Preserving Traditional Handcrafts
I was born and raised in a household where handcrafting was a routine part of life. My mother is a weaver and taught arts and crafts. My father was an amateur silversmith. I always traveled, and I always handcrafted. All the trips I took, first guided and then as the guide, I was always interested in the working hands I encountered. I would sit for hours observing these handcrafters as they worked. At times I would even study with them.
In 1993, I began teaching basket making, weaving, and traditional agriculture at the Ein Yael Living Museum in Jerusalem. But I felt dissatisfied. For those who participated in the workshops – mostly girls and boys – I was only able to give them projects that could be completed during these one-time sessions. I was lacking the “real thing” – knowledge of those handcrafts that were born of the need to survive, crafted by experienced handcrafters to create items that were useful and necessary.
This dissatisfaction sent me looking for people who could teach me. I began studying spinning with Shuri Privizor and Tony Friedman – both Americans. They taught me to work with a bottom weighted or lower whorl spindle, traditional in the Americas. I spun miles (kilometers) of thread on this spindle!
In 1995 I met Faiza Abu Amrah - an old Bedouin woman from Segev Shalom, who taught me the traditional Bedouin weaving method on the ground loom. And so my journey began…
In 1996 I set out on a long journey with two friends during which we set up camp on the southern area of Mt. Hevron. I studied with Ayisha, one of the local peasants, for two and a half months. I “interned” in spinning using the local upper whorl spindle. We used the raw wool shorn from her own sheep, and after days of work I wove a rug – that was entirely my own handiwork (with a helping hand from Ayisha). All the materials were local, including the plants I used to dye the threads. I used a few simple tools namely sticks and stakes/pegs, also from the immediate surroundings. For me, this was an earth breaking experience.
Nine years later, we set off again for a long hike in Israel. We hiked from the Valley of Elah to the Galilee. By now we were a family with two children.
I dreamed of reliving the adventure of my first journey. I wanted to spend time with the handcrafters and learn from them. I was especially interested in weaving wheat straw, which I knew was a widespread handicraft in the past that many women did. But in the many villages we passed through, including those that displayed colorful wheat-straw trays decorations on the porches of the households, I was told that there was no one who weaved wheat straw anymore. They had stopped ("batalu" in Arabic) doing it. The elderly had all passed on; the young woman had not continued the tradition. Village after village, I heard the same message.
Finally, my search bore fruit – I met the women of the Hason family from Shefaram who taught me the weaving of the "Musht" - the traditional corn-dolly of Palestine. Not long after that, I met H’uala Abu El Hijeh, who taught me weaving with wheat straw.
During the same trip, I began to recognize that the handcrafts that were so widespread throughout Israel (up to the last one or two generations) were slowly disappearing. I decided it was not enough to feel regretful about this trend, but that I need to make an effort to save at least some of this knowledge.
This became the focus of my life!
From 2005, I have dedicated most of my time to learning and teaching traditional handicrafts. When possible – I try to have my students meet with the handcrafters who originally taught me. This is to allow the direct transfer of knowledge. I believe that in this way not only is the actual knowledge passed on but also the cultural contexts.
As time goes on, I am more and more aware of how the traditional handcrafts represent the foundations of cultural traditions. Many times, traditional handcrafts are the link between actual physical expression to spiritual expression of the culture (songs, proverbs, art, customs, etc.).
Learning traditional handcrafts from handcrafters is a wonderful opportunity to meet with people from different cultures. Through learning, you can discover, perhaps for the first time, different ways of thinking, and develop the ability to look at familiar situations differently. I believe the connection created when learning handcrafts from individuals in geographical proximity but nevertheless living under such different conditions is important within itself – especially if it lends to preserving traditional handicrafts.
In general, these learned handcrafts have no monetary value. The workshops that I organize are an opportunity for teachers to gain recognition, honor, and ample payment for these almost forgotten handcrafts. In my opinion, this is most valuable.
Workshops for weaving on Bedouin ground loom taught by Bedouin teachers
Despite the fact that these handcrafts are in direct opposition to the growing technological and modernization trends, and to some extent oppose the ideas and powers controlling our political arena, I feel that more and more people are beginning to understand the importance, beauty, and enjoyment afforded by the return to simple handcrafts.
The promotion of tourist centers for women that include workshops in traditional handcrafts has become increasingly popular in the Israeli Arab sector. The same is true in the Palestine Authority and Jordan. However, the main goal of these centers is not the preservation of traditional handicrafts, but economic and personal empowerment of women. Therefore These women do not necessarily engage in traditional handcrafting; instead, crafting is performed according to the tourist and/or economic perceptions, in order to promote sales. This approach may be lacking accuracy and also cause confusion, and at times actually cause others to forget true traditional handcrafting, to be replaced by more modern options (for example, Arab women who learn to weave with palm fronds may forget the tradition of weaving with olive shoots or wheat straw – those materials traditionally used in their villages). On the other hand, these centers may increase awareness to the return of handcrafting in general and I very much hope that with time, the importance of preserving traditional knowledge and culture associated with handcrafting will be understood. This is one of the main goals of the book I wrote about the basketry traditions of Palestine/Israel
In the Israeli Jewish sector, the situation is no better. The opposite, from the time of the creation of the State of Israel, many handcrafters settled in Israel, but were unable to continue their crafts. The extensive cultural wealth brought to Israel by the Jews of the world was not realized in the young country, which was founded on the ideals of modernization and unification of the groups from the diaspora. The traditional fabric frayed, and its fibers tangled in the resulting fusion, leaving many of us in confusion and lack of traditional roots.
Much ancient knowledge from various sources simply disappeared. And if this is true regarding spiritual tradition, it is doubly true regarding the material tradition. Numerous handcrafts have totally disappeared, and there are others I have probably never heard of.
Elderly handcrafters that still remember the ancient crafts will not be with us much longer, and the clock is ticking!
Unfortunately, until now I have not succeeded in obtaining funding for research of this topic. My activities to preserve traditional handcrafts, like the writing of my book, have been my own initiatives.
Any connection to parties interested in promoting research of traditional handcrafts will be gratefully accepted.
 Journey Stories – for this trip and subsequent trips are detailed on the Preserving Traditional Handcrafts Website. (Hebrew)