An artist working in the Judean Desert
by Rivkah Naomi Green on January 18, 2019
The first thing one notices when walking into the Maale Adumim workshop of Israeli wood crafter, Uri Kalfa, is the distinctive scent of wood and sawdust that lingers in the air. The space is open, and the stacks of raw and partially worked olive wood are artfully dappled by sunlight dancing in from the wide-open workshop doors. It is an oasis of peace.
The second thing that one notices is the beauty. Uri handcrafts distinctive, one-of-a-kind, olive-wood mezuzahs (a parchment inscribed with religious texts and attached in a case to the doorpost of a Jewish house), candle holders, and unique Torah-inspired artwork. The shelves and tables display his works, each piece more beautiful than the next.
The third thing that one notices is that Uri has created a space that not only allows him to express his creativity but beckons you to express yours. This is a woodshop for the master crafter and a place of discovery for those of us who are just beginners, too.
Uri is the son of Israeli immigrant parents, who were true pioneers. They escaped from Algeria in 1947 and made their way to the then-British Mandate of Palestine. The British arrested and banished the family from the Promised Land, deporting them to Cyprus where they were interred in a DP (displaced persons) camp. While in the DP camp in Cyprus, Uri’s older brother was born—a prisoner, behind the British barbed wire. Following these dark days, the family, having persevered in the face of great hardship, were ultimately able to make their way to Israel where he was born in Haifa—a free Jew in the fledgling State of Israel.
A little more than a decade later, the family needed to move and once again found themselves as new immigrants, but this time in Canada. Uri lived there for the following 42 years. He married and raised a beautiful family of 11 children. He never ceased yearning to return to the country of his birth and in 2007, he was able to return to Israel with his family. He immediately put his roots back into Israeli soil and has had the pleasure of accompanying children to the marriage chuppah as well as seeing many grandchildren born in the Israel of a unified Jerusalem.
Uri has continued his family’s pioneering tradition and settled in Maale Adumim, a city high in the desert hills of Judea from where one can see far past the historic biblical city of Jericho into the neighboring country of Jordan. It is in the quiet beauty of the Judean Desert that Uri has established his workshop.
Uri works specifically with reclaimed olive wood. The olive tree has a long and beautiful history in the Land of Israel. It is recorded in scripture as one of the seven species prevalent in Israel: “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:8).
King David in his timeless psalms often compared himself and Israel to the olive tree: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” (Psalm 58:8)
One can find evidence of olive trees in Israel dating back thousands of years. Examples of these trees can be seen in the Galilee in the Beit Hakerem Valley where many of them are over 1,000 years old and in the garden of the Church of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
Olive wood provides a perfect medium for creating these biblically inspired artworks. Artists love working with it given its density, straight grain, fine texture, and rich color. Uri lets each piece of wood tell its story—working it by hand, sanding, carving, shaping, and finally staining and sealing it to make it a precious home to the scroll that will reside inside it
Uri’s larger pieces follow the same inspiration, each whispering the story that it would like to tell. Uri burns sacred words from the Torah into the wood, where together their beauty is manifest in the hands of the craftsman.
Uri felt that it was important to share his journey of creativity with others from around the world. In addition to placing his pieces up for sale, he teaches workshops where attendees can learn more about the spiritual significance of the mezuzah and how to wield woodworking tools to create their own mezuzah to take home. Each person walks out with a handcrafted and decorated mezuzah that is a very personal reminder of their time in Israel.
Rabbi Joshua Ben Levy taught: “Why is Israel said to be like the olive tree? To tell you that even as the leaves of an olive tree fall neither during the summer nor during the rainy season, so Israel will never cease to be, not in this world nor in the hereafter.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot, 53B.)