Jerusalem’s trees and the people in charge of planting them

Written by on July 3, 2021

Walking to “The Tzomet” – the busy intersection connecting four of north Jerusalem’s main arteries: Bar-Ilan and Shmuel HaNavi streets with Eshkol and Golda Meir boulevards – I saw two municipality men dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, planting trees on the sidewalk next to the middle bus lane.

Their white, four-door pickup truck parked next to them halfway up on the sidewalk, they were stabilizing a freshly planted sapling next to the metal fence that forces pedestrians to cross at a distant crosswalk.

As I got closer, I saw that the sapling was still in its green bag, which I assumed was just to hold the soil and roots until the little tree is planted. But I would soon find out that this was no regular tree bag.

PASSERSBY WATCH as Rafi installs a metal tree guard. ‘(Credit: Natan Rothstein).PASSERSBY WATCH as Rafi installs a metal tree guard. ‘(Credit: Natan Rothstein).

Rafi Levi and Tal Maman work in the Horticulture (Gananut) Branch of Jerusalem’s City Improvement Department – Shaf’a for short, the Hebrew acronym for Shipur Pnei Ha’ir. They are part of a staff of about 150-200 workers whose job it is to develop and maintain the capital’s parks, gardens and playgrounds, as well as the flora beautifying the city’s streets and other public areas.

Rabbi Akiva Wolff, in his article “Trees in Jewish Thought” at myjewishlearning.com, writes that: “Trees are at the pinnacle of the plant world, which transforms the earth from a barren and lifeless mass into an environment capable of supporting other forms of life such as animals and humans. We find this expressed in the Midrash Sifrei,” which says that the phrase “‘… man is a tree of the field’ teaches that the life of man is from the tree.’”

HISHAM AMIN (right) and Yaniv Yosef Mizrahi: 60 years of combined tree-planting skill. (Credit: NATAN ROTHSTEIN) HISHAM AMIN (right) and Yaniv Yosef Mizrahi: 60 years of combined tree-planting skill. (Credit: NATAN ROTHSTEIN)

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” – Warren Buffett

Rafi, 48, has been with the gardening division for 27 years, starting as a 21-year-old civilian right after his mandatory army service. Tal, 43, also came to the division right out of the army, and has been there for 23 years. They met at work and, like on the day I saw them, they sometimes work together.

“I love this profession,” Rafi exults. “I went to an agricultural school after the army, and then applied and got accepted to the city’s horticulture division.” Tal agrees: “I decided to get into this because it’s what I love to do the most!”

When I saw them, they were planting crape myrtle trees. Rafi calls them Legesmaya Hodit, Hebrew for their botanical name Lagerstroemia indica, named after Swedish botanist Magnus von Lagerstroem and the Indian subcontinent from where they hail.

Its flowers come in a variety of colors, from white and pink to red and purple. “And one tree can have flowers of several different colors,” Rafi says. “It can be pink on the bottom and white or red on top – that’s part of the whole beauty of this tree.”

The saplings they were planting that day are about three years old, and will take 2-3 more years to “really take root in the ground” and grow into small, beautifully blossoming trees.

‘IN TWO DAYS, it will be uprooted again’ – let’s hope not, Hisham. (Credit: Natan Rothstein).‘IN TWO DAYS, it will be uprooted again’ – let’s hope not, Hisham. (Credit: Natan Rothstein).

The department’s agronomists and others, who decide which trees to put where, try to plant the same variety as old trees that are already there. If there aren’t any there already, they will choose varieties that are appropriate for the city, its climate and that particular location.

Tal and Rafi say that some of the other trees commonly planted in Jerusalem are pine, oak, ash, nettle, cypress, plane, poplar, juniper, azerole and bougainvillea. Fruit trees are generally not planted by the gardening department, Rafi said.

Most of the trees that eventually get planted are grown in nurseries in northern Israel, and are brought down to a local nursery next to Jerusalem’s Botanical Garden to await selection and pickup for transplanting.

A TALLOW tree Rafi planted in Pisgat Ze’ev about 20 years ago. ‘I get emotional seeing it again. (Credit: Rafi Levy)A TALLOW tree Rafi planted in Pisgat Ze’ev about 20 years ago. ‘I get emotional seeing it again. (Credit: Rafi Levy)

“He who plants a tree, plants a hope.” – Lucy Larcom

True to procedure, the new saplings Rafi and Tal were planting are joining several other crape myrtles of various sizes and colors on the sidewalks here at the beginning of Golda Meir. “That pink one is about 7-8 years old,” Rafi says, pointing to a medium-sized arbor child across the street. “And that big white one is about 12-13 years old.”

A PINK crape myrtle reaches for the blue sky. (Credit: Natan Rothstein)A PINK crape myrtle reaches for the blue sky. (Credit: Natan Rothstein)

So what about the unusual green bag by the little tree – that was still there two days later?

“The saplings come in black plastic bags,” Rafi explains. “The green ones are special slow-drip watering bags. When there is no pre-existing irrigation system, we put these bags filled with water next to the planted tree so that it will be precisely watered – until we come back in two or three days to refill the bag.” That explains one of the reasons why their truck has a big, black water container in the back – to refill the irrigation bags.

“We can learn a lot from trees: they’re always grounded, but never stop reaching heavenward.” – Everett MamorA tree in a green plastic bag (Credit: Natan Rothstein). A tree in a green plastic bag (Credit: Natan Rothstein).

