Into the Woods
Creating Judaica art from olive wood isn’t just his job, it’s a way of life
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It’s a few days before Lag B’omer.
In neighborhoods throughout Eretz Yisrael, kids are busy finding those last branches and scraps of wood to add to their bonfires. But in a woodworking shop in Maaleh Adumim’s industrial zone, Uri Kalfa is hoping to light a different sort of fire.
Seated in the shop’s rustic “parlor,” where handcrafted wood stools give a hint of what is to come, are half a dozen teens from Ohr Moshe, a yeshivah located in Beit Shemesh. They’ve come to participate in a two-hour workshop where they
will make and decorate a wooden mezuzah case. During Kalfa’s opening remarks, they eye him with that mixture of boredom and bravura that teens do so well, as if to say, “I dare you to interest me in this stuff.”
But Uri Kalfa is up to the challenge. It’s not just that he understands kids and appreciates them for what they are — unique expressions of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He also understands the power of wood: how creating something with your own hands can awaken wellsprings of creativity, as well as positivity, hidden deep within your soul.
Uri is an enthusiastic advocate of olive U wood. Olive trees are native to Eretz Yisrael, and his love for the wood is partly due to the age of some of the trees — some have witnessed almost 1,000 years of Jewish history — and partly a reflection of his own lifelong yearning to live in Israel and play a part in the country’s history.
His family’s roots are in Souf, a small town in Algeria, where his maternal grandfather was the rav, a shochet, and a jewelry maker. The family left Algeria in 1947 and tried to reach Eretz Yisrael, which was still under the rule of the British Mandate. The British turned back their ship, sending them to a DP camp on Cyprus instead. They did finally reach Eretz Yisrael in 1948, after the State of Israel was established, and the family settled in Haifa. Uri was born there in 1954.
But all was not rosy in the Promised Land. “My parents had a hard time,” says Uri. “Mostly European Jews lived in Haifa, and there was a lot of prejudice against Middle Eastern Jews.”
His family moved to Canada in 1965, seeking better economic opportunities. His father’s brother had moved to Canada five years before, but even with family to help, Uri recalls that this wasn’t an easy transition either. They settled in Toronto, where there was a Jewish community, but very few Sephardim.
“Toronto has grown since then, and now there is a big Sephardi community,” he comments. “But while I was growing up, we always felt like we were outsiders.”
Uri felt like an outsider at his public school, too. He didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived, although learning the language was the easy part. Much harder was fitting in with his non-Jewish classmates, who found him as strange as he found them. “Canada was very conservative at that time — there weren’t a lot of foreigners living there,” he says. “So there was prejudice at school too. I learned that being a Jew is not a simple thing.”
But he adapted, and he came to love the city that he then called home. Later, he married and started to raise a family. However, a trip back to Israel when he was 20 reawakened longings for his real home. “When I returned to Canada,” he recalls, “there wasn’t a single day in my life when I didn’t think, ‘I want to come back.’ ”
It took him 40 years, but in 2007 he and his family — today he has 11 children, bli ayin hara — did move to Israel, settling in Maaleh Adumim. Has reality matched his expectations?
“Looking back, I can only say, ‘What took me so long?’ ”
Unlocking the Creativity Inside
School groups, bar mitzvah groups, and people just looking for a fun activity have attended Uri’s workshops, which attract people from all over — visitors from the US, England, etc., as well as groups from Eretz Yisrael.
After Uri gives the group from Ohr Moshe a brief introduction to the mitzvah of mezuzah, the teenagers head into the actual workshop area, where there is room for 20 workstations. Each station is equipped with a set of tools and a partially crafted mezuzah case. The first order of the day is to use a hammer and chisel to carve out a place in one side of the wood for the klaf. The boys don protective gear — gloves and goggles — and within minutes they are all intently chipping away at the wood.
The boys are accompanied by principal Rabbi Ari Deutscher and the class’s rebbi, Rabbi Ari Green, who have also been given cases to work on. Taking a break from smoothing his own case to watch his talmidim at work, Rabbi Green comments, “It’s good to give the kids a trip where they are learning, but also have a hands-on activity.”
For the workshops, Uri uses cases crafted from mahogany, which has an even grain — there aren’t any knots or holes — and is therefore much easier to work with than olive wood.
When the group is done chipping out the wood, Uri makes the hollowed-out space absolutely smooth with a sanding machine. Then it’s back to the workstation, as each boy sands by hand all the sides of the case to make the entire surface smooth. Uri warns them that sanding takes patience — it can’t be done quickly. The bochurim don’t complain. By now, they are totally immersed in the work.
The final part of the workshop is decorating the mezuzah case. There is a separate workstation, where Uri has set up paints, sparkles, and other items. He also provides a variety of shins, as a final touch.
By the time the group is done, each of the decorated cases
is as individual as the boys themselves. Some of them have experimented with layering paint to create interesting designs, some have added glitter or sequins, while others have preferred a simpler look and added just a coat of paint or shellac.
After the cases are dry, the bochurim go on their way, clearly proud of their morning’s work. As Uri straightens up the workstations, he comments, “I remember the first piece I brought home when I was a kid. I was so excited.” He then adds, “If you give kids an opportunity to connect with nature, they won’t be always so attached to their computer games.”
That’s one reason why his big dream for the future is to also offer regular woodworking classes for kids. Another reason is to give skills to kids who aren’t the top learners, to give them a way to be successful. “Even kids who are ‘rough’ walk away from here feeling different,” he says. “They feel proud of what they’ve done.
