The secret life of etrogs

Ari Greenspan and his wife, Shari, had been walking through a vast and dense citron orchard carved into a lush valley in Morocco’s arid Atlas Mountains for several hours when they happened upon a small house. A Berber tribesman emerged and signaled to the Greenspans to wait a moment as he disappeared back into the house. Minutes later, he proudly presented what Ari Greenspan describes as the perfect etrog, the Aramaic word for citron.

“It was just perfectly balanced — a beautiful green, not lumpy or bent, there’s wasn’t a blemish on it. It was bumpy all over in a very balanced way,” extols Greenspan, a Jerusalem dentist.

Greenspan has taken to a new level the time-honored tradition of the hunt for the most exquisite etrog to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to bless the “pri etz hadar,” the beautiful fruit of the tree (hadar is modern Hebrew for citrus), along with the palm, myrtle and willow branches for Sukkot.

But rather than looking for one perfect etrog, as shoppers from Fairfax to Avenue J to Mea Shearim did last week, Greenspan and his colleague, Ari Zivotofsky, a neuroscientist at Bar-Ilan University, have an ongoing project to document all manner of etrog traditions from pockets of time and place in the Jewish world — the long and slender Moroccan, the lemon-like Israeli and Italian versions (with or without the pitom, a tiny growth at the end), the football-sized Yemenite, or the not-quite-kosher Buddha’s Hand citron, where the inner segments grow with their own separate rinds, fused at the bottom.

Greenspan and Zivotofsky, who over the summer hosted the Orthodox Union’s “Halachic Adventure” meal at the Prime Grill in Beverly Hills, have made it their hobby to search the globe for about-to-be-lost traditions concerning kosher animals, matzah baking, special dyes used for fringed garments, forgotten shuls — and etrogs.

Like all of their interests, the etrog provides a way to delve into the history, sociology and halachic development of Judaism. The two have befriended world etrog expert Eliezer Goldschmidt and his protégés at the Hebrew University and the Israeli government’s Volcani Institute for agriculture research, where Israeli scientists have subjected the fruit to genetic analysis and MRIs.

Zivotofsky and Greenspan have visited etrog orchards in Morocco, Italy and Israel, but they haven’t yet made it to UC Riverside’s Citrus Variety Collection, where 35 kinds of citron are among the 1,000 citrus fruits cultivated.

While varieties of citron are eaten in Asia, today it is used mostly as the source of fruit-cake candy or for specialty items like liqueur, syrups or sugared rinds. Today, Puerto Rico produces 65 percent of the world’s citron supply, mostly for food and perfumes, with the remainder coming from Italy, Greece and Israel.

The etrog is native to the low-lying Himalayan foothills in India and China, and there is scholarly debate about when the etrog made it to the Middle East, according to David Karp, a Los Angeles and New York-based writer, photographer and scholar of all things fruit.

The armies of Alexander the Great documented etrog encounters around 300 B.C.E., although what are believed to be citron seeds were found in an excavated Mesopotamian cave dating from around 4000 B.C.E., according to “Fruits of Warm Climates,” self-published by Julia F. Morton. Hasmonean coins and Roman and Byzantine mosaics picture the fruit, and its appearance in art is often thought to indicate a Judaicizing influence, Greenspan and Zivotofsky wrote in an article in the Jerusalem Post.

As Jews spread through the Diaspora following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, etrog trees followed, making their way around the Mediterranean basin in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Greece and southern Italy.

When Jews in later centuries moved into European countries, the cooler climes prevented them from growing their own etrogs, and they relied upon imported fruit, often having just one etrog for an entire shtetl to share.

The economics of etrogs — last week thousands of Jews paid $50 and up (way, way up) for a single fruit — made it a valuable trade, and in the 18th century, as the Jewish population of Northern Europe began to proliferate, commercial etrog operations emerged to meet the demand, according to the Jerusalem Post article.

Farmers on the Greek island of Corfu had been growing widely praised etrogs for more than 100 years when, in 1846, a competitor to the Corfu growers won support from Polish and Lithuanian rabbis — who had never seen an etrog tree — for his claim that the Corfu etrogs were grafted and therefore unfit for ritual use.

The citron tree is not very hearty, with a weak root system that requires a lot of water and has a life span of about 15 years. By splicing a bud from the etrog tree into a branch of a lemon tree, the citron can take advantage of the heartier lemon root stock, while still maintaining all of the botanical characteristics of a citron.

Most scientists agree that a grafted fruit is identical to a nongrafted fruit, according to Karp, who is associated with the Citrus Variety Collection and has been researching citron for years. But the Torah prohibits grafting, and even if the fruit is grafted by a non-Jewish farmer, most halachic authorities hold that a grafted etrog — known as a murkav — is not suitable for ritual use. They even ban etrogs descended from the seeds of grafted fruit, leading to the need to have certified etrog lineage.

An accusation of selling grafted etrogs could shutter a citron operation, but in the 19th century Corfu growers fought back, with the support of many rabbis and consumers. The standoff continued for nearly 30 years — including an incident where etrogs were dumped into the ocean — until, according to the Jerusalem Post article, a blood libel scandal in Corfu led Jews from around the world to ban the etrogs, which were mostly grown by non-Jews.

Around the same time, with the modern return to Zion, Jews began to grow citrons in Israel, and many rabbis held that an Israeli-grown etrog was by definition more suitable than any other.