Trick or Treat – Halloween or Sukkot?

posted on Arutz Sheva

Trick or Treat – Halloween or Sukkot?

Only in America: A black church leader uses the Lulav and Etrog for services on Halloween. “It helps keep children off the streets.”

By Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu

First Publish: 10/31/2012, 9:20 PM



Yoni Kempinski

It may be kosher even if not Jewish, but an American black church choir leader uses the Jewish “Four Species” of Sukkot for church services because both holidays fall in the autumn and because it helps keep children off the streets.

The bizarre combination of the sacred Jewish symbols with the pagan holiday began in recent years when the woman, whose name is not being published, contacted Dr. David Wiseman, a research scientist who deals with etrogim, one of the “Four Species.”

He had been growing the citrus fruit in his back yard orchard, bringing the trees inside during the winter so the fruit would not be destroyed by frost. Dr. Wiseman entered the “lulav and etrog business” following a 2005 shortage of lulavim from Egypt, the major suppler for Israel, and he established his Zaide Reuven Esrog Farm, which actually is a virtual farm.

On principle, he did not want to import Egyptian-grown lulavim, which are the main source for Israel and elsewhere, and developed a source in California.

Dr. Wiseman, formerly of London and now living in Dallas, Texas, told Arutz Sheva that before he agreed to supply the religious items to the church, he received permission from rabbis after they decided there was no violation of Jewish principles by the use of the Four Species in church.

“I received the call from a lady from a black Pentecostal church in Newark, New Jersey, who said she was desperate for etrogim,” said Dr. Wiseman.

“I asked her why she wanted them, and she said it was for her church,” Dr. Wiseman relates. “I got a little nervous and asked what she would be doing with the etrogim. She replied that her church does not like Halloween because it so pagan, and instead of all the ‘trick or treat’ and costumes, she wanted to do something more biblical and make it a fall festival. They also wanted to keep the kids off the street and conduct Bible study.”

Dr. Wiseman said she figured that there was no better way to celebrate the fall festival than adopting customs from Sukkot, which is a time of the harvest after the summer and known in English as the Feast of Tabernacles.

Sukkot usually falls in mid-to-late September or early October. “Okay, so they were three weeks late,” laughs Dr. Wiseman. “Who’s counting?”

He said the church choir leader continues to call every year, and she ordered 20 sets of  the Four Species last year. The Four Species include the etrog and the lulav, part of the date tree, as well as “hadasim” and “avarot.”

He was able to come up with the supplies, although most of the Four Species had wilted to the point that they no longer were “kosher,” i.e. fit for use on Sukkot.

The church apparently is getting more involved with the Jewish holiday and studying Sukkot more seriously. Last year, one church actually built a sukkah inside the church, although during the actual holiday a sukkah is not considered “kosher” if placed inside a building under a roof.

The church members and children sang and danced while waving the palm branches.

One order from a Christian for the Four Species requested a strictly kosher set, including a certification that they were suitable according to the custom of the Torah sage Chazon Ish.

Dr. Wiseman also has used his expertise as a research scientist to write a scholarly book called “The Esrog,” which is a treatise but which also includes recipes and the laws of Sukkot.

Lulavim this year? Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm leads the lulav supply

Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm once again leads with the lulav supply.

Our decision last year to completely abandon the the use of Egyptian lulavim turned out to be a good. one.  We had plenty of beautiful lulavim without the panic shown by major suppliers who called us just before Rosh Hashana asking us to get for them 100,000 lulavim – because they realised that they were unlikely to get any lulavim from Egypt. Some did hit the streets of New York just after Yom Kippur but only after the some very colorful stories about what happened in Egypt as well as a hold up in US Customs in NY relieved only by the last hour intervention of congressmen. The price was $7 or $8 for a lulav that was not very good. I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.

Events in Egypt continue to worsen the prospects for Egyptian lulavim and suppliers seem to be worried.   When will people learn to stop looking for a metzia in Mitzraim instead of a yetzia from Mitzraim? Some of the supply will be alleviated by increased production in Israel as well as California. But there are no logistics on the ground in California, except perhaps for what we have set up.  Some people see this as a way to make a quick buck and are trying to broker all kinds of deals. But it is clear from the calls that we are getting that they have no clue about what kinds of lulavim will be cut, how they will be sorted, stored, packed or shipped and what the eventual quality will be.

So the wholesale price for a lulav could again reach $8. Will you be able to get one for $3? Perhaps, but by the time you have thrown out the ones that are no good because, simply put, no one knows what they are doing, this will cost you close the $8.

