Overpriced Olive Wood

Overpriced Olive Wood

Both leading up to the trip and once I got there, I heard a lot about the rules of shopping in Israel.

  • Rule #1: Always haggle. If you buy the thing you’re looking at for sticker price, they’ll think you’re a rich, naive American.
  • Rule #2: Be prepared to be inundated. If you are on the street for more than 3 minutes, and nobody offers you something for $2, then you might be a leper.
  • Rule #3: Don’t eat fruit sold by street vendors, especially if unpeeled. Parasites abound; you don’t want none of that.
  • Rule #4: Don’t use your credit card at just any shop. If you haven’t been told a shop is reputable by someone you trust, then they will likely add zeros to the purchase amount when running your card through.
  • Rule #5: Goats are a legitimate trading currency. ‘Nuff said.

There are probably more important rules, but I want to jump straight to one that was near and dear to my heart as we ascended the mountains into Jerusalem…

  • Rule #N: Don’t buy the overpriced olive wood.

I could have easily entitled this entry, “Shopping at Kickback Village”. Here’s how it went…

By the time we got to Jerusalem, I’d already ignored dozens of offers for bags, hats, scarves, bookmarks, maps, and other “4 for $10″ specials. Many times, the peddlers were waiting for our bus when it stopped somewhere, and I’ve no doubt that the tour guides and drivers were all in the cabal that brought them to the dozens of tourists confined on the large tour bus. They were easy to rebuff.

But on the way up to Jerusalem, our tour guide gets on the mic, and goes into great detail telling us all about the trustworthiness and the amazing prices we’re going to encounter at this shop he’s taking us to. Of course, this was a reputable shop. You can use your credit card here. Prices are even in US dollars. You can trust these folks. Run by a good Christian guy.

So, the bus pulls up to the front of this shop in random quarter of Jerusalem somewhere. We could have been in Syria, and I wouldn’t have known it.

Sitting and standing outside the door on the sidewalk are literally a dozen people – ostensibly people working the shop – waiting for us. Before we’re even off the bus, they’re trying to sell us bags, hats, and the like. We get into the shop, and there is the most beautiful olive wood carvings I’d ever seen (okay, don’t see much in the way of olive wood carvings, but you get the idea). A huge carving of the Last Supper immediately caught my eye. It had to have been 3.5 foot long by 2 foot wide, with the figures standing 4-5” tall (okay, speculation! everyone knows the guys were reclining at the Last Supper).

Olive Last Supper

Another huge nativity scene was pretty cool too; I have a thing for nativity scenes. Anyway, the walls were lined with jewelry and touristy trinkets. I thought I’d finally be able to get a souvenir or two … until I saw the prices.

But before I could start manhandling things, the owner of the shop was introduced by our tour guide. If there’s an Israeli mafia, this guy was in it. Every Greek mafia stereotype you can possibly conceive of was embodied in this man. I wanted to take a picture, but I also wanted to keep my camera (and my fingers). So, none of that.

He introduced himself, told us he followed Jesus, and then proudly described his shop and how high the quality of the “art and artifacts” were. By the time he was done, I realized I had involuntarily removed my credit card from my wallet, and had the overwhelming urge to start swiping. So, when he stopped talking, I started browsing. I knew I’d never be able to afford the huge pieces, so I started with the smaller status you see above in lead image for this blog entry. They were about 8″ tall and beautiful, so I figured I had a shot at a really nice souvenir of the trip. I saw one of Jesus holding little children – you know, “Let the children come to me…” from Matthew 19 – and I thought that’d be perfect. It’s hard to remember, since my recall is clouded by the memory of what happened next, but I think in my mind I was expecting the figure to be priced ridiculously high at like $500 and I’d have to talk the guy down to maybe more like $200. I remember emotionally psyching myself up for the challenge of talking him down way below the 50% haggle threshold. I looked at the piece, walked away, came back, ask a question about it – did all the things you’re supposed to do to throw off the “I’m interested, but not *that* interested” vibe. When I was finally ready to start negotiations, I picked it up and flipped it over to find the price tag.

Now, Israel uses the “New Israeli Shekel” or NIS. The conversion from USD to NIS when I was there was 1:3.7. So, a $100 item would be 370 NIS. So, I was expecting to see a price tag of maybe 1800 NIS. My eyes focused. The price was 2500. I gasp. “2500 shekels!?” I muttered aloud uncontrollably, disturbed both that I was off by almost $200 and that it was going to be way harder to talk them down from their ridiculous $675 to $200ish than from $500.

The guy standing their corrected me, “All prices are in American dollars, sir.”

I just looked at him and set it down.

Seriously? $2,500 for a chuck of wood. Are you kidding me?! I don’t care if de Vinci himself carved this thing, there is no way I’m paying $2,500 or even $1,000 dollars … or even $300 … for an olive wood statue, even if it is of Jesus.

I bought absolutely nothing that day. After the original shock wore off, I spent the rest of our considerable time there mocking the price tags. I went from item to item marveling at the prices: $8,000 for this olive wood thing, $700 for this necklace, $30 for this crucifix, and it just kept going. People were lined up to buy though, with trays full of stuff. The other buses showed up too. And then I noticed that there had to have been 20 people working there that night. I’m sure their whole business was tours and tour guides. They had it down to a science.

On the way out, we were accosted again by street vendors. It got pretty funny though, when one of my bus mates starting hocking wares for them on the bus. I shot some video, which is okay, but the really funny stuff happened before I got the camera turned on. For me, it was free entertainment, much to the shigrin of our highly-capitalist hosts.

Coming soon: Links to the video on Facebook.

About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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1 Response to Overpriced Olive Wood

  1. Salvador says:


    I’m glad (Or sorry) to tell you that you are the first sober american I heard bout. What you say is 100% correct. I know it because I’m a Palestenian from Jerusalem and I have a workshop for olive wood carvings and I know every single detail of this monkeys business, the fair price for the figure you describe should be about $220.00 (You guessed the right price). The roots of the problem is in the tour guides & buss
    drivers because they charge about 50% commission on every cent you spend on gift shops, restaurants and anything else. This is forbiden in the law, the Tourist Ministries of Israel and Palestine both know about it but say or do nothing to stop or control it because they are partners in the crime and charge say 10% from each cent you spend including your flight reservation. And don’t think the american partners are cleaner, the tour operator with whom you reserved your trip to the Holy Land gets 20% in advance even if the reservation was made through a REVERAND or a CHURCH, they are all thieves (You were right again when you said its a MAFIA) By the way, if the shop you visited was in Jerusalem then the owner was a Moslem not a good Christian, all the big shops like the one you mentioned are owned by moslims, only in Bethlehem the shop keepers are Christians, this doesn’t mean they are better, on the contrary, WOOOORST. Finaly I regret to tell you that the other face of the problem is the naive and ignorant american tourist, in the market here there is a nick name for the american tourists, we call them (Hienas) because they buy anything for any price, even if it is broken. European tourists are much experienced and thats why shopkeepers doesn’t like them. I’m sorry if I offended any one but sometimes someone must say the truth.


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