Desperately seeking Sukkot supplies on Pico-Robertson

Yeshiva boys don’t sell lemonade; they sell etrogs. 

“Etrog! Get your etrog!” a pre-pubescent voice shouted as I ventured down Pico Boulevard on Oct. 5, when sidewalks became home to an etrog bidding war that would make Sotheby’s cower in shame. I’ve bartered at shuks in Jerusalem and wrangled for turquoise in Bangkok, but I’d never haggled for etrogs in Pico-Robertson. 

During the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, yeshiva boys set up booths in the famously Jewish neighborhood, displaying their lulav and etrog merchandise. Starting at $40 a pop, etrog prices skyrocketed, depending on shape and texture. 

“This one’s a beauty,” said Ari Ohayon, 13, while showing off an $80 etrog. Ari was selling etrogs — and had found customers for about three by noon — while his brother Gad, 8, manned the lulavs. (He hadn’t sold any yet but was hopeful.)

Itai Esudri poses with Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch’s most expensive etrogs, priced at $100 and $120. 

What makes a good etrog? 

“No blemishes and a short pitom [tiny growth at the end]” Ari said. The young etrog expert recommended a short pitom because if it breaks, the etrog loses all value.

Another vendor, all of 15 years old, outside of Elat Market on West Pico Boulevard, pointed to a different kind of etrog.

“Yemanim [Yemenite Jews] only like the green ones,” he said.

Then he picked up an etrog featuring a girdel, an indent in the citron’s midsection, and said, “And Chabad buys these.”

So, basically, there’s an etrog for everyone.

One of the powerhouse etrog vendors on Pico was Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch, which had four booths stationed at different locations on the street. Itai Esudri, a teacher and mentor at the yeshiva, said he woke up at 6 a.m. to set up booths, whose locations he had already mapped out.

But the locations are acquired on a first-come, first-served basis, and Esudri’s students missed out on a prime location in front of Livonia Glatt Market when they arrived just a few minutes late. Five rival booths — including one manned by a 12-year-old boy — were already set up in front of the market’s sliding doors, and Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch was forced to settle for a spot down the block.

“It’s a real business,” Esudri said. 

In fact, Esudri knew a rabbi from Israel who would fly to Canada during Sukkot to build customized sukkot for people. “He’d come and make 20 grand, then fly back,” Esudri said. That money funded his temple during the year.

Students working for Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch made commission off of every etrog they sold. Because the base price was $40, any etrog priced over that amount meant extra money for the student. Both the student and the yeshiva benefited from purchases, Esudri said, but the point wasn’t all about profit. 

“These kids come together to raise money for the yeshiva. I told the guys, if you’re in it for the money, it’s not worth it.”

Of course, etrogs weren’t the only commodities available on Pico Boulevard the day after Yom Kippur. Beginning at 10 a.m., Lisa Lautman was at the corner of Pico and La Peer Drive — standing in sweltering heat, slathered in sunscreen — selling bundles of palm. Her photographer brother, Shimmy, operates a schach (sukkah roof covering) business during the Sukkot season. 

Lisa Lautman stands at the corner of Pico and La Peer selling schach, bundles of palm.

Selling schach is the Jewish version of hawking Christmas trees. Cars would stop at the corner and someone would roll down their windows and holler: “How much for your schach?” 

“Forty-five for a bundle of 10!” Lautman responded. Then the bidding tango commenced.

Local resident Yehuda Cohen bought a lulav from a vendor after working into the wee hours of the night to build his sukkah. He said he started building his temporary structure after Yom Kippur’s Neilah service and continued until 1 a.m.

And on this Sunday, he strapped his newly acquired lulav onto his backpack, mounted his bike and cycled back home to finish the sukkah he started the night before. The lulav waved behind him, looking like a samurai sword.

Something about Sukkot ignites the entrepreneurial spirit within people.

Metro Glatt restaurant used its parking lot to sell sukkot, and Nagilla Center Gifts and Hardware advertised certified kosher bamboo at its shop. Fliers were taped to walls and stapled to utility poles throughout the neighborhood, promoting professional custom sukkot-builders with a plea: “Do you need a sukka built without the backbreaking labor involved?”

And business only promised to heat up.

“Sunday’s the slow day,” Esudri said. 

Usually, the hustle comes Tuesday and Wednesday, when last-minute shoppers descend on Pico Boulevard to get all their Sukkot essentials. 

“It’s a zoo,” Esudri said. 

But because Sunday was slow, most booths closed up shop around 3 p.m.

At the end of the day, Gad Ohayon, the young lulav vendor, was running down the street with a cart full of unsold goods. As he passed, he shouted out, “I sold four!” with an ecstatic smile and continued down Pico Boulevard, gloating and over the moon. 

