For Ashraf Jaraysa, 53, handcrafting olive wood handicrafts is a way of life.
A fourth-generation artisan, Jaraysa began working with his father in the family’s olive wood workshop after school when he was 8 years old.
“As the oldest son I would come to the workshop and sit with my father, and we would talk and work together,” recalled Jaraysa.
Today, he runs the family’s workshop in the village of Beit Sahour that neighbors Bethlehem in the West Bank, and his younger brother works with him fashioning carved religious figurines from both the Old and New Testaments, Nativity scenes and wooden crosses from traditional and new designs.
Other members of the family also take part in the family business, with his sisters and mother doing gluing and finishing work on rosaries and smaller pieces. His middle son has come on as a marketer and salesman for his father’s work.
Though not as directly involved with the workshop, his other three children help out when they can.
“As long as we can, we will keep the work with my family,” said Jaraysa, whose late father was among the founders of the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society, which was founded in 1981 and represents 35 olive wood and mother-of-pearl workshop owners.
“We are four generations in this work so we have many of our designs from the older generations. This is our tradition. We give people our voice of love and peace as Christians,” he said.
In addition to selling work by its members, the cooperative also sells handicrafts made by nonmembers including ceramics, glass, embroidery, olive soap and stationary.
For many of the artisans, including himself, said Jaraysa, the cooperative allows them to get a fair price for their work.
Much of the work continues to be done in the same way as it was done by his grandfather and great-grandfather. In the autumn, when olive farmers prune their trees, Jaraysa purchases the wood and leaves it to dry in a special drying room for at least two years and only then is it ready to be carved.
“If you love your work, you love God, and we always want to make new and beautiful things. This is our job but we also share our voice about God and Jesus. We share the love with these pieces,” he said.
Another olive wood artisan and member of the cooperative, Kamal Abu Sada, 70, said that creating religious sculptures from olive wood strengthens his Christian faith.
“I am happy we can be here, on our land, doing this work,” said Abu Sada, whose two sons are also craftsman, one in his own workshop and the youngest with his father. He began his workshop as a young man out of the love of the art of carving, he said. Indeed, said his wife Rima, Abu Sada is rarely without some sort of carving in his hands.
“I am proud of the work my husband does,” she said. “I am proud they work in something which belongs to Jesus and the Holy Family.”
On a practical level, Abu Sada said, the olive wood handicrafts and other handmade crafts local artisans produce are an important source of livelihood for many local residents.
“This has been our work from the beginning. We are in our land, in our workshops,” he said. “I believe the olive trees are blessed and we are passing on that blessing especially with the Nativity sets.”
Jaraysa also feels it is especially significant to work with olive wood, calling the olive tree holy because of its association with Jesus, who prayed in an olive grove in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives before he was crucified.
“We present the story of Jesus. Many people do not have the chance to come here. When we make a creche, and sell it in Europe or the USA, they can live the story,” said Jaraysa. “The children can put in the pieces of Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and then the three kings and baby Jesus. We share this Christmas time for all.”
As more and more Christians are emigrating from the Holy Land because of the difficult political and economic situation, it is important to maintain this traditional handicraft, he said.
“We will continue to build on love, because without love there is no life,” he said.