December 16, 2018

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.