How to feed the hungry

On the fifth night of Sukkot, a panel gathered in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to discuss how to handle hunger both at home and across the country. Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino explained that it was an auspicious date for such a conversation. 

Consider, he said, the lulav that is waved during the holiday. It is an aguda (bundle) composed of different plant species, each of which has a specific set of qualities: One has a taste, one a smell, one neither and one both. These are supposed to correspond to the people of the Jewish community, Farkas said, some of whom are versed in Torah and some of whom know justice, some of whom know both and some neither. 

“And the rabbis ask the question, then, why do you have this last group, the group of people who just don’t seem to have any worth?” he said. “[They answer] by giving the line from the Torah that we are to take up all four species together and to make them one aguda, which means for me that if we want to change the world … we have to bind ourselves to each other and cover for each other’s failing and work together through all of our differences.” 

This seemed to be the theme of the night, which brought together four diverse panelists doing work both in Los Angeles and across the globe, whose strategies ranged from short-term emergency food aid to encouraging grass-roots activism to lobbying members of Congress directly on issues of international consequence. The panel’s title was “The Second Harvest 2.0: Innovative Strategies That Address Hunger Locally and Globally.” Part of Federation’s Community Engagement Initiative, the Sept. 24 event drew about 50 people.  

Farkas, founder of the group Netiya, which works to help communities of faith plant urban gardens, was joined by Robert Egger, whose L.A. Kitchen aims to tackle food waste while creating jobs and feeding the elderly, as well as Paula Daniels, former chair of the L.A. Food Policy Council and senior policy adviser to former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Rounding out the panel was Jonathan Zasloff, representing the American Jewish World Service, where he volunteers, and moderator Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. 

The conversation covered topics from corn subsidies to international food aid, and it tended to focus on broad-based systemic thinking over immediate solutions to local issues. As Leibman remarked at one point, “A board member [once] said to me, ‘We’re not going to food bank our way out of hunger.’ ” 

Or, as Egger put it, “Sure, I want to fish the baby out of the water here, but who’s throwing the babies in the water upstream?” 

Hunger is a complex problem, the panelists agreed, and finding a solution to it is even more complicated. It doesn’t help that Congress passed a bill in September that, if enacted, would cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the course of the next 10 years. Leibman characterized this as “huge slap in the face … to all those who are struggling to recover from the terrible economy and to put food on the table for their family.” She also said that “as the nutrition safety net is being shredded … somebody, somewhere, somehow is going to have to pick up the slack.”

This means finding short-term solutions, like food banks, but also thinking long-term about creating systemic change. For Egger that means job creation, and his goal with L.A. Kitchen is to produce something that will feed the hungry today while also giving them the skills to look for work that will enable them to support themselves tomorrow. 

To that end, L.A. Kitchen will run a job-training program for people returning home from prison, pairing them with youth aging out of foster care and teaching them to prepare food in commercial kitchens. L.A. Kitchen will take seconds — produce that’s considered unsellable for cosmetic reasons — and turn it into meals for the city’s elderly. It’s an elegant system that creates, as Egger puts it, side-by-side learning and serving instead of a model that “emphasizes the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.” 

Daniels looks at the issue from a civic angle. She said that Villaraigosa’s idea was to “use the market power of the city to influence what’s being produced,” creating a demand for healthy produce and then using a decentralized system of local food hubs to distribute it.  In effect, this means using the government dollars that purchase food for schools and hospitals to incentivize local production of that produce, and then creating a smaller-scale system to distribute it throughout the city — which means jobs in picking and packing, driving and distributing as well as preparing and serving. 

The issue, both in America and around the world, panelists agreed, was rarely that there weren’t enough calories; it’s almost always an issue of getting those calories into hungry mouths. 

Zasloff, who is also a rabbinic student at the ALEPH ordination program, closed out the panel by reminding the audience that charity is not a spectator sport, especially in Jewish tradition. He spoke of a blessing that thanks God for knowledge and awareness, and urged everyone in the room to acknowledge their own blessings, and to try once a day to think or do something about hunger.

“Do one thing every day, and that will make you more aware, it will connect you in with what else is happening, and it will begin to …  motivate you to do something and pursue your own path, that will allow you to link up with other people.”

How to celebrate Sukkot

If you’ve ever felt just a little silly sniffing what looks like an oversized lemon and shaking some branches, you’re not alone. Even though we do it every year, many of us aren’t quite sure why we do it. 

This year, Sukkot begins on the evening of Sept. 30, and across the world Jews will spend the first week of October hosting dinner parties in their sukkahs, sleeping under the stars and, yes, shaking the lulav and smelling the etrog. As we celebrate the festival of the harvest, several symbols come into play, including the sukkah (the temporary structure with a palm-frond roof and one open side), creative decorations and, of course, the lulav and etrog. 

