How much is that etrog in the window?
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How much is that etrog in the window?

The highly specialized arba minim market flourishes in the fall

Last year, just under a million dollars worth of etrogim were imported to the United States from Israel, according to Panjiva.com, which tracks global trade.

This was roughly 46 percent of the annual imports of “kumquats, citrons, and bergamots,” the category used for customs reporting, and all were imported in September and October. A further 10 percent came from Morocco and Italy, whose etrogim are favored by Lubavitch chasidim. Most of the rest of these citrus imports were from Jamaica, and presumably were used for the fruit’s other use, as candied peel in fruit cakes.

In northern New Jersey, one of the largest sellers of etrogim is Judaica House in Teaneck. Not only does the store serve walk-in customers, it also distributes the fruits to area schools and synagogues.

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Reuven Nayowitz

The fruits and their accompanying plants – willows (aravot), myrtles (hadasim), and palm fronts (lulavim) – start to arrive even before Rosh Hashanah. Reuven Nayowitz, Judaica House’s owner, deals with two or three distributors, who import the fruit from Israel on behalf of orchard owners. For the next two weeks, book shelves and CD racks are moved aside and the store is filled with folding tables on which are laid out etrogim in their boxes, for inspection, alongside piles of branches.

“It’s always a space problem. We have to take delivery based on how much space we have” and take delivery of etrogim many times, “sometimes at two or three o’clock in the morning when necessary.

“The whole industry is very interesting, because it’s not your typical business of go to the market at six in the morning and sell what’s there,” Nayowitz continued. “There’s stuff being air freighted in regularly. As you get closer to the holiday, they fine tune the supply. Sometimes a day or two before the yom tov they’re bringing in new stock.

“This year is actually a particularly difficult year to deal with, because we don’t have many weekdays to work with. Most of our larger wholesale accounts will be distributing their merchandise on Thursday night” before Sukkot, which begins on Sunday night. Because Tuesday night is Kol Nidrei and Wednesday night is the break-fast, “We have to have the merchandise in stock and ready to go out the Sunday and Monday the week before. It creates problems, but we’ve been doing this for 35 years,” he said.

In that time, not much has changed in the distribution side of the business. “In many way, it’s still very disorganized,” he said.

“It seems like every year there’s some disruption in the supply line, whether of the lulavim, like last year,” when exports from Egypt were stopped by government authorities, “or hadasim that come in spoiled, or shipments that get held up by customs or the Department of Agriculture creating lots of havoc.

“Many etrogim are picked early, when they’re green. They spray a chemical that turns etrogim yellow faster. But I’ve seen years where they didn’t apply the chemical properly and they ended up rotting before the holiday. When you have a warehouse with 25,000 etrogim that rot, it gets to be a problem.”

Nayowitz offers several different grades of etrogim, with prices varying based on quality, size, and color. “They actually have government officials who grade the etrogim before they leave Israel,” he said.

Judaica House sells only Israeli etrogim. “I think Israel needs our support more,” he said.

The same distributors that provide etrogim also provide the lulavim, the palm branches. But the source is different.

“Historically, they came from Egypt,” Nayowitz said. “Egypt had the cheapest – and for the price, the best – on the market.”

However, last year, the post-Mubarak government refused to sell lulavim to Israel, a policy that reportedly has continued this year.

As a result, the lulav distributors “started to diversify and buy from other locations, like Mexico, Spain, Portugal and other Mediterranean countries – wherever they could get it out and get through customs and the Agriculture Department here.

“Last year there were clandestine purchases made in the middle of the night for cash, people were bought off, it had all the intrigue of a French detective novel.”

As for this year, “I couldn’t even tell you which ones I’ll be getting until I see them.”

The prices will probably be a little bit lower than last year, when there was a surcharge on most sets because of the lulav supply problems. Generally, sets are sold based on the price of the etrog, with the other species basically thrown in for free.

When Nayowitz first started in the business, hadasim – the myrtle branches – used to come from Arizona. Those from Israel “were expensive and in short supply.

“Today, they manage to grow them in abundance. They’re graded like etrogim are graded. They come blister-packed. And they naturally grow mishulash” – meaning three leaves emerge from the same spot in the branch. This is considered ideal.

Now, Nayowitz said, a market is emerging for better quality lulavim.

“An individual named Deri started growing his own lulavim,” he said. “His line of lulavim can run $35-$75.”

Nayowitz predicted that the popularity of lulavim that are carefully grown and graded, and then individually sealed and packaged, will increase, and competition in the high-end lulav market will bring prices down.

“There are people who will spend more time looking for a lulav than an etrog,” he said, noting that some rabbis have maintained that the halachic criteria for lulavim are stricter than for etrogim.

“I think eventually people will pay the extra price for a nice lulav they don’t have to examine,” he said.

As for the fourth species – the willows, or aravot – those he buys locally, from a grower near Warwick, New York.

Each year, there are more accessories to go along with a lulav and etrog. But Nayowitz isn’t impressed by the new “Hi-Tech Insulated Easy Carry Lulav Carrier” being offered this year, with its promise to keep the lulav fresh for the entire holiday.

“To put it in a bag that’s going to preserve it seems a little misguided,” he said.

“I once heard a very good talk from a rabbi who was equating the arba minim” – the four species – “to the four seasons. Just like the seasons deteriorate, the arba minim deteriorate. They’re not supposed to be fresh for eight days. It’s a living organism. That fact that the aravot are not so nice at the end of the season – that seems to be the way it was supposed to be.”

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