July 15, 2019

The Magic of Sukkot

Symbols of jewish fall festival of Sukkot, lulav - etrog, palm branch, myrtle and willow - on old wooden background.

As a child, I always wanted a sukkah. My family lived in a small, rent-controlled apartment in West Hollywood. The space had its drawbacks for our family of five, but all year long, the walls of our small dining area somehow expanded to accommodate a seemingly unlimited number of guests for Shabbat and holiday meals. In our tiny kitchen, my mother cooked an array of Sephardic foods adorned with the artistic grandeur and culinary magic she brought from Algeria. There was only one holiday when physical limitations hindered us from celebrating our Jewish tradition in grand style: Sukkot.

We had no backyard or common area, and our single, tiny balcony could fit only a few chairs. So my family never was able to build its own sukkah.

Knowing how much I longed for my own sukkah, my mother would decorate the walls of our dining area with beautiful fabrics and the sukkah decorations I made at my Jewish day school. She suspended fruits from the small chandelier above our table, and — for the complete effect — affixed leaves to the low ceiling.

It may not have been a “real” sukkah, but it was the best we could do with the space we had. It was beautiful, it was meaningful and it was ours.

Still, I dreamed of having a sukkah of my own. Every year, I joined friends in the Bnei Akiva youth group to deliver palm fronds to Jewish homes all over Los Angeles. Along the way, I looked longingly at the variety of structures going up in people’s yards and driveways. 

One of my annual highlights was when one of our school rabbis would invite a group of us to a meal in his family’s sukkah. For my friends, those meals were breaks from their family sukkahs. For me, though, they were cherished opportunities. Some of my fondest memories are of those meals — singing, dancing and studying Torah with friends under the palm leaves.

I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to have a sukkah that blended the warmth my mother created in our dining room sukkah with the magical aura I felt in my rabbi’s sukkah.

That day finally came in 1993, when, after several years away from Los Angeles, I returned to become rabbi of a synagogue in Westwood, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. My wife, Peni, and I moved into a condominium building nearby. We didn’t have a backyard, but the common space was large enough to accommodate a sukkah.

As the holidays approached, I told Peni I would visit one of the Jewish stores to purchase a pre-fab sukkah.

She would have none of that. Peni grew up in a Modern Orthodox family in Brookline, Mass. Her father, a physicist whose own father ran a hardware store, built a sukkah every year on the family’s outdoor deck with a wood frame and yellow fiberglass sides. That lasted until Peni was in high school in 1985, the year Hurricane Gloria struck New England two days before Sukkot. As the family watched through the kitchen window, a gale lifted the entire sukkah off the deck and it crashed into the backyard, shattering into pieces.

With that formative experience in mind, Peni set to work, determined to build a sturdy sukkah (ignoring the fact that hurricanes don’t usually strike L.A.). She phoned her father for advice, then visited Anawalt Lumber to gather the materials: wood planks, screws and all the hardware. She proceeded to design, craft and build the most beautiful wooden sukkah I had ever seen.

I wasn’t blessed with my wife’s design or handiwork skills, so I was of little help. My only role in building this sukkah was to provide the schach — the palm fronds that form the sukkah’s rooftop. “After all these years, you can finally build your own sukkah,” my mother said, laughing, “and all you’re doing is putting palm fronds on top? Really?”

Feeling totally inadequate, I set out to find the best available schach. If this was going to be my one limited role in my first-ever sukkah, I was going to make this the most awesome roof that a sukkah had ever seen. But before I did that, I decided to study all of the halachah (Jewish law) relating to schach.

While Peni was sawing wood and crafting the walls, I sat at my desk with a host of rabbinic commentaries on schach. As I studied, I discovered that while my role was less creative and physically demanding than Peni’s, it was no less meaningful.

The Talmud tells of the “great sukkah debate,” a disagreement about the meaning of the Torah verse in which God says, “I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). According to Rabbi Akiva, the text is referring to actual sukkahs, physical structures. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. He says the sukkahs weren’t actual structures — the “sukkot” were God’s protective clouds of glory, which hovered above the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the wilderness.

While Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation describes the sukkah as a complete structure with walls — an opinion with which Peni would concur — Rabbi Eliezer’s view depicts the entire sukkah as a protective rooftop. In other words, the schach is the sukkah. So, according to Rabbi Eliezer, by acquiring and adding the roof, I would be the one actually building the sukkah. (Try explaining that to my wife, who was outside in protective goggles, sawing and drilling wood.)

I set out to acquire schach, keeping in mind the Mishnah’s rule that the roof material can be anything “not susceptible to ritual impurity and that grows from the soil.” Instead of calling Bnei Akiva, I drove my compact Datsun to a nearby park and gathered the 15 most attractive palm fronds I could find. I somehow fit them into the car — the “magic” of Sukkot, I guess.

Arriving home full of joy and excitement, I climbed a ladder and placed the greenery atop the beautiful walls Peni had created. The two of us stood and admired the gorgeous sukkah we had constructed together, blending the spirit of both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer.

At last, I had my sukkah. What remained was for us to re-create the beautiful aura I remember from my Sephardic home’s dining-area sukkah, my rabbi’s spiritual teachings in his sukkah and from Peni’s cherished family memories. 

One of the texts I remembered learning in my childhood rabbi’s sukkah described the custom of the 16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero to refrain from idle chatter and mundane conversation while sitting underneath the schach. Cordovero’s custom was rooted in Rabbi Eliezer’s view, that the schach represents God’s protective clouds. Because we are directly underneath them, he taught, we should engage in positive and spiritual exchanges. Cordovero turned his sukkah into a beit midrash, a house of Torah study, where the discussions around the table were matters of the intellect and the spirit.

Peni and I were eager to bring that spirit into our first sukkah. That first week was magical. We invited my parents and siblings, congregants, friends, colleagues and neighbors. One guest, an architect, marveled at the quality of the structure. “You have great talent with design and building,” he said to me.

I laughed and directed him to my wife. “All I did was put the branches on top,” I said.

Surrounded by loved ones, we stayed up late into each night of Sukkot that year, singing, eating, drinking and celebrating this unique tradition.

The sukkah is a Jewish space like no other. For seven special days, it can become our refuge from the negative politics and controversies of the outside world. By limiting our speech under the schach to Torah, literature, poetry, music, art and science, we can make it a “house of Divine wisdom.” Cordovero’s custom can empower us to turn our sukkot into libraries of the soul and sanctuaries of the spirit.

Not to mention ideas. The Israeli author S.Y. Agnon, a personal favorite, once described himself as “one who sits and writes stories in a small sukkah.” It may have been small, but it inspired such great stories and novels that in 1966, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, making him Israel’s first Nobel laureate. If the sukkah worked for Agnon, maybe it could work for the rest of us.

The theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as a “palace in time.” The sukkah can serve as a palace of big ideas with the schach — God’s protective clouds — not only hovering above our heads but penetrating our minds and souls.

Over 24 years, Peni and I have hosted hundreds of guests in our sukkah. Besides creating the structure of the sukkah, Peni, who comes from an Ashkenazic family, learned to masterfully re-create the Sephardic dishes from my mother’s kitchen. From her own childhood come her bubbe’s rolled cabbage and homemade gefilte fish and the traditional Ashkenazic zemirot (religious songs), which we love to sing. Together, we have worked to create a sukkah table that, in a sense, represents Jewish unity.

That sense isn’t limited to food and songs. We are committed to making our sukkah a place where Jews of all backgrounds feel welcome and comfortable. Under the palm fronds and within the walls, we have heard and shared stories in French, tunes in Ladino, prayers in Arabic, recipes in Farsi, poems in Spanish, and Israeli songs. Our children have hosted sukkah sleepovers, and our sukkah walls have embraced passionate discussions over Israel and other emotional issues, all in the spirit of celebrating unity within our community’s diversity.     

That seems fitting for Sukkot, the one holiday for which the Torah invites Jews of various backgrounds to bond as one and sit together: “You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in sukkot.” (Leviticus 23:42) Based on that verse, the Talmud envisions a grand Jewish gathering: “This teaches that all Israel are able to sit in one sukkah.”

By inviting all Jews to sit in one sukkah and enjoy God’s shelter from the same schach above our heads, Sukkot asks us all — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Chassidic, Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, Israeli and Diaspora Jews — to celebrate our differences together, at least for a week.

Our celebration at home often includes non-Jews, as well. Many of them have marveled at the unique beauty of the experience. “If this is the way the Israelites lived in the desert,” one told me, “they should have stayed there!”

Amid all of its festivities, Sukkot presents an irony. In our prayers, we refer to the holiday as Z’man Simchateinu, “our season of joy.” One would think that joy would include indulging in all of the physical comforts in life. Yet on Sukkot, we are commanded to celebrate by leaving the comfort of our homes.

Raising our children in Los Angeles, Peni and I have worked hard to teach our kids that life isn’t all about your ZIP code or the year and make of your car. Sukkot, when we find joy while living outside, beneath palm leaves, has helped us convey that message to them.

More than once, we have hosted children who live in homes so large that they could have sukkahs bigger than the entire apartment I grew up in. These families don’t build sukkahs, but when their children come to ours, they seem as captivated as I was all those years ago in my school rabbi’s sukkah.

Think of how we spend money on electronics — phones, tablets, laptops — and just a few months later, the new model comes out, and the one we have isn’t good enough anymore, and we convince ourselves that we must upgrade. Sukkot challenges us to think differently. It reminds us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment and much more.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer agreed that when the Jews wandered in the wilderness, a sukkah protected them.

My own Sukkot journey has taken me from the decorated walls of my little dining room to the schach I placed atop the beautiful walls built by Peni. Throughout, one common thread has remained: The real magic of Sukkot lies not in what you build, but how you live within it. 

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem and executive offices in Los Angeles. He also is an instructor of Talmud at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

Why some Jews are paying $500 for an Italian etrog

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

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. (Esrogim.info)

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.

Boycott or buy Israeli etrogim during shmita year?

At a citrus farm near Rehovot in Israel, a fifth-generation etrog grower is upset about a boycott, of sorts, of Israeli goods. He’s not referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to boycott any and all Israeli products. This “boycott” is one practiced by his Jewish brethren who are avoiding purchasing Israeli-grown etrogim — the citron fruit used throughout the Sukkot holiday — due to the strict religious restrictions on harvesting in a shmita year.

According to biblical mandate, Jews in Israel must give their farmland a rest every seventh year — the sabbatical year. That means no planting, no plowing and no growing. The fields that lie fallow are considered hefker (ownerless), and those in need can partake of whatever bounty survives. In the State of Israel, shmita has posed a challenge for farmers who cannot afford to stop their agricultural work for an entire year. Leading poskim (arbitrators of Jewish law) such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef have sanctioned legal workarounds, including the creation of otzar beit din, in which a rabbinical court acts as steward of the land, essentially rendering it community property while compensating the owner for labor costs because farmers cannot technically profit from the sale of shmita produce. But not all Jews follow that practice, making every seven-year cycle more challenging to farmers like this one, who asked that, out of religious sensitivity, his name not be used.

From the appearance of the farmer’s bustling warehouse, it’s difficult to tell that times are harder this year. Stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with etrogim deemed kosher by onsite inspectors are rolling out of the warehouse for eventual shipment to the United States, Israel, Australia and Europe. Thai and religious Zionist employees work side by side wrapping and boxing the etrogim. In non-shmita years, he said, he uses a much larger warehouse. Because of shmita, he’ll sell only about 20 percent of his usual output.

“They’re buying less from abroad,” said the farmer, one of about two dozen Israeli farmers who grow etrogs. “They used to buy more.”

On his fields, seven out of eight etrog orchards are “resting” beneath their tarp, growing wild. Only one has been designated as the otzar beit din orchard, and it’s from these trees that etrogim are picked, cleaned, inspected and, eventually, sent for import. 

Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist, Conservative and Reform Jews generally continue to buy Israeli etrogim during a shmita year, but ultra-Orthodox circles often choose to buy etrogim grown outside Israel, particularly from Morocco, which has capitalized on shmita to expand its market. According to statistics from Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, some 350,000 etrogim are exported annually, the majority to the United States. During the shmita year, which ends this month, sales could drop by as much as 50 percent. Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture has strict regulations on what produce can be imported into Israel for consumption during shmita, leaving Israeli Jews little choice but to buy locally.


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. 

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.

Bnei Menashe in India get Sukkot’s four species

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

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

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

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

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

How to build a Sukkah [VIDEO]