The city is divided into three horticultural regions: Michal Eiluz manages what is called the northern region, Gol Basam central and Nissim Ashuri southern Jerusalem. My two tree men have been planting in the largely haredi neighborhood of Romema – under Ashuri’s jurisdiction even though it is not “south.”

“Mayor Moshe Lion recently authorized and initiated a special project: to plant lots of trees around Jerusalem before Rosh Hashanah,” Ashuri explains, “which begins the shmitah (sabbatical) year, when we let the land rest one in every seven years” according to Jewish tradition. Eitan Levi, the new manager of the entire horticulture division, is advancing this arboreal effort.

‘EYTZALAH' MEN – hatzalah (rescuers) for trees – have arrived! (Credit:Natan Rothstein)‘EYTZALAH’ MEN – hatzalah (rescuers) for trees – have arrived! (Credit:Natan Rothstein)

The pace of planting is on a fast track. “We have planted almost 4,000 trees in the last three months,” Ashuri says, pointing out that Tal and Rafi have recently planted almost 200 trees in Romema alone. To achieve that number, “we had to plant in areas that had been barren for a year or two – sometimes, even 10-20 years.” And in many of those places, there is no fixed irrigation system.

“So for the past few months, we have been using these watering bags, which drain very slowly,” he said. “It’s just a temporary solution – until we set up proper irrigation with pipes. We have only a little more to do in the upcoming month, to finish the whole project.”

Like Rafi and Tal, most of the horticulture staff have been working in the department for more than 20 years, Ashuri says. Now, to keep up the fast pace of the pre-shmitah planting project, more private contractors are being hired.

 RAFI LEVI (left) and Tal Maman: between them, 50 years of arboreal experience. (Credit: Natan Rothstein)) RAFI LEVI (left) and Tal Maman: between them, 50 years of arboreal experience. (Credit: Natan Rothstein))

“Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” (Kohelet Rabbah)

“People who will not sustain trees will soon live in a world that will not sustain people.” – Bryce Nelson

I saw some other trees in my neighborhood, similarly planted with a green water bag next to them. A boy was grasping and shaking one of the fragile saplings; fortunately, he stopped before damaging it.

After first seeing my tree men at The Tzomet, I arranged to meet Rafi again two days later. It turned out that he was coming back to the same spot. “But didn’t you finish the job and fill the water bag last time?” I asked. They did – but he came back because he saw that someone had taken out the little tree’s wooden support pole.

“There’s a lot of vandalism in Romema,” Rafi laments. A few days later, I noticed that some of the watering bags were gone, too.

On Shaul Hamelech Street near where I had first met Rafi and Tal, I saw a sad example of this myself: a recently planted sapling, uprooted and left lying and dying there on an adjacent stone wall. It looked like it had been knocked over by someone trying to park on the sidewalk.

FELLED BY a careless driver or mischievous vandals, a recently uprooted jacaranda tree lies helplessly hoping for its tree men to replant it. Nissim Ashuri: ‘There is vandalism everywhere, but we won’t give up hope.’! (Credit:Natan Rothstein)FELLED BY a careless driver or mischievous vandals, a recently uprooted jacaranda tree lies helplessly hoping for its tree men to replant it. Nissim Ashuri: ‘There is vandalism everywhere, but we won’t give up hope.’! (Credit:Natan Rothstein)

I called the municipality’s 106 public service number to report it. At first, the receptionist thought I was talking about a large, fallen tree – which the city would have also taken care of removing. When I clarified that it was an uprooted sapling, she said they would send someone; I asked for them to call me when they’re coming. Just half an hour later, I got a call from a different pair of Jerusalem Tree Men: “We’ll be there in five minutes.”

Hisham Amin and Yaniv Yosef Mizrahi, who cover Sanhedria in the city’s nominally central region, arrived in their own white, city pickup truck, also equipped with a black water tank in the back. They proceeded to expertly re-dig the hole, and replant and water the little tree.

Yaniv says that this is a jacaranda, or sigalon in Hebrew. “There is a giant one by the police station,” he says enthusiastically.

“You’ll see – in two days, it will be uprooted again,” lamented Hisham. “This is the second time in two months – they are taking the poles and uprooting the trees everywhere, all the time,” he said, discounting the theory that a careless driver did it.

These two Tree Men have a similar story to the first two. Yaniv is 47 and has been with the department for 23 years; Hisham, the eldest of the bunch at 54 years old, has been doing this for 37 years.

Ashuri concurs with Hisham and Yaniv: “There is vandalism everywhere – people tear or steal the bags, and break and uproot the trees. But we won’t give up hope; by Rosh Hashanah, we will try to replace every tree that is uprooted or vandalized – and hope that in a few years, people will be able to walk on shady streets.”

“Every living creature should be grateful to every living tree for giving us a habitable world!” – Mehmet Murat Ildan

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek Proverb

Hisham says that he’ll be back soon to stabilize the fragile and fortunate replanted sapling with poles. “People want trees!” he exclaims.

“We choose appropriate trees for Jerusalem that are good for scenery and shade,” Ashuri says, “and we hope that everything we plant will last. I am just one member of a great team.”

“I love the work and the team,” Rafi says. “It fulfills me – all the planting, the trees – to beautify Jerusalem, enjoy the trees, the flowers, the gardens and parks. It’s an honorable livelihood, and I get pleasure from seeing residents enjoying Jerusalem’s gardens.”

Fortunate are Jerusalemites to have Tree Men such as these!

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