We, on the other hand have our supply, we have logistics and we know what it is we will be getting. If you are serious about investing in the establishment of a long term supply of quality lulavim and a logistical infrastructure, please contact us. We will also have a selection of lower grade Israeli Deri lulavim that will ceratinly exceed the quality of the Egyptian lulav.

Another interview about the lulav shortage

Published on The Jewish Week (

Home > Branching Out Beyond Egypt

Branching Out Beyond Egypt

Lulav merchant David Wiseman holding some rare domestic date palm branches. Courtesy of David Wiseman

New domestic, foreign suppliers of lulavim shaking up business, but prices still higher than last year.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Helen Chernikoff, Staff Writer

Ever since the government of Egypt announced a ban on the export of date palm branches, life in the Sukkot business has been high-stress for everyone — but not David Wiseman.

A British-born Orthodox Jew transplanted to Dallas, Wiseman sells Sukkot’s ritual bundles of flora and has developed a domestic source of palm fronds, better known as the lulav, a key element in the foliage shaken and waved during observance of the harvest holiday.

The Jewish world, now focused on reducing its reliance on Egyptian palm branches, is playing catch-up with Wiseman. While his colleagues were wringing their hands and paying a premium for product flown in from Spain, he was serenely supervising the cutting of his own stock.

“If anyone wants lulavim, they have to come to me,” he said. “There’s no genius involved in this. You have a critical component of an item that you sell. You have to make sure it’s coming from a place that you can rely on. It’s a simple supply issue.”

Typically, most of the palm fronds used worldwide during Sukkot hail from the Sinai, but in August, the Egyptian government prohibited their sale, citing danger to the trees. Egyptian growers willing to flout the ban hiked their prices, and the chain of merchants who move the branches from desert orchard to Judaica shop passed the increase along.

That’s why many sellers are raising prices on Sukkot sets of etrog, date branch, myrtle and willow by about $10 this year. It’s also why they’re now seeking suppliers who, like Wiseman, have cultivated alternative sources of date palm branches.

“It’s not fair to the merchant to have to swallow this whole huge nut and lose tens of thousands of dollars,” said Avi Fox, owner of Rosenblum’s World of Judaica in Skokie, Ill., who is raising prices on lulav-and-etrog sets by $10 to offset the higher cost of lulavs shipped by air from Israel and Spain.

Prices for the sets in the U.S. range from about $45 at the low end to more than $80 for the specimens judged sufficiently gorgeous to fulfill the obligation of “beautifying” the mitzvah, although cheaper sets can be found on the street in heavily Jewish neighborhoods like Kew Gardens Hills in Queens right before the holiday starts.

Called a lulav, the date palm branch is combined with myrtle and willow into a bundle, also called a lulav. The foliage, together with an etrog, or citron, is held and shaken while reciting certain prayers on Sukkot.

The problem of lulav supply is not a new one. Egypt forbade exports in 2005, causing a shortage, and the possibility and rumors of similar bans has loomed over the holiday since then. It was that episode that spurred Wiseman, whose business is named Zadie Reuven’s Esrog Farm after his grandfather, to start buying from a domestic date palm orchard. Wiseman’s operation started in 1995 as a backyard orchard from which he sold ornamental etrog plants, and it was inspired when his weekly Talmud class met in a sukkah, the temporary hut built during Sukkot, and decided on a whim to taste an etrog.

True to the business’ scholarly roots, Wiseman has written a 60-page treatise, “The Esrog,” under the nom de plume Zaide Reuven, covering everything from botany (Epidermis vs. Hypodermis) to recipes (Candied Esrog) to stories (The Esrogim that Cured the King) and, of course, reams of relevant laws. He will e-mail it to you for $12.

Now he works with a partner who owns an etrog orchard in California that produces thousands of citrons, Wiseman said, but he would not reveal how many sets he is selling this Sukkot.

After this year’s experience, Fox and other merchants say they will urge their suppliers to follow Wiseman out of Egypt for good, even if the non-Egyptian lulavim cost more. In fact, Fox would have saved significantly this year by buying from Wiseman, who charged $6 per lulav, more than the $4 price of a typical Egyptian lulav but much less than the $15 Fox said he paid.

“The good thing about this year is that it shows we don’t need [the Egyptian suppliers] anymore,” said Levi Zagelbaum, president of New York-based wholesaler The Esrog Headquarters, whose operation buys lulav-and-etrog set components from an Israeli firm whose name he would not reveal, then assembles them and sells them to synagogues, schools and retailers. Zagelbaum also declined to discuss the size of his business.

