A Christmas tree grows in (the other) Bethlehem

A former bus driver tends a forest of cypresses up north for Israel’s Christians

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Yossi Jaeger, the Jewish farmer who grows some of Israel's Christmas trees (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Yossi Jaeger, the Jewish farmer who grows some of Israel's Christmas trees (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The air was crisp and sharp with the smell of cypress needles in this small, sparse forest in an upper corner of Bethlehem of the Galilee — a community dating from biblical times — where Yossi Jaeger grows his Christmas trees.

They’re not towering specimens, this collection of somewhat spindly Arizona cypresses. Many are missing their tips, since Jaeger produces his annual lot of Christmas trees by chopping the trees from the middle and offering the crown for sale. He then waits, patiently, for it to grow again, a process that can take as long as four years.

The former Egged bus driver wasn’t born into the forestry business. He happened upon it around 20 years ago, when he noticed a newspaper ad posted by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the country’s tree-growing organization, looking for farmers to raise commercial forests of Christmas trees.

The organization has always distributed Christmas trees to local churches, monasteries, convents, embassies, foreign journalists and the general public before the holiday.

At the time, Jaeger was a widower with three young children. His wife, Hagar, had been killed in a car accident two years earlier, and he was living with his wife’s parents on their farm, a small compound of turn-of-the-century and new buildings in the ancient town of Bethlehem of the Galilee.

Hagar’s father, Benjamin Borstein, originally from Leipzig, Germany, was one of the first Jewish settlers in the town established by German Templers at the turn of the century.

Borstein was part of a Haganah unit that recaptured the town in 1948. Having studied agriculture at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school when he first arrived in pre-state Palestine, he was determined to become a Jewish farmer — once his mother had visited and approved the decision, according to Jaeger.

ome of the original Templer-era buildings used by Yossi Jaeger on his farm in Bethlehem of the Galilee (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Some of the original Templer-era buildings used by Yossi Jaeger on his farm in Bethlehem of the Galilee (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ten couples lived in one of the original buildings — which is now used by Jaeger as a small guesthouse — until the community was recognized as a moshav in 1952 and the Jewish Agency built private homes for the residents.

By the time Jaeger met Hagar, Borstein was eking out a living by raising cattle for milk and growing a series of crops.

Jaeger, who grew up in nearby Tivon, went to work with his father-in-law, before and after his day job driving an Egged bus.

“I learned how to be a farmer,” he said. He even convinced his father-in-law to switch to sheep from cattle.

At the time, there were around 40 farms in the community; now there are fewer than ten.

When Hagar died, Jaeger didn’t want to stay. “It was a very hard time,” he said.

But it was up to Jaeger to make the farm survive, and he thought the tree business would help.

A felled cypress in Jaeger's Christmas forest (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A felled cypress in Jaeger’s Christmas forest (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

He quit Egged, and planted 5,000 trees at first, finding they didn’t need much care. They didn’t even require a watering system.

Selling them, however, was a different story.

“I sat down with the phone book, copying all the fax numbers of the embassies,” he said.

He ended up chopping down 50 trees and delivering them around the country the first year that he had available trees. Eventually he developed a customer base, which included Arab Christians from around the area who would come and pick out their trees, as well as a handful of embassies.

One year he sold to a filmmaker, who needed seven for one scene. This year, he sold to the Norwegian Embassy for the first time — “they had to make sure the trees weren’t grown in the territories” —  but the US Embassy didn’t buy any, which was a first. He uses the leftover wood for his fireplace, for building outdoor planters, for the sukkah, and as mulch in his kitchen garden.

It hasn’t been all that profitable as a business. He sells only about 100 trees each year, for around NIS 150 a tree. Sometimes he fashions wreaths from the branches of the cypresses.

Yet it was only this year that Jaeger, now 56, picked up the phone and called his original contact at Keren Kayemeth to ask if he wanted to see how the trees were doing.

“He was in shock,” laughed Jaeger. “It’s been 20-plus years and I’m one of the only ones who was successful.”

The organization had thought at one time that Christmas trees grown in the holy land could be an international export. Particularly so from Bethlehem of the Galilee, said Jaeger, where there’s always been a question of whether Jesus may have lived there.

Silver cypress seedlings, part of KKL's efforts to try exporting their Christmas trees (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Silver cypress seedlings, part of KKL’s efforts to try exporting Christmas trees (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

This year, KKL sent a scientist up to Jaeger’s farm to see how he was growing his trees and added a new species, the silver cypress, in the hope that its elegant, icy green leaves could offer a new market for Christmas trees grown in the holy land.

“I think we’ll grow them in pots, make them easier to put indoors,” said Jaeger.

There have been other changes along the way. He stopped raising sheep when his third wife — Jaeger married and divorced his second wife after having his fourth child with her, and now has two more children with his third wife — wanted him to sleep in bed rather than in the barn.

He also discovered archery, and now runs an archery club that has indoor and outdoor shooting ranges among the cedar trees.

Between the trees, archery, a guesthouse and a sometimes-functioning cafe, as well as his workshop where he likes to collect unused birds nests, old farming tools and anything else he finds on his land, Jaeger keeps busy.

The land, however, won’t be his forever. There are plans to build new houses on part of his forest, and while he thought about fighting it, now he’s reconsidering.

“A friend of mine pointed out to me that it’s not my land,” said Jaeger, referring to his rights as a farmer on government-owned land. “I decided he’s right. But right now, I’m at the center of the Garden of Eden.”

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