Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bethlehem Olivewood

I had several conversations with people about buying Olivewood Nativity sets from Bethlehem. They are a beautiful and unique souvenir to bring home from Israel and almost every bus tour that goes to Bethlehem stops at some shop that sells them. (You should be able to click on the pictures for a larger version).

On our last trip, while our group was upstairs getting the hard sell from the sales staff at one particular store, I slipped downstairs to get a few pictures of their production facility. I won’t tell you where this is, because I find this is one of my least favorite places to stop and shop. Prices are higher than the normaly inflated Bethlehem tour-bus-stop prices and I found the sales staff downright pushy.
Drying wood - important, because, if not dry, carved wood will later crack
Bethlehem has many garages and warehouses where people carve out nativity sets. The place I took these pictures is larger than most. The pictures aren’t the highest quality. It was a bit dark and a haze of wood dust hung in the air. I also didn’t want to get in right the workers faces, so I took the shots from a distance.

Each person seems to work on one specific figure at a time, often using an identical figure as a model.

I was first a little put off by the fact that this looked a little like a sweatshop. But the reality is that unemployment in Bethlehem is high and jobs are scarce. A job like this is steady work and a relatively safe and secure environment, even if that doesn’t look like what we’re used to here.

OSHA would probably not approve of this workstation.
My experience is that prices for Olivewood nativity sets are higher in the stores in Bethlehem than what you will find in the smaller stores in Jerusalem’s Old City or even some of the hotel gift shops. That has always seemed counterintuitive to me, but I suppose that the factors of both location and next door competition are a big factor.

If you plan to buy a set and price is the biggest concern, I suggest you buy in Jerusalem. You could save 40%. Be sure the set is actually carved by hand and is not simply wet Olivewood that has been formed in press – those figures will likely crack when they dry. Also, be aware that Olivewood nativity sets are now being shipped in from China and sold by some in Jerusalem shops at lower prices.

I don’t mind spending a little more for a set in Bethlehem because I think the people there need the support and you are less likely to be sold junk. My favorites store is Kando’s. It near Rachel’s Tomb. It was started by the cobbler who was brought the first Dead Sea Scroll by the Bedouin boy who found it (and asked him to make shoe laces out of the leather).

Kando used the money he got from being a middle man for the Scrolls to open a store. They still have the original Dead Sea Scroll jar that the Isaiah scroll was stored in right there in the store (worth the trip alone). The store is now run by his grandson Shibli, who is a delightful and friendly host. Yes, their prices are higher than Jerusalem, but I like supporting a Christian family who continues to exist under such hard circumstances.
Remember, don’t pay their asking price. Expect to pay about 75% of the price they first ask; perhaps less of you’re buying a very expensive set or multiple items. Don’t be put off by the look of the store on the outside. The staff is friendly, not especially pushy, and I found them basically honest about what they sell. Just don’t be surprised if you find a similar item in Jerusalem’s souk for less –consider this a “fair trade” purchase that will help a group of people who have had it very tough for several generations.

Guide Gila Yudkin has a nice page on the Scrolls and the Kando connection at this page: