Samuel Ekstein from New York City inspecting a citron fruit in Santa Maria Del Cedro, southern Italy, on Sept. 14, 2016. Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Why some Jews are paying $500 for an Italian etrog

Fifty years ago, leaders of the Chabad movement tasked Rabbi Moshe Lazar of Milan with supervising the local production and export of the Calabria etrog, the citrus fruit used by Jews during the harvest festival of Sukkot.

Lazar’s job is to make sure the fruit is kosher for the festival, and that local farmers aren’t cutting corners or using unkosher techniques to boost the yield and their profits for what already is Italy’s most lucrative citrus product.

This year Lazar, now 83, has to be particularly vigilant. A winter frost destroyed 90 percent of this year’s crop, creating the worst shortage he has seen in Calabria etrogs, which are named for the southern region where they are grown. Italy is one of only three major exporters of the fruit along with Israel and Morocco.

Prices for the kosher fruits, which in normal years can easily fetch $200 ahead of Sukkot, have doubled and tripled, making Chabad communities around the world – who strongly favor the Calabria variety – fear that they will not be able to afford or obtain a specimen to call their own.

The shortage could also tempt unscrupulous or careless farmers.

“The frost just burned the fruit-producing branches,” Lazar said.

Due to the shortage, Lazar this year is picking fruit he would have deemed too homely for export in normal years, just as long as the fruit is technically kosher. To be considered as such, an etrog must at least be egg-sized, yellow, elliptical, intact (including its woody stem, or pitom) and possess a tough peel.

But even using the grade B produce, “there are not going to be enough Calabria etrogim to go around this year,” Lazar said.

That’s bad news for Chabad communities all over the world ahead of Sukkot, which this year begins on Oct. 4. Etrogs are among four species of plants that Jews purchase for the holiday, which is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles.

In the Ukrainian city of Odessa,  Rabbi Avraham Wolff’s congregants are trying to buy a single Calabria etrog for $500 via a Judaica shop in the United States.

“We’re worried that even at this high price we won’t be able to get one this holiday,” Wolff told JTA. “So a few of the patrons of the community got together and decided to open a fund to make sure we have enough money, cost what it may, for at least one Calabria.”

In previous years, the community bought five Calabria etrogs for Sukkot to be shared by Chabad institutions in Odessa, where some 50,000 Jews live. (Under Jewish law, Jews must “possess” an etrog during the festival, but a loophole allows them to be shared as “gifts” among several people. The fruits aren’t eaten, but carried and held at various points during worship.)

Other communities are able to cut out middlemen by buying the fruit directly from the farmers for about $50 apiece in normal years. But this year, farmers hiked their prices, starting at $150 apiece and all the way up to $350, according to Lazar’s son, Berel, who is a chief rabbi of Russia. Berel Lazar travels to Calabria each year to pick etrogs from orchards and bring them back to Russia for distribution to communities across the former Soviet Union. The younger Lazar charges congregants only what he pays the farmers.

The day after Sukkot, the price of etrogs drops to $1 a pound, Berel Lazar said. Locals use the fruit to make jam and in the soap industry.

The yield on Calabria etrogs, which are also called yanover etrogim because they used to be shipped from the Italian coastal city of Genoa, makes the fruit an irresistible target for manipulation, Berel Lazar said.

Some growers attempt to increase their margins at the expense of the strict kosher standards that Moshe Lazar has enforced for 50 years. One trick is to secretly graft the relativity vulnerable etrog tree onto the trunk of a hardier citrus tree, rendering it more robust but non-kosher. A cruder ruse involves gluing fruits and branches from a non-kosher tree onto a kosher one.

And while there is an atmosphere of “friendship and mutual respect” between the local farmers and the small team of supervisors working with Moshe Lazar, “sadly there is not a relationship of trust,” Berel Lazar said. He noted that the lucrative etrog trade has not escaped the attention of the Italian mafia, which he suggested may be pressuring farmers to try to pass off non-kosher etrogs as kosher to increase profits.

Moshe Lazar, right, explaining to a visitor at an etrog orchard in Calabria in 2015 about how to pick kosher fruit. (

Although etrogs are grown in Israel, Morocco and even the United States, Berel Lazar says that the Calabria etrog is “clearly and visibly superior” to those strands – including fruits that grow in Israel on trees descended from Calabria groves. But to Chabadniks, the preference for Calabria etrogs is also based in scripture.

According to Chabad traditions, the Talmud, a central text of Judaism, suggests that God bequeathed southern Italy to Esau, Isaac’s firstborn and inheritor of “earth’s richness,” as he is designated in the book of Genesis.

“This means Calabria etrogim come from the richest soil, making them the best,” Berel Lazar said.

The shortage has Berel Lazar this year is sticking to a quota of 300-500 fruits for Russian communities — a mere fraction of the yield in normal years, when tens of thousands of etrogs leave the orchards of Calabria’s approximately 100 etrog farmers ahead of the Sukkot holiday.

“I can’t pick as many as I want and send them all to Russia when the rest of the world is left without,” he said.

Virtually all Chabad communities eagerly await the Calabria etrogs, and demand is especially high where the movement has many followers — primarily in Israel, France, the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Moshe Lazar said he predicts the Calabria orchards will recover fully within a year or two, making the shortage a very “temporary difficulty.”

But not a new one, his son noted.

“Hasidic tradition has many stories of Russian cities where Jews struggled to find an etrog for Sukkot,” Berel Lazar said. “This year we are reliving also this tradition.”

Russia’s Jews will get their etrog fruits from Italy despite sanctions, says rabbi

The Italian government said that the export of Italy-grown etrog fruits to Russia will not be affected by sanctions imposed by the European Union against Moscow, Russia’s chief rabbi said.

The agreement to exempt the export of the citrus fruit, which Jewish communities use as a religious artifact during the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, from any sanctions was reached last year and applies also to the June extension of those sanctions, Rabbi Berel Lazar told JTA based on statements from a local government in Italy.

Speaking to JTA from the region of Calabria in southern Italy on Friday, Lazar said: “The local government here said that because this is a religious product, they are going to make sure no sanctions are going to be applied on the etrogim.” He added that Russia imports the etrogim as a religious article exempt from taxation.

Lazar was born in Milan to a Chabad rabbi, Moshe Lazar, who for the past 50 years has been responsible for supervising the export of etrogim in Calabria to make sure the fruit, which is easily bruised and rendered non-kosher, meets the highest standards. Berel Lazar traveled to Calabria to help his 83-year-old father with the harvest.

Followers of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement share a strong preference for the etrog grown in Calabria, where tens of thousands of etrogim are picked annually for export in orchards owned by approximately 100 farmers. Etrogim also are grown in Israel and Morocco.

Chabad communities are major engines of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union and especially in Russia. The European Union in June extended a list of sanctions on Russia, including on exports and imports, in reaction to Russia’s annexation in 2014 of Crimea, an area that is internationally recognized as belonging to Ukraine.

The prospect of sanctions is not the only challenge facing the etrog industry in Calabria. An unexpected frost this winter severely damaged the sensitive etrog trees, destroying approximately 90 percent of the crop, Moshe Lazar told JTA. The shortage means that the fruit this year, which was deemed unfit for exportm will be picked and exported as long as it is kosher, Moshe Lazar said. Even so, he added, the frost means “there won’t be enough etrogim to go around this sukkot.” This applies to Russia, too, said Berel Lazar.

The shortage has hiked up prices, with a prime Calabria etrog going for approximately $500, according to Rabbi Avraham Wolff of Odessa, Ukraine.

“We’re worried that we may not have a Calabria etrog and we’re pulling all possible strings to get at least one,” Wolff said. In previous years, his community was able to purchase five individual Calabria etrogim ahead of the holiday.

“We decided to set up a small fund for buying that Calabria etrog, no matter the price,” he said.

Immediately after sukkot, the prices of Calabria etrogim drop to about $1 a pound, Berel Lazar noted. The local population uses the fruit to make jam.

Religion and diplomacy: Let the conversation begin

Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, invites us to join together to erect a haven of calm, peace and beauty amid a changing, challenging world. The work of erecting a sukkah is communal — we team to build the walls, to arrange the s’chach (roofing) and to decorate the sides to make our booths habitable and beautiful. That festival project is precisely what humanity is called to do with our human home, too: to convene to fashion the kind of world in which all people can thrive.

I recently returned from a two-day trip to Washington, D.C., and a conference devoted to the shared project of fashioning a haven for all people:

• Standing in the corridor, I chat with a Buddhist priest about the role of humor in her tradition and in my Jewish culture. We reflect that millennia of coping with suffering have honed our capacity to laugh and to joke as a way of retaining perspective, values and humanity.

• Seated next to an imam from the Middle East, we listen to a panel explore how countries with Muslim majorities are seeking Islamic sources to authenticate notions of equal citizenship and leadership roles for non-Muslim minorities. We exchange cards and promise to keep the conversation going.

• I chat with a Jewish human rights activist who has worked across the Arab world on behalf of refugees and is a tireless teacher of conflict resolution around the world.

• One of the leaders of a Christian organization reflects with me on ways our traditions can muster sustained effort to reverse our addiction to the consumption of carbon-based fuels that is threatening the future of human life.

• A Muslim activist agrees we should meet to discuss advancing the dignity of LGBTQ members of our respective faiths and ways we can work together to advance women’s rights.

• A young Hindu leader sits with me to think about ways his outreach has been modeled after Jewish materials he has seen, and we agree to explore deeper partnerships together.

All of these discussions took place in a single day, at one extraordinary gathering.

From Sept. 26-27, the United States Department of State convened the Religion and Diplomacy Conference, a gathering of religious leaders from across every region of the U.S., representing every conceivable religion, along with diplomats, leaders of nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit agencies, and several activists from other nations. They came to discuss the ways that religious representatives and their communities could play a positive role in advancing American diplomatic priorities, such as universal human rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, as well as participating in mobilizing effective responses to the refugee crisis, climate change, and resisting anti-Semitism and anti-Islam, among other issues.

Under the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry, the State Department has created an Office of Religion and Global Affairs. The premise of the office is simple and self-evident: Religion matters. For a vast majority of humanity, and for most human cultures, religion includes far more than just doctrinal points or ritual observance. Religion reflects nothing less than the integration of the strands of one’s culture, identity and values. Religion blossoms into meaning-making stories and life-affirming practices that create rich and layered communities of belonging. Across the globe and through the ages, religion has had the power to energize human passions and mobilize action, for good and for ill. Great human suffering and awe-inspiring heroism both grow from the soil of religion. In a very real sense, to be human is (for the vast majority of people who have ever lived) to be religious. 

If we are to have a hope of engaging the nation and the world in conversations about human rights and dignity, if we seek to enlist the broadest coalition on behalf of welcoming the tidal wave of refugees now desperately seeking to build new lives and homes, if we dare hope to reverse the climate change that is already creating chaos and devastation in locations around the globe, we dare not quarantine religion or banish it from the conversation.

So, I took two days and flew to Washington to meet and converse with thought leaders representing a panoply of the world’s wisdom traditions: Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam, as well as a range of high-level diplomats engaged in the work of human rights, environmental sustainability and peace.

For two days, we enjoyed keynote addresses on the need to bring religious representatives into active engagement on a wide range of diplomatic initiatives. We witnessed panel discussions with professional diplomats, nonprofit agency leaders, White House officials, clergy and activists thinking together, sharing diverse perspectives and, most important, to my mind, listening to one another across all the lines that so often divide us.

Know this: The State Department is not about to advocate for being religious, nor for any religion in particular. It shouldn’t (and legally, it can’t). Obviously, we need the passion and perspectives of secular people, of those who do not consider themselves religious, of those who don’t fit into any particular religious label. All must be welcome at this inclusive table. But that broad inclusiveness cannot afford to remain ignorant of religious perspectives or insights that might help provide real understanding, provide access to cultural tools and resilience, and give voice to the vibrant traditions that provide meaning and community for so many. We must all be welcome as we are, which for many of us includes our religious character and commitments.

We came together not to hammer out a theological consensus or to flatten our differences into a religious porridge of bland trivialities. No, we came to contribute the rich resources of our particular histories, sacred writings, and the examples of our saints and sinners, as well as the myriad men, women and children who have lived their religions as ways of affirming meaning and identity throughout the ages.

I return to my daily life filled with renewed hope. I celebrate the vibrant American democracy in which our government functions as a convening catalyst for such raucous diversity. I rejoice to live in a country in which every religious (and non-religious) community is well represented and whose diversity enriches us all. And I thrill to return home with a global perspective of what being human can truly provide: a rich particular identity, made deeper and more vibrant by its being part of a wider human family. 

That we will meet our challenges together and fashion a true Sukkat Shalom, a shelter of peace, I have faith.

RABBI BRADLEY SHAVIT ARTSON ( holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Sukkot — the blessings of necessity

It was a recent story about the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and America in the oil industry that made me think about the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when Jews are called upon to reflect on values such as humility and resourcefulness.

For many decades now, Saudi Arabia has had the luxury of having enormous oil reserves that have kept its economy afloat while funding the lavish lifestyles of its royal family. It’s a little like having a basement in your house filled with unlimited hoards of cash that you could access at any time and spend any way you wish. Who needs to work?

Whenever the Saudi kingdom felt threatened by an oil glut that would cause  prices to tumble, all it had to do was slash production so that prices would rise again —  and presto, the billions would keep floating in.

Over the past few years, though, something changed. The fracking boom in the United States has threatened Saudi Arabia’s oil domination, to the point where in early 2014, the U.S. even surpassed Saudi production at almost 11 million barrels a day. The Saudis thought they could squelch this new threat by keeping production levels high and pushing prices so low that American producers would be forced out of business.

But something else happened — forced by necessity, the American producers learned to cut costs and make their industry more efficient, creating an American oil industry that’s grown stronger, not weaker, as a result of the price slide.  

Meanwhile, as Hudson Institute senior fellow Arthur Herman writes in National Review online, “Far from ruining the U.S. fracking industry, the global oil glut is about to ruin the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It seems that an economic and social system that has developed around oil — indeed, is entirely dependent on it — couldn’t sustain itself at prices this low.”

Because they had built “an enormous welfare state on the back of their oil industry,” the Saudis didn’t have a Plan B to counter the resourceful moves of their American rivals. So, last week, desperate to push oil prices back up, Riyadh “decided to throw in the towel in its two-year war on American energy producers” by announcing it would cut its oil production in half.

If these cuts push prices back up, American producers will be making more money than ever — money, Herman writes, “that can be invested in new energy exploration and development and in new technologies like waterless fracking and laser drilling that will make fracking safer, cleaner, and more efficient than ever.”

What does all of this have to do with the holiday of Sukkot, when Jews have a tradition of building a little hut where they eat for eight days?

Among its many lessons, Sukkot reminds us that what brings out the best in people is not easy abundance or luxury — but the humility of necessity. It is the necessity of building things, often from scratch, that forces us to be resourceful.

Think about Israel. It wasn’t born with a basement full of oil riches. It had to build a country from scratch. Because it was forced to make do, invent on the fly, learn through trial and error and defend itself against all odds, it created a feisty and resilient little country. It wasn’t “cursed” with the unlimited oil reserves of its Saudi neighbors that has made the kingdom so complacent and vulnerable to outside forces.

It was the necessity of a difficult reality that forced Israel to gain its economic independence, just as a tough reality forced the U.S. oil industry to adapt and become more efficient.

The challenge for modern Jewry and for Israel is to ensure that our success and power don’t make us lose our humility and resourcefulness.

Sukkot reminds us of a time when our ancestors had to harness all of their wits and ingenuity to grow and harvest their crops and build their temporary dwellings in the wilderness. If they wanted to survive, they had no choice.

Today, we have a choice. We don’t have to build a hut for shelter. We don’t even have to be that resourceful — modern living is all about ease and convenience.

The ritual of building a sukkah, then, is more than an endearing Jewish tradition. It’s also a reminder that when luxury and comfort surround us, whether we are kings in our own castles or royalty in Saudi Arabia, maintaining our humility is not just a blessing, it’s a necessity.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

How to make a graham cracker sukkah

Last week, in anticipation of Sukkot, I wrote about how to make a sukkah that fits on balconies and small patios. This week, let’s shrink it down even more with a tabletop sukkah made with graham crackers. It’s a great holiday decoration for your home, and it’s also edible and fun to make with the kids. 


The Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), an umbrella group for ordained Orthodox rabbis across the United States, supports purchasing Israeli etrogim.

“We encourage people to use etrogim that are grown in Israel during the shmita year,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, speaking by phone about an opinion circulated among RCA members. “They have to be treated in a careful and special way, but we support the opinion that there is no problem whatsoever, and actually it’s important to use those etrogim and support the Israeli economy and growers in Israel.”

Fruits that grow during shmita are considered to have a hallowed status — kedushah shvi’it (sanctity of the seventh year). Peels, stems and pits must either be consumed in their entirety (such as by making juice or liquor), left to rot or sent back to Israel. 

Such restrictions have deterred Ronnie Sieger, a Los Angeles-based sofer stam (Torah scribe) and CEO of Sieger Sukkah, which sells portable sukkahs and sets of the arba minim (the Four Species for Sukkot, which include the etrog, palm, myrtle and willow).

“I had an issue last time, and I was kind of not clear on what I was supposed to do, so I tried to get clearer on what to do, and it only got more confusing,” Sieger said. “So, I’m not going to sell Israeli ones because I don’t want to be responsible for someone doing the wrong thing.”

Although Sieger said he would like to support Israeli farmers, he believes the small amount he sells does not justify the risk of error. He has observed that the sale of non-Israeli etrogim has increased during non-shmita years as well, including in California.

On the other hand, the synagogue he attends, Young Israel of Century City (YICC), will sell only Israeli etrogim.

“I am totally in support of buying Esrogim from Israel this year,” YICC’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin said via e-mail. “The major poskim have supported this position, and we should do everything in our power to buy Esrogim from Israel.”

Not all rabbis are in agreement on the issue. Rabbi Gershon Bess of Congregation Kehillas Yaakov on Beverly Boulevard, who is a member of the RCA, believes one should not purchase etrogim from Israel, citing the great religious Zionist leader Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as one of the poskim who abides by the Mishnah’s simple instruction that kedushah shvi’it not be taken out of Israel.

“There are halachic issues involved,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s why people avoid it if they can.”

Bess said this applies to Orthodox circles in Israel, as well. “Most people know that many people in Eretz Yisra’el are trying to get American esrogim,” he said. “The ones that basically sell to the kehillah [community] here know the issues of importing the esrog and subsequently returning the esrog, after yom tov, to Israel.”

Steve Berger, president of My Israel Connection, a company that distributes etrogim as part of its array of services designed to connect people to Israel, is on a mission to ensure that Jews around the world are aware — and observant — of rulings permitting the use of Israeli-grown etrogim, so as to ensure the viability and robustness of the Israeli market.

“If you believe in the State of Israel and you believe in Judaism, then why go elsewhere?” Berger, who lives in Los Angeles, said by phone from Israel.

He gave as an example a sign he came across in Toronto that read: “In honor of shmita: beautiful Israeli esrogim grown outside Eretz Yisra’el.” 

“I’m starting to believe that in order to fulfill a mitzvah in the Torah that applies to the land of Israel, you have to go outside the land of Israel to fulfill it.” 

To lay doubt to rest in his own community, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, senior rabbi of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto and formerly a spiritual leader in Los Angeles, issued a ruling, written on his synagogue’s stationary, that “out of concern for the Israeli economy, one should only purchase Israeli Esrogim.”

Rabbi Dov Osina, founding rabbi of Westwood Kehilla and a longtime distributor of the arba minim, has noticed that those who choose not to buy from Israel usually have the halachic concerns cited by Bess. Osina, too, pushes Israeli etrogim on Zionist principle, with instructions on how to handle them, but still services those who prefer Diaspora citrons. He predicts that his own sales of Israeli etrogim this year are likely to drop from 80 to 60 percent.

“I don’t feel that the reason why they are not taking the etrogim from Israel is because they don’t feel the obligation; it’s because they feel that too many hands and too many people are trying to make a profit over the etrogim from Israel, which is definitely not allowed, and the fruits of Israel have a kedushah shvi’it.” 

He added that etrogim from Israel during the shmita year should actually be less expensive than those grown outside the Holy Land. In the spirit of shmita, he will offer free etrogim to those who cannot afford a set of arba minim, which usually start at $45.

But traditional shmita — and its spirit — is kept on most of that fifth-generation etrog farmer’s land. As his workers are busy packaging the etrogs, a stranger parks his car by an unkempt, weed-stricken shmita orchard that is, nevertheless, producing a sizable harvest of kosher etrogim — belonging to any and all. The stranger found the easy way out: He picked one on his own. 

HOME: Eco-friendly disposable tableware for Sukkot

When you’re dining under the stars in your sukkah, the last thing you want to think about is washing dishes. Fortunately, an array of stylish, eco-friendly, disposable plates and cutlery is available to dress up your table while making cleanup a breeze. 

Because Sukkot is a harvest festival, it’s only right that we consider environmentally friendly alternatives for setting the table. How can disposable dinnerware be green? There are three primary ways:

• Biodegradable: The product will break down within a reasonable amount of time in a natural outdoor environment.

• Compostable: The product is not only biodegradable, it also releases valuable nutrients into the soil as it breaks down.

• Sustainable: It is made from resources that are replenished as quickly as they are consumed. 

Now, instead of paper plates, you can find dinnerware made from bamboo, sugarcane, palm leaves and even tapioca starch. 

Wasara (above)

This elegant Japanese line of disposable plates, bowls and cups, with their wavy, minimalist shapes, is more beautiful than most ceramic or glass tableware. Only nontree, renewable resources are used to make them — sugarcane fibers, bamboo and reed pulp. They are also compostable, so they don’t have to end up in the landfill.  (Photo from

VerTerra plates and bowls are made from palm leaves and molded into their shapes with steam, heat and pressure. No trees or branches are cut in the manufacturing process; only leaves that have fallen to the ground are used. The product naturally biodegrades in less than two months after disposal. (Photo from

A popular line of disposable dinnerware you’ve probably seen at Whole Foods, Bambu Veneerware is made from 100 percent bamboo and certified organic. The Bambu line is extensive, including round and square plates, forks, spoons, knives and even “sporks.” And you can wash them and use them more than once. (” target=”_blank”>

Dahlia by EcoProducts

Photo from

Made from a premium blend of sugarcane and bamboo, which are 100 percent renewable, Dahlia plates and bowls are known for their signature leaf shape. They are compostable and surprisingly sturdy, as the surface is grease- and cut-resistant. (Photo from

At first glance, Susty Party tableware looks just like any other colorful paper plates you would find at a party-supply store. The difference is that all the products in the line, which include plates, bowls, cups, straws, cutlery and napkins, are made from renewable or sustainably harvested materials. They’re compostable, nontoxic and made in North America. (” target=”_blank”>

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Celebrating Sukkot in a time of drought

While preparing for Sukkot in drought-ridden California, I hoped that the holiday’s joy had not dried up alongside much of the state’s water supply. For a holiday also called “the season of our joy,” one that celebrates the harvest and is filled with greenery and fruit, I worried about how the lack of rain would affect our celebration here and in other areas of the parched West.

[How Israel’s water solutions can save California]

In my Los Angeles neighborhood, trees were dying all around, including a birch in my front yard that reminded me of one from my childhood home. And in a season when the shaky sukkah is meant to represent the fragility of life, fire was giving us the shakes as well. At Rosh Hashanah, we heard that the entire town of Middletown, in Northern California, had burned down. A first cousin of my wife lives there; luckily he and his wife were not home at the time and their home was one of the few not destroyed.

Southern California is in the fourth year of drought. From 2011 to 2015, the recorded total for rainfall in downtown L.A. was a record low 29.14 inches. Forests and hillsides across the state are brown, parched and ready to go up in flames, as they did in the Valley Fire in Lake County. The Valley Fire has blackened over 75,000 acres, making it the fourth most destructive wildfire in California history.

To adapt to the water shortage, some of my neighbors were removing their green lawns and replacing them with rocks, bark and artificial grass. Would my sukkah need to adapt as well? According to the Rabbinical Assembly and other sources, the skach, or roof covering of the sukkah, must be of material that grew from the ground. But with everyone in Los Angeles required to cut back on their watering, would there still be enough palm fronds around — most Angelenos use the fronds for skach, since windy days often find my neighborhood streets littered with them  — to cover my sukkah roof? Would my celebration of Sukkot somehow endanger the trees, even the palms?

Wondering how my city’s trees were faring, I spoke with Andy Lipkis, the president of an organization called TreePeople, which he founded in 1973. Lipkis — who began planting trees when he was 15 years old — and his nonprofit have been leaders in the citizen-forestry movement, helping to plant about 2 million trees, and are working to “transform L.A.’s landscapes into living, healthy watersheds.”

Lipkis told me that in terms of sukkah roofing, I need not worry.

“The palm trees are not dying from the drought. There is no shortage of palm fronds or other potential greenery,” he said, much to my relief. But just as quickly he added that due to the drought, we were at a “point of risk.”

Lipkis had seen the trees dying around L.A., including the ones in the park surrounding his organization’s headquarters.

“We’ve lost dozens of big old trees,” including oaks, he said. The situation is exacerbated because ground squirrels and other rodents, looking for water, eat the tree roots, which results in the trees turning brown and eventually toppling, he said.

He reminded me that especially in this time of drought in semi-arid Los Angeles, “we are in the sukkah to connect with the sources of our lives, our food and our water.”

Lipkis also wanted me to think about why Sukkot, his favorite holiday, was created.

“The rabbis, way back, knew that people forget about the vital importance of trees in sustaining our lives, including producing our food,” he said.

Trees “act like tanks capturing the rain in their sponge-like area of their roots. Instead of the water running off, they put it back in the aquifer,” said Lipkis who has used his expertise in water management and technology to influence policymakers in city government.

Realizing that water-wise, “the infrastructure we built can no longer be relied on to meet all our needs,” and acting very much like a tree, Lipkis has come up with his own plan to capture rainwater — a plan to which city agencies have been paying attention.

Using a system built from a connected series of plastic, hollow highway barriers — in their usual use, are filled with water to give them weight — Lipkis has devised and placed on the side of his house a “temporary, experimental, 1,000-gallon” cistern to catch rainwater running off the roof via a downspout.

“You do a little re-engineering,” said Lipkis, who recalled that in the Bible, the kings who built cisterns in the arid land of Israel were celebrated.

During a recent storm here on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Lipkis, awakened by the rain, rose at 3:45 a.m. to find the system already had 200 gallons, he said. By 7 a.m., when Lipkis went off to observe the holiday, the cistern was full, he said.

As a result, the lemon, lime, olive and fig trees that have been struggling in his front yard are now being sustained with the water he has collected.

Lipkis — who usually builds a sukkah out of giant timber bamboo and a few palm fronds thrown on the top — said he won’t be constructing a sukkah this year. Instead he’ll be using his energy to help 10 other households to install a similar cistern system in their yards.

Later that day, inspired by our conversation and with cisterns on my mind, I went into my backyard. I found a wheelbarrow filled with four inches of water from that same Rosh Hashanah storm. I poured it onto a struggling lemon tree that would soon fill my view from the opening of my sukkah.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him

Worth a trek: Searching Moroccan mountains for etrogs

We had to cross the gorge, and the only way was to walk single file on a narrow concrete gutter, maybe a foot wide, that bridged the two cliffs. Below us was a long, perilous drop onto the rocky depths.

I was traveling deep into the rural communities of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and so I’d expected to get a little dusty. But no one readied me for this afternoon trek in the desert sun. I was wearing a button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes, and I was carrying my iPad, computer, camera and passport. But I wasn’t entirely unprepared: I had 1.5 liters (about 6 cups) of water slung across my shoulder.

It was hot and sandy, and the sun shone down on us from a clear sky. Sweat was drenching my back. My translator, the only person in the group whom I could talk to, was several steps ahead of me. I was in the sandy middle of nowhere, feeling exhausted and, since I was standing on the precipice of a cliff in an unfamiliar place, a little scared. I started walking and didn’t look down.

But I was a man with a mission. In between audible whispers of “holy shit,” I had this thought: There had better be some etrogs at the end of this trail.

When I told people I was going to Morocco one week before Rosh Hashanah to write about the country’s insular, centuries-old etrog industry, they told me I was either crazy (it was hard to infiltrate), too late (etrog season was ending) or both. But Berbers who spend their summers growing fruit in a Muslim country for a Jewish holiday felt like too good a story to miss, so I eagerly booked my flight.

Today, almost no Jews live in Morocco, though a few dozen Jewish merchants still support the industry, sending etrogs — known as citrons in English — to Jews around the world to use on Sukkot. Because 5775 was a “shmita,” or sabbatical year, when Jewish law prohibits agricultural activity in Israel, demand for Moroccan etrogs has been especially high there this season, even though the countries don’t have formal relations. I was determined to find out just how Moroccan etrogs are grown and brought to the Israeli market.

Organizing the trip, however, ended up being far more complicated than making a couple of calls. My one contact in the Moroccan etrog business said the merchants feared journalists and wouldn’t talk to me. An Israeli professor looked at me like a concerned parent after I asked for help visiting Berber citrus farmers in the Atlas Mountains. He wrote me an email hours later saying he was “somewhat worried” about me. It was too short notice, he felt, to plan the trip properly.

Running out of leads, I used British phone-directory websites to track down a London rabbi who literally wrote the book on Moroccan etrogs. But he told me he’d just returned from Morocco, was worn out from the flight and couldn’t talk.

“Go to a town called Assads,” he advised me. “When you get there, ask for Jawad. Tell Jawad to take you to the place he took Yashar. Shanah tovah.”

Then he hung up on me. My flight was in two days.

Assads, it turned out, was a small mountain village hours away from the nearest city and barely accessible by car. To get there I’d need someone to take me. And to speak to etrog growers, I’d need to connect with someone from the town who could introduce me and guide me to the etrogs. This was not exactly an agricultural tourism hot spot.

By the time I reached the Tel Aviv airport for my flight, I’d managed to make some tentative plans. A Moroccan citrus expert, Mohamed El-Otmani, arranged someone to drive me to Assads, along with a fixer who would show me the area.

The next morning, I was shaking hands with a burly man named Mohammed who would be my driver. Mohammed, I discovered, did not speak English. Neither did the fixer. I didn’t risk asking whether either of them spoke Hebrew.

“Don’t you speak Arabic?” El-Otmani asked me. I do not. So he found me an off-duty English teacher to translate, and the four of us — driver, translator, fixer and me — set off.

Our beat-up Mercedes drove from paved road to gravel path as the cosmopolitan beach city of Agadir, where I was staying, gave way to smaller, drearier towns. French disappeared from shop signs, replaced by Arabic. Unlike Agadir, where many people wore jeans, almost all the women walked with their heads covered, while the men wore beards and caftans. Then the towns faded away, until we had to stop on the dusty road to let a herd of goats pass by.

An hour into the journey, my translator asked if I was “good at walking.” It seemed like a bizarre question, and honestly, the answer was no. Born with mild cerebral palsy, I’ve always limped on my right side and had trouble balancing.

But I wasn’t going to back down. Yeah, sure I was good at walking, I said. How bad could it be?

Four hours later, after my driver had asked several children on a deserted highway for directions, we finally reached Assads and the end of the road. And Jawad, the rabbi’s contact, was nowhere to be found. There were many people named Jawad in Assads, locals said. And anyway, none of them were around.

My only hope was to follow our fixer, on foot, and pray I found an etrog tree. The four of us set off.

At first, the path was flat and narrow, with a cliffside on my left. Then it got narrower and rougher. Then a concrete gutter appeared to our right, with us balancing in between  — me trying to compensate for my unwieldy bag.

I jumped in the gutter and soon there was nothing on either side. All four of us were crossing the gorge.

During the hour that followed, we climbed over boulders, along steep drops and through rocky valleys where there was no path at all. When I slipped and caught myself, watching rocks trickle down the mountainside and disappear, I kept walking. It was my only option.

Here I was in the remote reaches of Morocco, carrying valuable equipment, with four men I didn’t know who were speaking a language I didn’t understand. My safety — let alone my story — was riding on their trust.

But then, as we got to flatter terrain, my fixer stopped and grinned at me. He raised his fists in triumph and motioned at me to take a photo. Down the path, as we passed by a river, he pulled a cluster of grapes off a vine; we all shared the snack. I allowed myself to exhale. I looked back at the sandy brown mountainscape we’d just traversed, freckled with palm trees and set against a bright blue sky. Maybe this would all work out, I thought.

A couple hundred feet later, a man stood in front of us wearing a caftan and snow hat with what looked like a bush to our left. The fixer shook his hand. My translator pointed at the bush.

There it was, hanging just inches above the ground: a bright green etrog.

I soon saw others camouflaged among wide green leaves and weeds. The bush was, in fact, part of a grove. It looked less like the orchard I expected and more like a bramble — as if the fruit just happened to naturally grow there. I followed the branches down a rocky, uneven slope, dodging errant etrog vines and trying, once again, not to lose my balance.

The man in the caftan was Mohammed Douch, whose family had been growing etrogs here for at least three generations. He wasn’t much for description — when I asked him, three times, what his favorite part of the work was, he just said it was his tradition. But he was dedicated. He’s 67 and a retired restaurant worker, his face worn by deep wrinkles, but he treks out here for a couple of months every year to grow etrogs, he said, because the town “is a part of our body.”

Behind him, across a narrow path, was a two-story structure made of bricks and dirt with a canopy of branches for a roof. Usually, Douch explained, he lives in the city. But each summer he comes here to reside in nature.

He repeated most of what he said to compensate for the language gulf that separated us, even with a translator. It’s an experience I had throughout my trip to Morocco. Usually the failure to communicate made me feel helpless, like I was missing a large part of a country I wanted to learn about.

But in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, amid a group of people I could barely talk to, I felt a sense of belonging. Moving to a hut with a roof of branches to tend to etrogs and connect to tradition? That’s something I could understand.

Power to the table

While we were having our meals in the sukkah this year, I kept thinking about another holiday. This is odd because Sukkot has a strong and distinctive personality. The very idea of building a sukkah is unusual. For eight days, this little hut is the center of our lives, which, in Jewish terms, means it’s where we eat.

The sukkah itself conveys important symbols, from the impermanence of life to our connection with our wandering ancestors to the Jewish ideals of humility and gratitude. Countless sermons and essays have been written on the many layers of rich meaning associated with this holiday.

It’s no surprise, then, that when you’re inside a sukkah, it is the sukkah that is the star of the show, especially when it’s beautifully decorated. And when words of Torah are spoken, those words usually connect directly to the uniqueness of the holiday.

This year, though, my mind wandered elsewhere. As we celebrated night after night in our little hut, it struck me that Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday that isolates so clearly the most sublime Jewish ritual of all — the family table. As beautiful as our sukkah was (thanks to my daughter Eva), my thoughts were mostly on the table.

It was as if Sukkot morphed into “the holiday of the table” — the holiday in which we are commanded to take our tables outside and give them only minimal protection. The sukkah thus became the spiritual envelope for the real star of the show — the table where we shared our festive meals.

Maybe it was simply that the meals themselves reminded me so much of our weekly Friday night meals — only, we were having them inside a hut. Instead of distracting me, the hut focused my attention on the human gathering. I realized the power of a table to bring people together. After all, is any ritual more essential to our humanity than the sharing of a meal around a table?

And has any ritual been more essential to the survival of Judaism than the weekly gathering around the Shabbat table?

It always blows me away to imagine my distant ancestors in some Moroccan village sitting at their own table and reciting the exact same blessings we do on a Friday night — and probably eating the same spicy fish. It’s what all our ancestors scattered around the globe have done for millennia: Once a week, they sat around the Shabbat table and made it holy.

It also impresses me that 3,300 years ago at Sinai, after the Jews were released from bondage, a ritual was born that seemed to anticipate our modern-day version of slavery — our addiction to smartphones. Is there a smarter antidote to this addiction than the weekly holiday of Shabbat, where we turn it all off and reconnect with one another and with everything real? That human connection around a table is what I responded to, more than anything, inside the sukkah this year.

When I mentioned these ideas last week at a Sukkot lunch with students and staff of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA), who share our building in Koreatown, I was delighted to receive a follow-up email from AJR-CA co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy, elaborating on the importance of the table in Jewish tradition.

Among other things, he pointed out that the codification of Jewish law, compiled centuries ago by Rabbi Joseph Caro, is called the “prepared table” (Shulchan Arukh). “For me it meant that our table is now our altar,” Rabbi Levy wrote. “A sacred place at which we offer the precious gifts each of us brings to the table and receive the gifts everyone else brings.”

Rabbi Levy spoke of the table as “the place where we come together to nurture and nourish each other,” and he mentioned an insightful book titled “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” by Rachel Naomi Remen.

“Everybody is a story,” Remen writes in her introduction. “When I was a child, people sat around the kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along.”

The continuation of the great Jewish story has depended not on the quality of the structures we’ve built, but on the quality of the tables we’ve set. It is around these tables that the values, stories and wisdom of our tradition have been handed down from one generation to the next.

Placing our holy table inside a humble hut during the holiday of Sukkot dramatizes its power and reminds us to continue this transcendent ritual once we return home.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Simchat Torah: Celebrating Torah’s ending and beginning

People are drinking, singing and dancing. It’s loud and crowded. No, you’re not at a bar — or even a bar mitzvah. It’s Simchat Torah. 

The holiday celebrates the culmination of the year’s Torah readings and is, quite literally, a time to rejoice. 

“I love that Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday,” said Rabbi Donald Goor, rabbi emeritus at Temple Judea in Tarzana. “I love that the Torah is at the center of the holiday because it is the center of who we are as a people.” 

Most synagogues encourage their congregants to sing and dance, along with performing hakafot (carrying the Torah scrolls around the sanctuary). This expression of joy extends to all participants — from the oldest to the youngest.

“I’m always busy moving the Torahs from person to person. It’s powerful for me. I look at the people who are at the service; I know the kind of year they have had, I know which people really need to touch a Torah,” Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura. 

Day-school children also get to share in the fun. 

“We hold a number of wonderful services at which we complete the reading of the Torah and then begin the cycle anew,” said Bill Cohen, head of school at Kadima Day School in West Hills. “We sing many songs, and our students parade around school singing and dancing in celebration of the holiday.”

One of the most exciting parts of a Simchat Torah service comes at the end, when some congregations unroll the Torah scroll (or scrolls) to encircle the sanctuary. 

“Our congregation is surrounded by Torah,” Goor said. 

While this tradition is beautiful, the danger of exposing the parchment is not lost on the clergy. 

“We’re always a little bit afraid of someone crashing into the Torah,” he said, “but the joy overwhelms the fear. It is a sense of awe for little kids, and it teaches two things: that Torah is accessible for all of us and that you have to be careful with the Torah.”

Temple Beth Torah uses Simchat Torah to symbolize more than just the end of the Torah readings for the year. 

“I ask all of the kids who have had their bar or bat mitzvahs to stand in front of their Torah portions after we unroll the scroll,” Hochberg-Miller said. “We start in Genesis and each child will read snippets of his or her Torah portion. We pass the yad. … We may end up having eight or more kids who will read or chant their first aliyah. It reconnects them back to Torah and that special moment. It gives us a sort of ‘Torah year in review.’ It reminds the kids that life is not just about one moment.” 

Other special traditions permeate the holiday celebration at many local shuls. At Temple Judea, every child receives a candy bar during the service. 

“Children should always associate sweetness with learning,” Goor said.

The profoundness of being able to physically touch a Torah has special meaning for Jews who are experiencing religious freedom for the first time. 

“I have a congregant who arrived from Moscow about nine years ago. She is at our Simchat Torah service every year. This was not something she could have ever done while she was in Moscow. She never could have gone to synagogue and danced with the Torah,” Hochberg-Miller said. “Every year she is there without fail. It always sort of comes back to how we have to hold this as precious and value this and not take it for granted. It’s a reminder for us.”

At the crux of the holiday is a basic tenet of Judaism: love for learning. 

“Simchat Torah helps us celebrate learning — the notion that learning doesn’t end. No matter who we are, we always have something to learn,” Goor said. “It’s a great start for the new year.” 

Fasten your seat belts: The drive-thru sukkah awaits

Last week we reported on the pedi-sukkah — essentially a tricycle rickshaw with a sukkah attached, designed to bring the holiday of Sukkot to the people.

But for those on-the-go types who prefer to travel through, rather than in, their (very) temporary dwelling, there’s another option: the drive-thru sukkah.

Following the lead of Miami’s Bet Shira Congregation — which in 2009 opened what is believed to be the first drive-thru sukkah — a suburban Philadelphia synagogue is this year touting its own car-friendly booth.

Har Zion Temple, which, like Bet Shira, is Conservative, is inviting motorists to stop in throughout the holiday (on yom tov as well as hol hamoed) and say the blessing over the lulav and etrog. The drive-thru is in addition to a more traditional and, er, pedestrian sukkah on the other side of the synagogue.

Gavi Miller, the shul’s executive director, told JTA that drivers are welcome to bring the lulav and etrog into their car or to step outside and do the blessing. “The idea is to reach out to people where they are,” he said.

“This is another way to make the holiday a little more accessible,” he added. “Lots of people have memories of Passover seders, Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah, but some don’t have Sukkot memories.”

Who knows? Some might even stop by after the drive-thru restaurant and enjoy a full-blown meal in the sukkah.


In a week of shacks, a missing L.A. woman found destitute in one in Maine

While during Sukkot Los Angeles’ Jews were dwelling in their temporary shelters, a continent away, the story of Sarah Cheiker, an elderly victim of a con that took her Fairfax District home – was demonstrating just how fragile a home can be in the City of Angels.

Cheiker, 91, who, according to her neighbor for 35 years, Jim Caccavo, is Jewish, lived for decades – first with her mother Fanny, then alone – in a small Spanish-style house on South Edinburgh Avenue, a part of the city that remains heavily Jewish.

But in 2008, she disappeared, Caccavo told the Los Angeles Times. Though Caccavo filed a missing person report, it was not until four years later, that FBI agents who were knocking on doors in the Fairfax neighborhood, revealed that Cheiker had been found alive “abandoned and alone in a weathered cabin near the coast of Maine.”

“I was shocked. We figured she was dead,” Caccavo told the Times.

How did Cheiker get to Maine?

Years earlier she had befriended three individuals who had come to her door: twins Nicholas and Barbara Davis, and their godson, Jonathan Stevens. Neighbors recalled that they had taken her to appointments and shopping.

Soon, they took her for much more than that.

After a fire that damaged her house, the three let Cheiker move in with them.

Records show that the partially damaged home, which is located in an area where several smaller homes have been torn down and replaced with much larger ones, was sold to a developer for $712,000 and bulldozed in 2008. Sometime before that, Cheiker, the two Davises and Stevens left town.

Jim Caccavo and Sarah Cheiker at an assisted living facility in Maine in 2012.

They apparently were on the road until 2011, when, according to various sources, the two Davises were arrested and accused of “transporting an elderly woman across the country between 2009 and 2011,” and then depositing Cheiker in a cabin near the coast in Edgecomb, Me.

“When they found her, they said that she had spoiled fast food, one light bulb in the cabin that was burned out, and it was very hot,” Caccavo told CBS Los Angeles.

Papers filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in California, in February of 2014 show that Nicholas Davis – who had been given guardianship over Ms. Cheiker by California courts, and also given power of attorney over her assets – admitted that he had liquidated them, “including at least $600,000 from the sale of her home.” Cheiker’s funds were invested in properties in California, New York and other states, as well as six properties in Maine, the record shows.

As to how Cheiker wound up in a shack in Maine, the record also shows that Davis along with Stevens, drove Cheiker to a hotel, where he told the manager that she was a “middle-aged artist who wanted to be left alone.”

All three entered no contest pleas in Lincoln County Superior Court. Nicholas and Barbara Davis each pled no contest to one felony charge of intentionally endangering the welfare of a dependent and were sentenced to three years in prison, all suspended with Nicholas Davis ordered to pay $5,000 to Cheiker as restitution.

Stevens was sentenced to 364 days confinement, which also was suspended.

In an aftermath of the swindle, Cheiker, destitute, and with health care issues, was placed in a 74 bed cealth care center in Fryberg, Me. (population approx 3500), where Caccavo paid her a visit in 2012. “Sarah told me she definitely did not sell her house,” he told the Times.

“She is now a ward of the state of Maine,” he wrote in an email to the Jewish Journal.

When a Jewish Journal reporter called to talk to Cheiker, he was told that no patient information could be given out. “You need to understand our position,” the center’s representative said.

In the City of Los Angeles, where the alleged swindle took place, charges apparently have not been filed.

Building a stable sukkah, building a stable L.A.

Many years ago, my wife and I lived in a ground-floor apartment in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica, on a hill with a view of the bay.

When Sukkot came around, my wife naturally expected me to build the hut — the sukkah — in which Jews are commanded to eat, and even sleep, during the holiday. No problem, I thought — I’d watched every episode of “Gilligan’s Island,” and I even owned a hammer.

But I didn’t own a level. So, on the first night of Sukkot, we invited a group of friends into my homemade booth, a travesty of 2-by-4s, cinder blocks and PVC piping topped with bamboo and banana leaves. I made dinner — green corn tamales with black beans and crema — we all sat down to eat, and the sukkah collapsed.

Not completely, but it swayed so far left our view became a perfect trapezoid of horizon, and my friend Jim Morton suggested we grab the tamales and get the hell out. Jim is an architect.

Many rabbis will tell you the theme of Sukkot is the fragile, transitory nature of life and our ultimate dependence on something Greater Than Ourselves. All true.

But that evening I realized there is something else Sukkot is trying to teach us: how to build.

Maybe this lesson was self-evident to our desert-wandering ancestors, who could turn goats into goat-skin tents. But from the time we Jews decamped to the cities of Babylonia, Europe, Arabia and, eventually, America, it is something we’ve needed to remember. We are not here just to inhabit, but to construct, refurbish, improve. We are wanderers, yes, but wherever we arrive, we must also become builders.

This is especially true in Los Angeles, and it is especially incumbent upon us now.

I don’t know about you, but I look around the city and see the greatest momentum for progress I’ve seen in my lifetime.     

The major public-transportation initiative begun by former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is accelerating under Mayor Eric Garcetti. As much as its construction snarls traffic in the short term, I’m happy to finally see light-rail lines rising on the Westside, and plans for more rapid-bus lanes in the works.

Downtown is looking different, too. South Broadway has been redesigned to become more pedestrian-friendly, the first example in Garcetti’s “Great Streets” program. The late Ira Yellin’s vision for Grand Central Market as a hub of great food and urban life is coming to fruition under his widow Adele’s leadership.  

More importantly, Garcetti has spearheaded an ambitious multidepartmental, intergovernment project to reduce homelessness, beginning with L.A. County’s 6,400 homeless veterans. And I couldn’t have been prouder as an Angeleno than when the mayor committed Los Angeles to welcoming and housing the immigrant children detained after crossing the border from Mexico.

Meanwhile, the federal government just approved $1 billion for Los Angeles River restoration. As someone who has rafted a mile-long stretch of the river, I can tell you the waterway’s rebirth will bring business and recreational opportunity to the city in ways beyond our imagining.

There are bigger plans in the works, too, like the push to end L.A.’s dependence on imported water. Garcetti wants to cut our water imports in half by 2025, and as TreePeople’s Andy Lipkis and others have shown, it’s no pipe dream. There’s even a plan being developed at UCLA to make part of Westwood a showcase for driverless cars.

All these City Hall initiatives from above are being met by a new sense of urban activism from below. CicLAvia, which turns the streets of L.A. into bike- and pedestrian-friendly pathways several times a year, just wrapped up a hugely successful outing this past weekend. Neighbors in Santa Monica and Venice are on track to stop jets from flying in and out of Santa Monica Airport, residents near downtown have grand plans for a “freeway cap” that would create an urban park above the 101 freeway (and Grand Park in the city’s Civic Center itself is a new gift that the city is just beginning to enjoy). On Fairfax Avenue, young black entrepreneurs are revitalizing your bubbe’s storefronts as a center of urban design.  

Speaking at The Atlantic magazine’s CityLab 2014, which brought together more than 300 mayors from around the world to downtown last week, senior editor Richard Florida summed it up: “There’s something happening here. You can feel it.”

Not only can you feel it, you can take part in it. Beyond seeing these endeavors through, there are still huge challenges: fixing our education system, raising the minimum wage in a way that reduces inequality and protects entrepreneurship, bringing more local food to urban neighborhoods, addressing areas of hard-core unemployment and gang violence. At CityLab, developer Rick Caruso raised a pie-in-the-sky idea worth considering: What if business, philanthropy and government teamed up and focused all their efforts at once on a single neighborhood most in need?   

What if ? If there was ever a fruitful time to get involved in some way to help improve our city, now is it. Not all our labors will succeed, but as my first sukkah taught me, even when they don’t, you can still get a glimpse of the horizon.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can
follow him on Twitter @foodaism

Time to build a Sukkah

After you break the fast, it’s time to break out the tools. One of the most authentic ways to celebrate this ancient harvest festival is to build a sukkah (booth) of your own. 

Today, the celebration of Sukkot is a way to connect with our Jewish past — to commemorate the 40 years our ancestors wandered the desert. The sukkah represents both the temporary huts they used as dwellings and the protection and care offered by God during that time.

The commandment to “live in booths” during Sukkot is interpreted in modern times to mean enjoying meals and entertaining family and friends in your own sukkah. Some people even sleep in their sukkah during the holiday. All of these actions constitute mitzvot.

“The holiday of Sukkot is a wonderful time to reconnect with nature, sleep out under the stars,” Rabbi Alyson Solomon said. 

She describes the sukkah as a house that is open and vulnerable to the world. 

“Judaism is, at heart, a home-based religion. To build a sukkah outside of your own home is to remember our roots as wanderers, farmers, harvesters. It’s also a great time to share your spiritual practices with your neighbors, invite friends over for dinner, and welcome into your sukkah holy ushpizim, holy guests, to offer blessings and share cheer,” Solomon said. 

Before you begin, there’s one important question to ask yourself: Do you want to build your own sukkah from scratch or buy a kit? 

By definition, a sukkah is a temporary shelter, with at least 2 1/2 walls. The roof must not be solid — it must provide shade during the day, but allow stars to be visible at night. Because you’re not supposed to make a sukkah that will withstand hurricane-force winds, you probably don’t need to worry too much about your handyman skills. 

You also can find loads of ready-to-build, prefabricated sukkah kits online or through large local Judaica sellers.

Yossi Cohen, owner of Mitzvahland in Encino, said he sells sukkah kits each year to customers across Southern California. 

“Building a sukkah is an easy way to perform a mitzvah,” Cohen says. “Each year, I see more and more people wanting to observe the mitzvah of building a sukkah.”

Cohen says sukkah kits can be as inexpensive as $175, and there are kits to fit just about any budget. 

What if you want a sukkah, but don’t want to do the work? Not a problem. Like most things, you can hire someone to build your sukkah. In addition to designing and building custom sukkahs for clients, Cohen says he also provides large-scale sukkahs for community centers and synagogues.

Michelle Starkman, a West Hills mother of two, builds a sukkah from scratch with her family. 

“We use 2-by-4s that are bolted together to form the frame. We line the walls with outdoor fabric and then the top with sechach [raw vegetable materials] or palm fronds. We also leave one side open,” she says. 

Like many local families, the Starkmans began building a sukkah at home when their oldest son was in Jewish preschool. 

“The kids are now old enough to help with the entire process — they help build the sukkah, and they especially love helping to decorate it,” Starkman says.

When it comes to decorating your sukkah, the sky’s the limit. Many families have their children cut out designs from construction paper. Others use fruits, vegetables and plants as décor. Some Orthodox groups do not add decorations to their sukkahs; they believe the structure itself is beautiful and needs no embellishment. 

The most important thing when building a sukkah is finding your family’s personal meaning behind the custom. 

“We find it important to build a sukkah at our home because in addition to it being a fun family activity, it reinforces the history of our people, reinforces what our children learn in school and helps us feel connected to our community,” Starkman says. 

Solomon agrees. She says that the beauty of the holiday is found in the simple things: “I’ve even seen a family that had no yard, balcony or roof access build a sukkah in their living room with houseplants and tapestries. To top it off, their kids drew stars on the ceiling — it was beautiful!” 

Sukkot, rain and Andy Lipkis’ vision for L.A.’s salvation from the drought

On the afternoon of Oct. 16, the final day of Sukkot, Jews will begin the annual practice of inserting a short but key line into the Amidah prayer: Mashiv haruach u morid hageshem: “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

In Jewish tradition, Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and, as it happens, for California as well. This year, in the Golden State, morid hageshem takes on heightened meaning, given that the nation’s most populous state is in its third consecutive year of drought, with about 80 percent of California experiencing “exceptional drought” conditions, the most severe on a five-tier scale according to the United States Drought Monitor. 

And there is no end in sight, with the Climate Prediction Center forecasting that, at least through the end of the year, the state’s drought likely will persist and possibly even intensify.

Only 5.84 inches of rain have fallen in Los Angeles since the beginning of 2014 — about half the average amount — or, put another way, 39.2 billion fewer gallons of rainwater than falls on the city’s 469 square miles in a year of average rainfall.

But the problem is even bigger than those numbers indicate. In Los Angeles, an inordinate amount of the rain that falls on us makes no contribution to the city’s water supply — an estimated 80 percent of our rainfall flows directly into storm drains and heads out into the ocean, wasted before ever being used. One consequence is that for each gallon of water not captured, one gallon must be imported.

Los Angeles imports about 90 percent of its water from the Owens Valley in Eastern California (270 miles away), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (380 miles away) and the Colorado River Aqueduct near Parker Dam — a 242-mile channel along the California-Arizona border (280 miles away) that was built and is operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). The MWD sells the water wholesale, supplying 1.7 billion gallons of water daily for use by 19 million people across Southern California. 

“The largest single use of electricity in the entire state of California is to pump water over those mountains into Los Angeles,” said Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the nonprofit TreePeople. He pointed toward the mountain ranges abutting the Grapevine, the route through which our Sierra-sourced water flows through a huge — and hugely expensive — system of aqueducts and tunnels. 

TreePeople founder and president Andy Lipkis during construction of the cistern.

Lipkis, who made his name through his devotion to planting and preserving L.A.’s trees, has now also turned his attention to water conservation. He thinks L.A.’s complex and bureaucratic water system is completely nuts — and also completely fixable.

At a recent interview at TreePeople’s hilltop headquarters on Mulholland Drive, next to Coldwater Canyon Park, Lipkis explained how a city desperately thirsty for water could benefit from TreePeople’s decades of planting some 2 million trees and reproducing their natural water-storing ability.

Lipkis believes we can use technology to replicate citywide a tree’s natural and remarkable ability to capture and store rainwater. He predicts that if Los Angeles implements such a system, it would become both less reliant on imported water and less prone to flooding.  And maybe — Lipkis emphasizes that it’s a big maybe — the region could also become a little bit more flush with cash if a larger rainwater capture system bring about a smaller water bureaucracy and lower electric costs from not having to pump so much water over those mountains.

From a seed company to $4 million

An outdoorsy guy most comfortable in sneakers and shorts, Lipkis doesn’t look like a man who would be sought after by policymakers who want to get Los Angeles out of its state of perpetual water crisis. Yet, Lipkis founded TreePeople when he was just 18 and has grown it into a nonprofit with 45 employees, thousands of volunteers and a $4 million annual budget that is allowing the organization to use its technological know-how to influence politicians and leaders within L.A.’s massive water bureaucracy.

TreePeople got its start in 1973 as the California Conservation Project, with $10,000 Lipkis raised to plant 8,000 seedlings in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles. Those seedlings now have grown into smog-tolerant trees and have helped reduce the impact of the smog emanating from the city below. Lipkis often has said his inspiration grew out of summers he spent at Camp JCA Shalom.

By now, TreePeople has planted about 2 million trees and continues to do so with the help of an army of volunteers, and, in the process, Lipkis’ vision has broadened, so that he’s now hoping to bring a new ecology to L.A. based on what he’s learned about how trees function, and not only by planting more and more trees, but by bringing tree-inspired technologies such as rainwater cisterns, underground storage tanks and highly water absorbent gardens to as many homes, neighborhoods and schools as possible.

The encouraging point about TreePeople is this: Lipkis’ ideas don’t seek to reinvent the wheel, or the tree. Among one of the many life-giving features of the tree is the ability to capture rainfall, filter water into the ground, and then refill clean water in those natural underground aquifers that we all rely upon to store and provide clean water. Not to mention trees’ ability to cool urban areas and grow food, two of TreePeople’s other core missions.

Lipkis thinks that in addition to planting more trees across the city (including in densely urban areas) he can re-create a tree’s natural rain capture process. 

Lipkis’ enthusiasm was clear as he walked through a miniature urban landscape built on the TreePeople property, which demonstrates the difference between the quality of rainwater that has traveled over city surfaces, into sewers, through drains and into the ocean, versus rainwater that is engineered to flow into the ground, where it can be purified and stored naturally. 

Today’s cities, and L.A. in particular, were built to push whatever rain falls on their streets — billions of gallons of it, along with tons of trash of various sorts picked up en route — out to the ocean. All this waste occurs even as we search desperately for a solution to our water shortage. Even when the current drought ends, Los Angeles and much of the surrounding desert region still will rely on a water transportation system that needs rethinking, and is already being rethought by water officials in Orange County and San Diego. Orange County already has an operational wastewater purification plant, while in San Diego, a desalination plant is in the works. 

In Los Angeles, the good news for Lipkis, and the rest of us, is that city leaders and key local water agencies already are recognizing his tree-centered strategy as one method to address Southern California’s water shortage. The bad news is that the government’s water bureaucracy in Los Angeles is massive and it could take years for good ideas to blossom into policy.

Working closely with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the Department of Public Works and the Bureau of Sanitation to mass-scale rainwater-capture technology to Los Angeles, Lipkis projects that distributing and installing millions of rain cisterns that could hold thousands of gallons of water to residents across the city (just one relatively simple rain-capture technology) could be accomplished in a few years, as it was in parts of Australia, or it could take more than two decades —“It depends on the commitment of politicians,” Lipkis said.

His other hoped-for projects include installing massive underground cisterns and groundwater infiltrators under large public properties, such as parks and schools, which already has been done effectively by TreePeople at multiple sites in the San Fernando Valley.

For Lipkis, the most encouraging development is the recent acknowledgement by the city’s water bureaucracy at LADWP that improving stormwater capture infrastructure is a must. At a meeting in April, Lipkis said, James McDaniel, LADWP’s outgoing head of water — who was on vacation when the Journal sought comment — cited rain capture as the fastest way to bring new water to Angelenos.

The department’s Stormwater Capture Master Plan, begun in 2013, highlights many of TreePeople’s rain capture projects. It is set to be completed next year and outlines for lawmakers how the city can “increase the local water supply and reduce the dependence on expensive imported water.”

The TreePeople solution

Elmer Avenue, a residential block in Sun Valley, a neighborhood of L.A. 20 miles northwest of downtown, is dotted with one-story single-family homes. Parts of Sun Valley, including Elmer Avenue, used to have hazardous flooding problems, and until 2008, this street not only had no sidewalks or streetlamps, it didn’t have any storm drains.

Rainwater from neighborhoods north of Elmer Avenue would flow downhill and gather in giant puddles on the street, making driving and walking nearly impossible during and after a rainfall. For TreePeople and a group of other nonprofits and agencies led by the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (now the Council for Watershed Health), Elmer Avenue’s predicament became a perfect site to experiment with a rainwater capture model.

Today, the street looks like one of the newest residential blocks in the city — new sidewalks, a newly paved road and, to Lipkis’ delight, a sophisticated rainwater-capture system. Front yards are filled with plants and native trees that require little water to survive but also store large amounts of moisture. When rainwater hits the street, it flows into drains that direct the water to a 5.2 million-gallon underground infiltration apparatus, which then filters the water into the ground. That’s where nature takes over and brings it to a natural underground aquifer. 

Rain that falls on houses is directed via gutters into rain barrels, onto lawns, and to porous driveways as well as to trees and swales — depressions that store water until they soak into the ground — next to the sidewalk. And if the swale fills up? The excess flows into the street, where it then flows to a nearby drain that leads to a large underground water storage device that eventually will redirect the water into a natural aquifer.

This simple but effective system echoes similar rainwater-capture projects that TreePeople has implemented at Hillery T. Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima, the Hall House in South Los Angeles and at Sun Valley Park. With these experiments, TreePeople has demonstrated on a small scale what Lipkis believes Los Angeles should, can and eventually will do on a much larger one.

Left: A playground at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima before intervention by TreePeople.
Right: Hidden underground technology now drains the landscaped field, preventing flooding and preserving water for use.

Mark Pestrella, chief deputy director for L.A.’s Department of Public Works, has worked closely with TreePeople on reducing flooding in Sun Valley and increasing its rainwater capture. “It’s scalable across all of the county of Los Angeles,” Pestrella said, alluding to the fact that while transforming Los Angeles and L.A. County’s water bureaucracy would be a major hurdle, he is grateful his department “thankfully listened” to TreePeople when it proposed a solution to Sun Valley’s flood issues.

Unlike “environmental groups [that] raise money for policy for various things” and aren’t held accountable when they don’t make a positive change, as Lipkis put it, TreePeople already has garnered the attention of a who’s-who of the local water bureaucracy and water agencies and officials, who have cited the group’s projects in Sun Valley and in other parts of the city as evidence that rainwater capture is one part of the water solution. 

In late October, TreePeople will lead a trip to Australia that will include officials from LADWP, the Department of Public Works, the Bureau of Sanitation, the L.A. City Council, the state’s water board and staffers from the offices of Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Lipkis’ goal is to show local and state water policymakers how Australia has dealt with a perpetual water crisis by harvesting rainwater.

Lipkis’ water dream is not an environmentalist’s pipe dream, either. LADWP noted in its 2010 Urban Water Management Plan that “TreePeople has demonstrated that rainwater is a viable local water resource,” and that the water agency and the nonprofit have agreed to work closely to identify opportunities for “widespread groundwater recharge.”

Andy Shrader, director of environmental affairs for L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who sits on MWD’s board, said Koretz, too, “has been pushing MWD to increase their local water projects to include stormwater.”

“[With] the TreePeople model where you put a cistern in somebody’s front yard and try to capture as much as you can,” Shrader said, “you can really [use that water to] take care of especially your outdoor watering needs pretty handily.”

Also on board are Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar — who said there is “no question” L.A. needs a more ambitious rainwater-capture plan —and Garcetti, who wrote in his 2014-15 budget summary that he wants to cut L.A.’s reliance on imported water in half by 2025. It’s evident that an updated water policy is on the agenda of L.A.’s political class, the ones who might make it happen.

A piece of a larger puzzle

To be sure, the Elmer Avenue project was expensive. It cost $2.7 million to remodel just one residential block. To re-create this throughout Los Angeles, a city with 6,500 miles of paved roads, would not be practical, says Stephanie Pincetl, director of UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, who nevertheless believes rainwater capture should and will play a key role in any sustainable water solution.

“The problem with Elmer Avenue is that it really, really was too expensive to do widely,” Pincetl said. She instead proposes that new and existing buildings in Los Angeles be retrofitted as “low-impact” sites so as to include technologies to filter rain into the ground instead of into the flood control system that pumps water into the sea. 

“Find opportunities on all properties to infiltrate rainwater,” Pincetl said. “That is the future if, in fact, we are serious about water conservation and using the precious resources that we have.”

Los Angeles, Pincetl added, was built “when we thought we could import as much water as we needed.” And at a time at the beginning of the 20th century, when transporting water was cheap and the sources were plentiful, why not? “There was no idea of conservation,” she said.

Conservation, rainwater capture, wastewater (i.e. sewage) recycling — all of it will play some role in L.A.’s water fix, and all of it already has been used to some extent as far away as Australia and as near as Orange County.

One small and logistically simple part of the water solution would be the use of rainwater cisterns, which can be hooked up and retrofitted to a home’s gutter. Coastal cities in Australia that have climates similar to Los Angeles’ are now models for this simple means of water conservation. There, residents consume only about 60 gallons of municipal water per day, compared to the approximately 150 gallons per day used by the average home Los Angeles. 

In South East Queensland, for example, homes without rain cisterns used 135 gallons of municipal water per day compared to 101 gallons in homes with cisterns, a 12,000-gallon difference over the course of the year, for just one home.

Just to the south of Los Angeles, Orange County has developed its own water solution, a $481 million wastewater purification — “toilet to tap” — plant that uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light to purify 70 million gallons of recycled water every day, providing enough water for about 100,000 people’s daily use. 

Michael Marcus, Orange County Water District’s general manager, said his county is able to meet 72 percent of its water needs from its groundwater basin, one-third of which is filled up by purified wastewater. 

As a result, Marcus said, Orange County purchases most of the rest of its water from the municipal water district, a stark contrast to Los Angeles’ 90 percent reliance on imported water. “If we didn’t have that,” Marcus added. “We’d be in very, very desperate shape.” In terms of cost, Orange County spends about $500 per acre-foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons, when factoring the nearly $100 million in grants it received to construct the purification plant. But even removing those grants, the county is spending about $850 per acre-foot, Marcus said, still less than the $900 to $1,000 charged by MWD in Los Angeles for its imported water. 

“The [cost] lines have crossed,” Marcus said, referring to the fact that as the water supply shrinks and its price rises, previously expensive-looking solutions like water recycling and rainwater capture suddenly make more financial sense. 

Los Angeles already has embarked on a wastewater purification experiment —the West Basin Municipal Water District in L.A. provides purified wastewater to 17 coastal cities in the county.

David Nahai, who formerly served from 2007 to 2009 as CEO of LADWP and is now a consultant on water technology and renewable energy, makes the point that imported water “ain’t cheap and it ain’t unlimited.” As a result, the Orange County solution and the TreePeople solution today should appear more affordable in light of the inevitable future costs of maintaining a system that so heavily relies on imported water.

Of course, relying on rain provides its own uncertainty, namely, how much rain actually falls. “It’s part of the solution. It’s not the solution,” said Mark Gold, acting director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “It’s got to be in conjunction with recycled water.”

“It isn’t going to be cheap,” he said, “but you’ve got to look at it in the context of the cost of importing water.

“It’s going to cost billions of dollars one way or the other, so the question before us is how much of that is going to be based on improving water infrastructure from imported water supply, and how much is going to be from modernizing infrastructure from our local water supply?”

A plan that saves water and saves money would also help fund badly needed maintenance of the city’s water transportation infrastructure — LADWP is tasked with replacing main water lines only once every 300 years. Although reducing the wait time to once every 100 years would cost about $4 billion, one cost of not having the money to make needed repairs was made apparent in July when a 90-year-old water main near UCLA burst and flooded Sunset Boulevard and the campus with upward of 20 million gallons of water.

100 agencies to do nature’s work

UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities is in the process of analyzing Los Angeles County’s system of water importation, production, distribution and governance. It already has counted more than 100 government and private entities currently involved in slicing up the water pie.

Any new or modernized water structure, no matter how efficient or intelligent, undoubtedly will involve bureaucracy, some reliance on far-off sources and will also still need to involve a flood control system that pumps some rainwater into the ocean. 

But, as Lipkis suggests, the bureaucracy may not have to be so large. 

In Los Angeles, the current inefficient water delivery system means the water that flows out of your tap may have arrived from multiple sources, because so many government agencies are involved in moving it through deserts and over mountains to get to your home, while also making sure that it is safe to use.

When rain falls, for example, around the town of Green River, Wyo., 830 miles from Los Angeles, it seeps into a watershed basin, flows into the Green River, which feeds the Colorado River, which flows southwest through Utah and Arizona before reaching the intake point of the Colorado River Aqueduct north of Parker Dam that is operated by the MWD.

It is at that point that MWD must pump the water 280 miles from the aqueduct to Los Angeles, a major technological challenge. A 2011 Los Angeles Times story described the enormous amount of electricity required at just one of the five pumping plants along the route: On a single November day in 2011, the Julian Hinds Pumping Plant, east of Indio, had to propel more than 6 million tons of water over a 441-foot-high mountain. It took six 12,500-horsepower electric motors to get the water to a Riverside County reservoir.

And that’s just the water that feeds Los Angeles from the east. Another source is rain that falls in the northern Sierra Nevada, which finds its way to the 1.1 trillion-gallon-capacity Lake Oroville Reservoir, then must travel 450 miles to get to Los Angeles. 

Flowing downhill and emptying eventually into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (one of three of L.A.’s import sources), the California Aqueduct then ferries the water south in huge snaking pipes across the flat Central Valley and over the Grapevine, side by side with the notoriously steep run of the I-5 freeway. 

Pumping water from the Chrisman Pumping Plant over those mountains requires 44,000-horsepower pumps.

At the Edmonston Pumping Plant 14 miles away at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains (84 miles north of downtown L.A.), an official with the California Department of Water Resources told a Capital Public Radio reporter in an October 2013 interview that it takes 14 pumps to push water the 2,000 feet over the mountain. 

More power still is needed to transport the water to reach homes and businesses in Los Angeles, and MWD is not in the business of retail sales — that’s where LADWP comes in. As the largest municipal utility in the nation, LADWP purchased more than 126 billion gallons of drinkable water in fiscal year 2013, and 145 billion gallons this fiscal year, for $280 million and about $300 million, respectively, from MWD’s pumped-in water. Last fiscal year, LADWP sold 179 billion gallons of water for more than $1 billion to homes, apartments, businesses and factories throughout Los Angeles, almost all of which eventually became sewage treated for solid waste and piped into the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles Harbor, Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific Ocean. 

In its 2010 Urban Water Management Plan — which is updated every five years as required by state law — LADWP acknowledged the city’s deficient rainwater-capture infrastructure, noting current facilities “are inadequate for capturing runoff during very wet years.” The agency laid out an ambitious $251 million rainwater-capture program in collaboration with the Department of Public Works that it aims to complete by 2018. Although the report and its suggestions do not carry the force of law, it serves as a “master plan” and guidebook for agencies involved in water use and water supply.

The plan calls for doubling Los Angeles’ current rain-capture capabilities to about 40 percent of rainfall, up from the current 20 percent.

Furthering the costs, and the waste, is the problem of flooding by undirected rainfall. L.A. County’s Flood Control District has the herculean task of minimizing flooding by using a massive system of 14 dams and reservoirs, 487 miles of canals and 2,900 miles of underground drains to make sure that the majority of the rain that doesn’t feed into the ground makes it to the ocean.

It is difficult to get an exact figure on how much this gargantuan system costs on an annual basis, but the Department of Public Works’ budget for fiscal year 2014-15 is more than $2 billion, with its “water resources” service area making up 44 percent of that, or about $661 million.

On the enforcement side, California’s and L.A.’s water shortage have led to irksome water-use restrictions, fines of up to $500 for wasting water, #droughtshaming Twitter hashtags used by citizen water tattlers and “water cops,” LADWP inspectors who hand out warning letters and who have the authority to levy fines.

When nature isn’t allowed to do its work, as Lipkis said, government fills in.

Cast against this seemingly endless list of departments and agencies that bring water to our taps and keep it out of our streets, schools and yards is the tree, simple in its appearance but complex and vital in its function.

Lipkis likes to cite two events when discussing rain — he mentioned them both during the interview and in a follow-up email. In 2013, although only 3.6 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles, that rain would have generated 29 billion gallons of fresh, drinkable water — enough to give 6,500 gallons to all of this city’s 4 million residents “had it been captured in cisterns, swales and aquifer recharge facilities,” Lipkis said. “It wasn’t, but could have been.”

When just 4 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles in late February, TreePeople’s underground cistern collected 81,000 gallons of water. And that water was on hand one particularly hot summer day, when an L.A. fire engine came to Coldwater Canyon Park, red lights flashing, tasked with finding water that could be used by fire helicopters in the event that the local (imported) water supply was disrupted.

Pulling up to the cul-de-sac where TreePeople has a massive underground water cistern, the fire engine stopped, and a firefighter asked Lipkis for his help. The firefighter said words that, unless changes come about, all too many residents and government officials across the city also could be saying soon:  

“We heard you had water.”


For the Record:

Oct. 20: This article has been changed to reflect that David Nahai served as CEO of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from 2007 to 2009; an earlier version said he “briefly served as CEO of LADWP.”

Sukkot: The most romantic of Jewish holidays

Sukkot is my holiday.

It’s been obvious since my girlhood, even before I saw “Titanic” a dozen times, that love stories ignite me and are my preferred mode of engagement with the world. I’m partial to eros, of course, but any love will do: filial, platonic, philosophical, spiritual. “You live in a romance novel,” someone I love likes to say. 

It’s why Sukkot suits me. After the parent/child, master/servant, king/subject modality of the High Holy Days, Sukkot offers a more romantic kindling of the God-Israel relationship. 

“Sukkot is all about pleasure,” Rabbi Amy Bernstein, senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades told me when I reached her by phone just before Kol Nidre. What a relief: After all those trying hours in shul celebrating God as the creator of the universe and repenting the myriad ways we’ve failed our covenantal relationship, “Sukkot is celebrating that we’ve come back,” Bernstein said. “It’s all about when we dwelled in the desert with God, when we depended only on God for food and water, [when] we were fed with manna, and [since then] we’ve moved on, and God hasn’t — and it’s this kind of wonderful, gorgeous honeymoon imagery.” 

Even God yearns. It’s quite flattering. And while I’m not terribly keen on the idea of honeymooning in the desert, I do like the general gist: an ancient mythic time when we were wandering through a scorching landscape (facing, as we Angelenos are today, a desiccated Earth) when our valiant hero, God, comes to save us, like a prince in a Jane Austen novel. God first gives us Torah, then escorts us through the desert under “a cloud of glory,” then feeds our bodies and souls with this magical manna substance, which the rabbis liken to sesame seeds that could take the form and flavor of any edible we desired. Imagine if spouses could do that.

That which nourishes, satisfies. And Sukkot, after all, is a pilgrimage festival — the third in our calendar year, after Pesach and Shavuot — which, in the ancient Near East, also marked the last harvest before winter. “So, while you’re harvesting crops, which is what’s going to feed you,” Bernstein said, “you remember a time when God fed you. And [the festival] is a way of reminding the Israelites: ‘Don’t think this is all about you or that you did this.’ Living in these fragile huts [the sukkahs] reminds us that we’re dependent on God for our well-being and our safety, not our permanent structures that are illusions of security.”

Power dynamics can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, though, we humans easily get bored. Especially when we have Facebook messages and Twitter feeds to check, TVs to watch, careers to ascend and human problems to solve. “We don’t have time with each other anymore, in our [technologized] culture,” Bernstein said, let alone time with God. The strains on our fine romance are endless; Sukkot invites us to reconnect. 

“God wants us back,” Bernstein added, “and, for a week, we come back” — entering into the sukkah, which Bernstein described as “the honeymoon suite.”

“It’s the only mitzvah we do, except mikveh, that completely surrounds us.” 

It’s kind of hot. Outside, yes, of course, but also the idea that we’re meant to engage in this tradition of ushpizin — inviting guests into the sukkah. We create this romantic, intimate space beneath a wide, starry sky in which we can draw close to friends or even mysterious strangers. “Have we considered inviting a neighbor?” Bernstein asked with requisite rabbinic prodding. “Someone we don’t normally interact with? Someone we just met and are interested in getting to know?” 

The sukkah is a place for hunger, desire and need for a partnership that sustains us. But even as we saturate our senses with food and drink and music in fresh air, we face our insignificance. Dwarfed by the enormity of God’s creation, we are but transient beings in a temporary shelter. “The sukkah could be knocked over by a strong wind at any moment,” Bernstein warned. We can — and will — lose what we love. Pain is real. Time on earth is brief. 

And yet, despite living in a world on fire — where war and hunger and disease dominate the headlines — Sukkot demands from us z’man simchateinu, a season of joy. 

“How do we hold all of that?” Bernstein wondered, elucidating the tension between the atonement of Yom Kippur and the euphoria of Sukkot. “I think Sukkot is a call into not despairing,” she said. “Yom Kippur teaches that you have to actually get better at what you say you want to be about, and then, once we’re committed to that, we have to celebrate what is. We have to celebrate in the places that we can.” 

Gratitude is Sukkot’s response to a flawed and fractured world. It is evident in our spiritual leap from Yom Kippur, during which we acknowledge our own brokenness, to Sukkot, a celebration of beauty. “We need both,” Bernstein said. “We need Ashamnu, to beat our chests, because we haven’t done enough, we haven’t cared enough. And we need the commandment v’samachta v’chagecha — you shall rejoice on your festival.”

We need the erotic jolt of that tension to rouse ourselves from thanklessness and routine. It’s a spiritual protest against ennui. Besides, aren’t the most exciting relationships usually the complicated ones? The ones that push and propel us, drive us mad in the very best ways, and challenge us to grow? Apparently God wants that kind of passion, too. 

A little etymology promises a lot of suffering, but the magic of the sukkah is that it can hold everything: joy and grief, light and dark, abundance and wanting. It can hold us — imperfect, impermanent, insignificant beings — and God, glorious, sublime, greedy for our love.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this column mistakenly misstated Rabbi Amy Bernstein's first name. It is Amy, not Rachel.

From palm fronds to poppies: The Jews who brought them to L.A.

As we celebrate Sukkot with all its greenery and bounty, it’s also a good time to remember a couple of Jewish Johnny Appleseeds who added variety and color to the Los Angeles landscape. From the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, Eugene Germain, along with Manfred Meyberg, supplied the city with a wide range of plants that included poppies and roses, as well as the jacarandas and coral trees we still grow today.

In Southern California, palm fronds are commonly used as sukkah roofs. We buy them on street corners or at flower shops, get them from neighbors or even cut them from trees growing in our own yards.

In 1900, if you wanted to grow a palm tree, you could choose from 10 varieties of seed, including the still-popular Washingtonia — or California fan palm — ordered from the Germain Seed and Plant Co. store in downtown Los Angeles, or from their catalog.

Looking for something extra growing in your yard to beautify that sukkah? If you find a bird of paradise, then you have Manfred Meyberg (pronounced MY-berg) to thank. Meyberg started working at Germain’s as an office boy when he was 19 and eventually become the company’s president; he was such a promoter of the bird of paradise, he got it declared the City of Angels’ official flower in 1952.

Although the Germain company was bought out by an English company in 1990, it is still a significant name in agribusiness. Meyberg is commemorated by a waterfall at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Yet the two names, important to the development of the city’s horticulture, largely have been grown over by the tangle of time.

Fortunately, Harriet Ashby, a great-niece of Eugene Germain, has helped cut through the brush by researching her family roots and writing about them. “The family name originally was Bloch,” she said in an interview, saying it was changed by Nathan Germain, Eugene’s father.

Eugene Germain was born on Nov. 30, 1849, in Moudon, Switzerland, where he was educated in public schools and attended college at Lausanne, Ashby wrote in 1970 for Western States Jewish History. He first went to New York in 1868, then came to Los Angeles in 1870. He married Caroline Sievers in 1872, and together they had five children.

His first L.A. business was a restaurant; then he opened a grocery and poultry store in 1874, at 128 N. Main St., from which he began to package and ship large quantities of fruit and other food items.

By 1884, his business had grown so large that he reorganized, and the Germain Fruit Co. was born. Key to the business was selling seeds, nursery stock and wines, and also running a fruit-packing plant in Santa Ana.

In 1889, the name was changed to the Germain Seed and Plant Co., with Eugene Germain remaining president until 1893.

Eugene Germain was also active in civic affairs. In 1883, he was elected president of the Los Angeles Board of Trade, a position he held for two years. He was appointed California’s representative to the Paris Centennial Exposition in 1889 by Gov. Robert Waterman. President Grover Cleveland appointed him United States Consul at Zurich, Switzerland, for a four-year term, from 1893 to 1897. Upon returning to L.A., he sold the wine portion of the business to his brother Edward and focused his own efforts on the seed and nursery areas.

A member of the Jonathan Club — originally a political club but later a social one — he was also a charter member of the California Club, both organizations that up until the late 1960s had very few Jewish members.

Beginning in 1885, the Germain Co. marketed its seeds through an annual catalog. By the 1900 edition, the company marked it progress by noting both that it had “recognized the possibilities of Southern California as a seed-growing section” and, as a result, was the “oldest and leading seed house south of San Francisco and west of the Missouri River,” operating the “most complete seed store in the west.” The store occupied 32,000 square feet on South Main Street in downtown L.A.

After Eugene Germain’s death in 1909, the company began to move in new directions. According to “The History of the Los Angeles Jews” by Max Vorspan and Lloyd P. Gartner, Germain’s widow, Caroline, along with son Marc, brought Manfred Meyberg, son of Jewish pioneer and businessman, Max Meyberg, into their business.

Meyberg quickly worked his way up the company trellis. By 1915, his photo, captioned as company “secretary,” appears on the staff page of the annual catalog — right next to that of M.L. (Marc) Germain, then the firm’s president.

Meyberg’s rise continued. Caroline Germain died in 1910, and an item in the Jan. 28, 1922, edition of the American Florist reported that “M. L. Germain has sold his interest in the Germain Seed Co. to Manfred Meyberg and Walter Schoenfeld.”

“The family story is that Marc had no business sense,” Ashby said.

Manfred Meyberg was born in 1886 in L.A. to Max and Emma Meyberg, the latter the daughter of pioneer banker Isaiah H. Hellman. As a boy he earned spending money by growing dahlias and other plants in his backyard and then selling bulbs to neighbors. He graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1904.

In 1915, he was one of the directors of the Concordia Club, a social club begun in 1891 in response to some Jews being excluded from downtown clubs.

As president of Germain, Meyberg expanded the company’s nurseries — one of which was located in Van Nuys on Victory Boulevard — developed All-America roses for California and became a master at promoting the business through floral displays.

Known as a booster of Los Angeles, he was one of the organizers of the Los Angeles Beautiful campaign in the 1950s, as well as chairman of the International Flower Show at Hollywood Park, which in 1952 had 125,000 spectators.

Sending All American roses named after Queen Elizabeth II, and created by Germain to Her Majesty, August 11, 1954 at Inglewood International Airport. From left to right: Manfred Meyberg, California Governor Goodwin Knight, Margaret Gillett and her husband Michael C. Gillett British Consul General. (Courtesy of Peggy Darling)

Flowers were serious business to Meyberg. “Show me a house without flowers and with a rundown lawn, and I’ll show you someone with no feeling for freedom and his country,” Meyberg told Monsanto Magazine in 1954.

According to Susan C. Eubank, librarian at the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, Meyberg also was a big supporter of the Arboretum, where he served as a trustee. She pointed out that the Meyberg waterfall — designed with a 20-foot drop and built with funds from the Meyberg family — was named after him. After his death in 1956, a eulogy was published in Lasca Leaves, the Arboretum’s magazine.

He also was active in the founding of the Southern California Horticultural Institute, which still exists.

As for the bird-of-paradise city-flower initiative, interviews with Meyberg’s nephew David H. Stern, 78, who lives in Jerusalem, and niece, Peggy Darling, 87, of Bakersfield both supported that, indeed, Meyberg was the political connection in the effort, but that his wife Elza (nee Stern, whose father was the Jewish pioneer and land developer Jacob Stern) really did the leg work.

Darling remembers Meyberg as a generous man who was always smoking a cigar. “He was very creative,” she said of his ability to dream up decorative tableaux to promote his business at flower shows, including a redwood forest for the International Flower Show in 1954.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Stern recalled.

Perhaps what captured the public’s eye most about the Meybergs was their home on Copa de Oro Road in Bel Air. “They planted the front yard with 5,000 tulips,” Stern said. The yard was even remarked upon by Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, who in a 1950 column described it as a “carpet of tulips and pansies.”

So many growing seasons later, Darling remains awed by her uncle’s knack for publicity. Referring to his front yard, she said it “was like an advertisement for his business.” 

Torah portion: Embracing impermanence during Sukkot

When I was visiting Albuquerque, N.M., a number of years ago, a friend brought me to visit the nearby Native American community to observe the annual corn dance. As we entered the space where this harvest ritual would be performed, I noticed that all of the participants began by stopping to pay their respects to a group of tribal elders who sat in a small hut constructed for the occasion. As the ceremonial dancers and musicians were greeted in that fragile space, the elders gave them blessings.

The hut reminded me of the sukkah, the temporary dwelling place in which Jews traditionally dwell for seven days each autumn, during the weeklong observance of our own harvest festival of Sukkot. Historically, these fragile huts commemorate the temporary shelters in which the Hebrew slaves camped during the 40 years in the desert as they journeyed from Egypt and slavery to the Land of Israel and its promise of freedom. 

Both the sukkah of the Native American elders and the sukkah that Jews decorate and enjoy during the fall season teach us more than a history lesson. These fragile dwellings have profound spiritual significance. Learning their lesson grants us the status of elder.

Another name for “Hag HaSukkot” (Holiday of the Temporary Dwellings) is “Z’man Simchateinu” (the Time of Our Joy). That this time of great vulnerability and exposure is also a time of joyous celebration is a profound paradox, perhaps the greatest of all spiritual teachings: Life is fragile; be happy. This logic can be hard to penetrate.

Kabbalists say that Sukkot, this time of joy and celebration, when the roofs of our dwellings are open to the heavens, is the time when God’s presence is most accessible. The fragile covering of the sukkah, woven with fronds and branches and decorated with hanging fruits and vegetables, is likened to a wedding canopy, a chuppah. It is said that it is under this chuppah of the sukkah that the Shekhinah, (God’s presence that dwells on Earth) and HaKadosh Baruch Hu, (The Holy One of Blessing, who dwells in the highest places) meet to celebrate their union. This is clearly a time of great joy and spiritual potency, despite the vulnerability of the temporary shelter.

Returning to the corn dance, in light of this paradox, reveals the significance of the Native American community members filing in to reverentially greet their elders and pay respect before assuming their role in the dance ritual. Just what is it that elders know that is worthy of respect? 

In Southern California, we reside in a world that more often than not worships youth and devalues old age. Harvesting the wisdom of our elders is not a priority. We cling to the belief that we can stop time with plastic surgery, Botox injections and other procedures. We believe that the blessings we receive will be ours forever; hardship is seen as an aberration rather than as an inevitable part of life. 

But the wisdom, which the Native Americans acknowledge as they approach their elders, is another face of the wisdom of Hag HaSukkot: Life is an ever-changing sukkah, with an open roof. Despite the fact of permanent impermanence, we must learn the dance of the seasons and do our best to find joy at every place we set up our tent. We must learn what singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen intones: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

As Sukkot teaches and elders know, all dwelling places are transitory. Whether we have settled in a physical house, an emotional state, an idea or an image of God, it is likely that it will change. Each of the places we dwell, whether in a physical, emotional or spiritual tent, is a temporary and fragile dwelling. It is to be embraced. Its teachings are to be harvested. And we must not hold on too tightly.

Sukkot teaches us to acknowledge the holiness of each of these residences, even as we recognize that change is inevitable. Perhaps this wisdom can give us courage to learn in each new experience, even in the most difficult of situations, because it is almost guaranteed that our visit is only temporary.

In the Book of Numbers, the local Midianite priest, Balaam, looked down to where the Hebrew tribes had set up their tents on the Plains of Moab. He uttered the line we sing as we gather in the synagogue for the morning service:

Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael. 

How good are your tents, Jacob, your Holy dwelling places, Israel (Numbers 24:5).

The phrase honors the change of Jacob’s name to Israel. It also commemorates the shift in the name of the dwelling places of his descendants from simple ohelim (tents) to mishkenot (Holy Places for God to dwell). It signifies Sukkot’s intention that we find what is holy in each of our resting places. 

May all of your sukkot be dwelling places for holiness, where you find happiness and embrace the dance of change.


Rabbi Anne Brener is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is professor of ritual and human development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. The author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights Publishing), she assists institutions in creating caring communities.

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.