosep.com, and about resilience in the face of rejection at RejectionSurvivalGuide.wordpress.com. When not writing, translating, or parenting her three sons, she teaches empowerment self-defense to women and children. Connect with her online at Daniella-Levy.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *