Fruit of the Beautiful Tree

By Carol Novis

Published September 18, 2007, issue of September 21, 2007.
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“This is a good year for etrogs,” said Levi Zagelbaum, a wholesaler who is president of the Esrog Headquarters Inc. in New York. Despite the fact that the fruit was picked especially early in the season in Israel, in observance of shmitta (the biblical commandment to let soil lie fallow every seventh year), Zagelbaum has high hopes that the green etrogs will ripen in time for Sukkot and help him recoup his investment. Most of Zagelbaum’s stock of several thousand is imported from the Holy Land. Each piece of fruit, together with a lulav made from palm frond, myrtle and willow, will be sold for an average of $50, with the most expensive going for $120.

That may seem expensive for a fruit that to most people is an inedible, elongated, bumpy lemon, but growing and selling etrogs is a complicated process, and very few, if any, have found that dealing in etrogs is a way to get rich.

“It’s not an easy business,” Zagelbaum said in a phone interview. “I’m so nervous and tense that I haven’t slept for nights. I can find an etrog that I think is perfect, and someone will send it back to me because he doesn’t think so. And then I might sell it for a lot of money to someone else who thinks it’s beautiful. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

Etrogs, or citrons, are much like diamonds, which to the non-professional eye may look very similar but are graded and priced according to quality of cut, clarity and color. Similarly, etrogs fluctuate widely in value, according to criteria that are mysterious to the uninitiated. And to be considered kosher in fulfillment of the Sukkot blessing, etrogs are subject to many laws.

The Bible calls the etrog the “fruit of the beautiful tree.” But what determines beauty? Most agree that a beautiful etrog should be shaped like a tower, with a wider bottom and a narrower top. By Jewish law, it should have bumps but no blemishes and no bruises or black spots, and the peel should not be punctured. If it has a pitom, or knobby extension, it must be attached. (If, by chance, the pitom falls off, the etrog is no longer kosher.) The etrog should be larger than a walnut and not withered, and it should not come from a branch that has been grafted on another kind of citrus tree.

But from there, it’s a matter of personal taste. Some prefer the Temani, or Yemenite, variety, which is imported by Yemenite Jews and tends to be larger and drier. Then there is the Chazon Ish (or Lefkowitz), which is shaped like an egg, and the Braverman strain, which has a bumpy exterior. Another type, the Kivilevitz, is a sub-strain of the Braverman. Some like etrogs that are narrow in the center, commonly referred to as “belted” etrogs.

The Chabad-Lubavitch prefer the Yanover variety from Calabria, in southern Italy, though a strain of this one is grown in Israel, too. (The name Yanover comes from the Yiddish word for Genoa. The city was once a transit point for etrogs, which were shipped from there to locations around the world.) And many Sephardim believe that etrogs from Morocco, with their characteristic pointed end, are the ultimate in beauty.

Zagelbaum himself prefers an etrog that is straight and bumpy.

The beauty will determine the price of the etrog, which can range from $10 to well over $100, but this is not the only difficulty that people in the business face. Growing etrogs is not easy. It takes at least four years to get a usable crop, and the etrog is the most susceptible of all citrus fruits to frostbite and insects. Yet too much insecticide may leave blemishes.

Despite the difficulties in bringing the fruit to market and the resulting high price, few people begrudge the cost. For those who wave the carefully chosen, fragrant etrog in their sukkah, it is truly the most beautiful of fruits. Carol Novis, from Canada, has been living in Israel for over 30 years. She is a former writer and editor with the Jerusalem Post and now teaches editing at Beit Berl College.

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