While Zagelbaum normally relies on Egyptian lulavim, this year, only 30 percent of his supply came from there. He procured the rest from Israel and Spain, and because he paid more to do so he will charge his customers higher prices this year.

“God willing, everyone knows there’s a problem, and they’re going to order from other sources,” Zagelbaum said.

Historically the cheapest component in a Sukkot set, the lulav became instead the driver of higher prices in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” protests. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak has complicated trade between Egypt and Israel. Since Mubarak’s ouster, for example, a pipeline carrying Egyptian gas to Israel has been attacked several times.

Yet in Israel, lulav prices have not gone up.

In a normal year, Israel would import about 450,000 lulavim from Egypt and grow about 200,000, Meir Mizrahi, head of plant quarantine services at the Ministry of Agriculture, told The Jewish Week. At the urging of the government, Israeli growers filled in the gap left by Egypt this year.

Also, Jordan has supplied a record number of 150,000 lulavim because Israeli merchants wary of an Egypt-related shortage took the time to teach Jordanian date palm growers how to cut the branches, Mizrahi said.

“We were initially concerned, but it turns out there was no shortage,” said Binyamin Levine as he did a brisk business at a Four Species market opposite the Mahane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem.

American merchants say they’ll meet demand as well. But prices are inspiring sticker shock because they reflect air versus ocean shipping, the higher cost of labor in Spain and Israel, and the reduced Egyptian supply, which at about 200,000 was less than half what the United States normally imports.

“By and large people have been very understanding, but there are always people who will complain,” Fox said. “They will be told they owe us an additional $10 and they’re going to go nuts. It’s not going to be fun, but that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Fox claims that with sufficient planning, the American Jewish market can liberate itself from the unpredictable Egyptian lulav trade. But it might not be that easy, points out Shlomo Perelman, who owns His supplier, Schwartz Esrog Center, “fought for him” this year and secured him an adequate supply of Israeli lulavim. But he can’t control their business decisions, he said.

Wiseman wants the industry to know that he might be on the verge of discovering a second source, this time in Florida, which he is going to inspect after the holiday. He can see a day when he’ll be able to satisfy the domestic lulav demand himself.

But Egypt’s bounty, as ever, beckons, said Chaim Pauli, who owns Elli-chai’s One Stop Judaica Shop in Silver Spring, Md., and is absorbing the higher costs rather than raise his prices this year.

“Until everybody agrees, it’s not going to happen,” said Pauli. “Next year the Egyptians will get smart, they’ll flood the market with a half-million lulavim.”

With reporting from Israel by Michele Chabin and Amy Spiro.

Copyright 2010 The Jewish Week

Source URL (retrieved on 10/12/201113:38):

Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm quoted in article on lulav shortage

Shaken Up

Egypt’s politically expedient ban on the export of palm fronds has altered the lulav market in unexpected ways

By Allison Hoffman|October 12, 2011 7:00 AM

In August, a few days after Israeli forces mistakenly killed [1] six Egyptian police and military personnel during a counter-terror operation in the Sinai, Cairo announced that it would ban the harvest and export of palm fronds and hearts—effective immediately. Egypt’s agriculture minister, Salah Youssef, said the move came out of concern for the country’s date palms, which have been afflicted by a parasitic weevil. But the timing was more than a little conspicuous: He was hailed [2] for defying another longstanding policy of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that was perceived to favor Israeli interests over domestic ones.

Palm fronds are like Douglas firs: crops that have value only when marketed to a particular group of people at a particular time of year. Known as lulavs, palm fronds are as important to observant Jews during Sukkot, which begins tonight at sunset, as Christmas trees are to Christians in December. The tightly furled spears of immature fronds are one of the four species traditionally shaken during the holiday, a mimic of ancient rituals performed by priests in the Temple.

Egypt, as it happens, is the largest supplier of lulavs in the world, shipping as many as 700,000 fronds to Israel and about as many to the United States and Europe every fall. So, the threat of a potentially holiday-wrecking shortfall sent distributors—and politicians—into a frenzy. “Let my lulavs go!” exclaimed a press release sent [3] out by Rep. Howard Berman, a Los Angeles Democrat, who is facing a tight re-election battle in a newly drawn—and heavily Jewish—district.