Sukkot begins just days after we conclude the High Holy Days. For many families, the eight-day holiday is a chance to invite guests to their home to share in festive meals, served in the sukkah, while giving thanks for the abundance in life. 

“The entire idea of Sukkot, the festival of our joy, of our rejoicing, is all about giving thanks,” says Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura. 

To show our thanks to God, we recite prayers and perform mitzvot, which include the waving of the “four species” (arba minim). What is commonly referred to as the lulav actually contains three of these required items: the lulav, which is the strong palm leaf that serves as the backbone for the “bouquet” of plants, myrtle (hadas) and willow (aravah). The fourth ingredient is the etrog (citron). The plants are assembled together and then held next to the etrog when the blessing for the items is recited. 

The commandment to wave the lulav can be found in Leviticus 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven-day period.” 

Of course, before you can shake your lulav, you have to get one. You can find lulavim and etrogim at local Judaica stores, like Shalom House in Woodland Hills, which expects to sell the sets for $75 to $80 this year. It’s also possible to order the sets online. At, a kosher set imported from Israel runs $81. The sets arrive with the lulav unassembled — you store the pieces in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them. The etrog, which comes in its own box, should be stored at room temperature. 

Most of the items in the kits are hand-selected. This is important because they must be fresh, Hochberg-Miller says. Selecting an etrog means ensuring that the pittum — the part of the fruit that would flower if it were still on the tree — remains intact. 

The blessings over the lulav and etrog are meant to be said each day, but most people perform this mitzvah at least once during the week of Sukkot at shul, Hochberg-Miller says. 

Wave the lulav in all four compass directions while reciting the blessings. Blessings typically are said in the morning on each of the first seven days of Sukkot; however, it is not “against the rules” to say the blessings in the evening. Waving the lulav is a mitzvah. 

The customs surrounding the lulav and etrog, when incorporated into the celebration of Sukkot, can add a new dimension of meaning and beauty to the holiday. “In Israel, most people take a lot of time and care to select the perfect etrog,” Hochberg-Miller says. “This falls into the category of hiddur mitzvah, which means to beautify a mitzvah. So anything you are commanded to do — such as installing a mezuzah on your doorpost or lighting Shabbat candles — can be made more special. This is the basis of Judaic art. We can make things more beautiful with our effort.” To that end, the more impressive the etrog, the more special the mitzvah. 

Each portion of the lulav can represent different things to different people. “Our eyes are shaped like the myrtle leaf,” Hochberg-Miller says, “so when we look at the world of creation, we are praising God with our eyes.” The etrog “represents the human heart. Your heart has to be in the mitzvah. Our prayers have to have our hearts in it when we give thanks to God — we cannot simply be paying lip service,” she says. 

All of the items have to work together. “When you hold a lulav and an etrog in the sukkah, you hold them together so you are making one package,” Hochberg-Miller says. “We are outdoors in the environment with the natural world around us. I find incredible meaning in Sukkot. When you are sitting outside in the sukkah, you understand the vulnerability of life.”

More stories for Sukkot: 

Israel will not receive lulavs from Sinai

Israel likely will not have palm fronds from the Sinai for this year's Sukkot lulavs.

Terror in the Sinai and a lack of communication between Israeli and Egyptian agricultural agencies are the reasons that the palm fronds will not be imported, Israel National News reported Monday. They are grown in the Sinai's al-Arish area, located west of the Gaza Strip.

Last year, Egypt banned the export of the palm fronds to Israel, leading to fears of a lulav shortage for the holiday and higher prices. Israel's Agricultural Ministry then encouraged local palm farmers to increase production.

Avner Rotem, manager of date palms on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi in the Beit Shean Valley, told INN that there should be enough lulavs grown in Israel to meet domestic needs and for export.

Israel previously had imported about 700,000 palm fronds a year in the run-up to Sukkot, which is about 40 percent of the annual demand. Another 700,000 of the 2 million lulavs used in Diaspora Jewish communities also came from Egypt.

The holiday begins on the evening of Sept. 30.

Bnei Menashe in India get Sukkot’s four species

The Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India will celebrate Sukkot this year with lulavs and etrogs sent from Israel.

The Shavei Israel organization, which works to strengthen ties between the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world, sent hundreds of sets of the four species to India prior to the holiday.

The Bnei Menashe, Hebrew for “sons of Manasseh,” claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. They live in India’s northeastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram.

Some 1,700 Bnei Menashe live in Israel, including 450 who have arrived in the past three years and settled in the Upper Galilee. Approximately 7,300 remain in India.

“The Bnei Menashe are anxiously waiting for Israel’s government to pass a decision to allow them to come to Israel,”  Shavei Israel chairman and founder Michael Freund said in a statement. “We hope the new year will bring good news and that the age-old dream of the Bnei Menashe to return to the land of their ancestors will soon become a reality.”

How to build a Sukkah [VIDEO]