“Every human being has a need to be creative. But we don’t have opportunities anymore. When people come here and start working with the wood, they feel like they’re going camping and being outdoors. Even when it’s a group of tourists and they come here at the end of a full day of touring, and they’re tired and kvetchy, after they get into the work they relax. They’re totally into what they’re doing, totally focused. I get lots of nachat from seeing people work with their hands and being physically creative. It’s like seeing someone blossom before your eyes.”
Every Piece is Unique
Uri’s love for working with wood began when he took a woodworking class in grade school. “I was always very hands- on,” he explains. “I always liked physical work and building things.” Even after he was married and had a family to support, he would do woodworking as a hobby, building or refurbishing furniture.
When he returned to Eretz Yisrael to live, he knew he wanted to continue to learn Torah, and today he learns half a day in a kollel in Jerusalem. But he also knew he wanted to continue working with wood; the only question was which direction his woodworking would take.
“I knew I could do furniture and more traditional artwork,” he comments. “Or I could be more expressive and bring spirituality into my woodworking. I chose the second path and I decided that I wanted each piece to express its uniqueness.”
Part of that uniqueness, Uri explains, is due to olive wood’s distinctive grain. “It isn’t like the typical grain that has rings. The grain is unpredictable. Sometimes
it’s half white and half brown, or just a little bit of brown and the rest is white. The grain has twists and turns. There can be big holes in the wood too. This is why you have to be focused and in tune with the wood while you’re working with it. You don’t know beforehand what to expect.”
Therefore, when he starts to work with a piece of wood, he usually doesn’t have a fixed idea for what he intends to create. It’s only when the wood’s unique qualities begin to be revealed that he’ll ask, “What can I do with this piece?”
Even when he does know what he wants to do — say, create a Chanukah menorah — he has to remain flexible and focused. Pointing to an example, he reveals something of his process.
“Originally, I was going to use the entire piece of wood for the base to hold the candles,” he says. “But parts of the wood were too chunky and rough, and it didn’t look good. So I decided to carve out a space between the two sides. There was just enough room for the eight candleholders.”
He still needed to find space for the shamash and room for the traditional words, “Haneiros halalu.” But as he continued to work with the wood, everything fell into place — beautifully.
Living with the Flaws
Uri mentions that U you aren’t allowed to cut down olive trees in Israel. (This is in addition to the halachic prohibition of cutting down fruit trees.) But farmers are allowed to trim their trees, and they can sell the trimmed branches as firewood or sell them to artisans, such as Uri.
Like any wood, olive trees can get infested with worms. But worms aren’t always detrimental. For Uri, who always seeks out the positive, even the humble worm can sometimes be a great artist.
He walks over to a table where about a dozen mezuzah cases are displayed. Each one is unique, differing in shape and size. He picks up one whose entire surface is covered with delicate carvings. How did the wood get these interesting lines?
“To me, the lines look like ancient writing. But they come from worms eating the wood, underneath the bark,” Uri explains. “That’s why the farmers trim the trees, because they can’t get rid of this kind of disease while the branch is still on the tree. I put the cut wood into a solution of linseed oil and turpentine, and that kills everything.”
The entire log was about three feet tall. At first, Uri thought it might make a nice stand for something. Then he realized that if he cut the log into much smaller pieces, the wood would make beautiful mezuzah cases.
Sometimes, though, he will work on a piece and realize that none of his ideas are materializing. When that happens, the wood gets put on a high shelf, where it will wait until Uri decides to give it another go.
“Sometimes when I come back to it, I’ll get an idea that works,” says Uri. “If not, it goes back on the shelf. But I never give up on a piece of wood. Ever.”
Learning to Say “Enough!"
While Uri usually works with olive wood, there was one idea he had for a Seder plate that required a different kind.
“I wanted to make a Seder plate like a long runner, where the food items could be reached easily from both sides of the table. But where do you find such a huge piece of olive wood? There are no flat pieces of that size that don’t have holes. So I used wood from the flame tree instead, which also grows in Israel.”
Finding the wood was just the beginning. He says it took him more than 200 hours to bring his idea to fruition.
“When you’re working on a piece like this, you have to be very focused,” he explains. “You can’t make any mistakes. If you overwork the wood, sand it down too deeply, you could poke a hole in the wood and the whole thing will be ruined. The same was true when I carved out the letters. I had to be focused so I didn’t carve too deeply and create a hole.
“You have to know when to say, ‘Enough.’ You have to know when more work might ruin the piece.”
In addition to remaining focused while he’s working, Uri says he will meditate beforehand too. “When I’m doing a piece like this, I don’t work blindly. I visualize the actual process, in a positive way — what I’m going to do, what tool I’m going to use — before I begin to work.
“You can use meditation for anything,” he adds. “Davening, passing an exam — it’s worthwhile to try it.”
Like many artists, Uri says he has a problem parting with his work, even though it’s for sale.
“Somebody offered me $2,000 for the Seder plate,” he says. “I said no. I invested too much of myself. My sweat and blood are in my work. It’s not like you just sand down the wood a little bit. You think about it when you’re awake, when you’re sleeping. Maybe if someone offered me $7,000, I’d agree.”
Although he is now at an age when some people retire, he says that word isn’t in his vocabulary. “I’m constantly trying to be creative, to try new things,” he says. “If you want to see things negatively, you’ll see them negatively. If you’re looking for the positive, you’ll find it. It’s the same thing with creativity. If you’re always on the lookout for beautiful things, ideas will continue to come into your head. Sometimes I’m amazed at how I’m still growing.”
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