In Jerusalem, a City of Stone, Last Jewish Stonecutters Struggle to Survive

The Grebelsky family, third-generation stoneworkers, bemoans the cheap competition from China and Palestinians in the West Bank.

A photo of Yechiel Grebelsky with his sons Arik and Hanan surrounded by blocks of Jerusalem stone in their factory
Emil Salman

Jerusalem is, as anyone who has seen her even once knows, a city of white stone.

This is no poetic assertion, nor a metaphoric one – just a statement of fact. By decree, the face of every building in the city – from the Western Wall to the new multiplex cinema – is made of chiseled pale limestone or dolomitic limestone that has commonly become known, worldwide, as “Jerusalem stone.”

And if there is one Jewish family whose history is most closely intertwined with that of these stones it would be the Jerusalem-based Grebelskys, who have been quarrying, cutting, carving, finishing and installing Jerusalem stone for three generations.

Today, with the continued competition from Palestinian stone companies in the West Bank, whose prices are up to 25 percent lower, along with fierce new competition from China, which has begun to market their own versions of “Jerusalem stone,” at even lower prices – “A. Grebelsky and Son” is left with the dubious distinction of being the last Jewish stone factory standing in Israel.

“We debated shifting some of our production to China. But dad would have none of it,” says Arik Grebelsky, 48, who, together with his brother Hanan, 42, took over day-to-day operations at the company in 2000.

“We love Jerusalem and are dedicated to remaining here,” says Arik.

“Some would add, ‘stupidly so,’” adds Hanan with a wry smile.

“Dad” is Yechiel Grebelsky, who took over the company in 1950 and who, over the years, grew it into a 10-million dollar operation with over 100 employees, Arabs and Jews alike. Today, at 87, Yechiel still arrives at work every morning, black beret on head, to open the factory doors at 7 A.M.

The company’s story begins in 1923 when Yechiel’s father Aharon Grebelsky, the son of a flour miller, arrived in Israel from Ukraine, 16 years old and penniless. Noting the popularity of the white, yellow, gold and sand-colored stones from the quarries in and around Jerusalem as building materials, he started a small stone factory in the Rehavia neighborhood, in the heart of Jerusalem.

Grebelsky’s competitors in the early days were the handful of tiny Palestinian stone masons – the most famed ones in and around the town of Beit Fajjar – who had been chiseling and producing tiles from the stones found between Jerusalem and Hebron for centuries.

AP

But still, Grebelsky’s reputation for quality was such that, despite his higher prices (today, those prices vary from 3-5 dollars per square foot within the country, and 4-6 dollars per square foot, including transportation, for export projects) the company thrived. He even got commissions from the likes of the Waqf, the religious trust that cares for Muslim holy sites, to make repairs in the burial site of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, and from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which had to get special dispensation to hire the Jewish company to restore the massive columns of that structure.  

When Aharon, who volunteered for military service and was wounded by a Jordanian sniper’s bullet in the 1948 Independence War, died at age 50, the running of the company fell to his only son Yechiel, who had grown up at the factory, bringing tea to the workers and helping, even as a child, with the books.

“Did I love stones?” Yechiel repeats the question slowly. “Well, that is all I knew.”

The building boom that took place post-1967, when Israel united the eastern and western sides of the city under its flag, led to an enormous growth of the industry. Fourteen Jewish-run factories would eventually operate in and around Jerusalem, while in the West Bank growth was such that stone production had become the largest industry by the 1980s, with an estimated 600 Palestinian factories.

Demand was great enough during those years, says Arik, that there was work for everyone – and relations between the many competitors, Arab and Jew, were relatively good. 

A photo showing the Foreign Ministry in Jewrusalem
Olivier Fitoussi

Part of city’s soul

For this, he adds, they must all thank the British mandate officials, and in particular the former governor Sir Ronald Storrs. It was Storrs who, back in 1918 and intent on maintaining the special spirit of the city, instituted the law that called for every structure built to use Jerusalem stone for its exterior cladding. Jerusalem has, ever since, kept this bylaw on the books.

“There are arguably harder stones for building: granite and marble, for example. But limestone has a special quality,” says Arik. “It’s the only material that, like wine or olive oil, gets better with time. Time weathers it beautifully and it needs almost no maintenance. And in Jerusalem, it has become part of the soul of the city.”

Over the years, the Grebelskys expanded, moving twice, most recently into a newly modernized 6-million-dollar factory in an industrial zone outside Beit Shemesh. Their main source of stones also shifted, and today most of their material comes from a quarry far away from Jerusalem – in Mitzpeh Ramon, where the color of the stone is golden. It’s this “Jerusalem Gold” that they have supplied to many of the major building projects in the country, from the new Supreme Court building (which required 300,000 square feet of chiseled stone) to the Foreign Ministry headquarters (which called for 400,000 square feet).

But with the Chinese now undercutting Grebelsky’s prices by up to 50 percent, and with ongoing competition from not only Palestinian factories but also Turkish and Egyptian ones, the Grebelskys have found themselves increasingly relying on commissions from overseas. In Israel, Arik says, even contracts for new synagogues and military memorial sites are frequently won by foreign companies, which can typically do the work at lower prices.

Emil Salman

Overseas, in particular in the United States, says Arik, there are still more of those who, building Jewish-themed structures, want the symbolic value they get from using a Jewish Israeli company. Grebelsky has provided the stones for such projects as the Holocaust Memorial in Miami, Florida, the auditorium of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C, the big synagogue on main street in Queens, New York, and Charles Bronfman’s private home in Palm Beach.

Other commissions, say the brothers, come from those who rely on them for high-level craftsmanship and quality assurance. Grebelsky stones have been used to build hotels in Japan, banks in Russia, the entryway to HBO headquarters in Santa Monica, California, and even – poking the eyes of their Chinese competitors – grand homes in Beijing. Since the 1980s, exports have comprised up to 80 percent of their business.

Meanwhile, the price wars with China and the Palestinians are not the company’s only problem. More challenging yet, perhaps, is the fact that the younger generation of Grebelskys does not necessarily feel the same pull of stones that their predecessors once did. The eldest Grebelsky grandchildren, now in their teens, seem to be more interested, if pressed, in high tech, admit their dads.

“It’s more lucrative,” shrugs Hanan.

“Maybe easier too,” suggests Arik.

“In my day, it was different,” says Yechiel. “My father came here with nothing but a work ethic and the desire to carry out Avoda Ivrit – Hebrew labor – in this land. And I didn’t even consider another path. If I had, he would never have allowed it.”

“I’m not sure we had too much of a choice either,” smiles Arik, glancing tenderly at his father. “Ours was a home where stone was a passion.”

“I hope some of our children will want to continue the family business, but we can’t force them,” concludes Hanan. “And to be honest, this world of stones has become more difficult. Times have changed.”