This isn’t the first time Sukkot observers have had to cope with lulav drama. The last big scare was in 2005, when Egyptian authorities curtailed palm-frond exports over concerns for the country’s date crop. The result was a run [4] on lulavs in New York’s Orthodox precincts, where prices for the lowest-end fronds shot up from $2 to $10. (And that was after Egypt agreed to release about 450,000 fronds to Israel and another 100,000 to the United States, once aggressive lobbying from Jewish officials prompted the State Department to get involved [5].) But earlier panics featured villains closer to home: In 1999, Israeli authorities filed a complaint against an Arab-Jewish cartel suspected of cornering [6] the market on Egyptian output, driving the price up. In 1986, American Jews were stymied by U.S. regulators who impounded [7] a crucial 90,000-frond shipment from Tunisia, leaving them to rot in a warehouse for want of a proper certificate of origin.

This year’s episode has struck many as evidence of a structural problem in the lulav market that can’t be ignored any longer. “Why would anyone rely on a single source of anything?” asked David Wiseman, a Dallas-based distributor of Sukkot sets known as arba minim, which include an etrog, or citron, and myrtle and willow branches alongside palm fronds. “It’s crazy.”

The trouble for buyers like Wiseman is figuring out where else to go. Egypt is the world’s leading producer of dates, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan—all unlikely suppliers of lulavs for anyone looking to diversify. Israel ranks No. 17, producing a mere 22,000 metric tons to Egypt’s 1.3 million. Jordan, which helps boost Israel’s supply, doesn’t even rate in the top 20, according to the most recent U.N. statistics [8]. Kosher lulavs, which must be straight and have unsplit green leaves, can only be obtained from particular varieties of palms that, today, are under relatively limited cultivation. And American demand, by all accounts, is steadily rising, from an estimated 270,000 fronds in the mid-1980s to at least 500,000 today. “The market has exploded,” said Yitzchok Summers, the rabbi at Anshe Emes, an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. “When I was growing up here, there were a couple of places you went to get your lulav and etrog, but last year when you went down Pico Boulevard there were kids sitting outside the Judaica stores who would do drive-up service.”

Israeli officials announced last week that they expected to satisfy domestic demand for about 650,000 lulavs, in part thanks to new preservatives [9] that allow for a longer harvest window in Israeli date groves. Jordan provided a buffer shipment of about 110,000 palm fronds—including, traders told Ha’aretz, some contraband [10] Egyptian lulavs. Special import licenses were also granted to Spanish growers, though Hamas nixed efforts [11] to open up imports of 50,000 fronds from Gaza.

But everyone seems to agree that Israel’s patchwork solution has strained global supply—leaving American Jews to figure out their own plan for replacing the high-quality, low-price lulavs from the Sinai. The obvious solution, according to Summers and Wiseman, is to buy domestic— specifically, from California and Arizona, the top two date-producing states. Late last week, Wiseman said he was still waiting on a cut of the Egyptian supply, but he’s posted a notice on his website announcing that he is only selling California lulavs this year and for the foreseeable future. “As far as we know,” the announcement read, “we are the first major dealer to make this decision, and we have received the overwhelming support of our customers.”

The majority of dates produced in the United States are deglet noor or medjool, whose fronds tend to be too weak to meet halakhic standards. But Wiseman estimates there are enough trees of sturdier varieties in California—including the dayri palm, whose tight fronds command premium prices—to produce as many as 40,000 lulavs each year. “I got California ones last year because I wanted to wean people off Egyptian lulavs,” Wiseman told me. “But there is no infrastructure. The trees can produce, but you need a system of cutting them, packing them, sorting them, and distributing them.”

Calls to growers in the Coachella Valley, in the desert east of Los Angeles, suggested the first hurdle is actually explaining to growers what a lulav is. (“Are you sure? Palm fronds are really big,” said a woman who answered the phone at Brown Date Garden, when she heard about the ritual lulav-shaking.) Even among those who know about Sukkot, there is hesitation about getting into the lulav business. “We’ve been approached in the past and have never engaged,” said Albert Keck, the president of Hadley Farms, one of the best-known growers in Southern California. “I cringe at cutting off the central terminal of a young palm.”

That hasn’t stopped smaller growers from getting into the market. Arthur Futterman, a small grower in Indio, Calif., who was raised in a Reform Jewish household but is now an evangelical Christian, has worked [12] for the past six years with dealers from the anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidic community, which does not buy Israeli products. “At first I was helping them locate farmers around the desert who had dayris and helping them do their packing and shipping,” Futterman explained this week. It was slow work: Each grower who agreed to participate had fewer than a dozen of the high-end dayri palms. Futterman said most growers limit cuttings to four fronds per tree. “It’s like cutting your fingernail to the quick,” he said. “You can do it a little, but not too much.”

Now Futterman has leased several acres to brothers Shulem and Schmiel Ekstein, Satmar dealers who have planted several dozen dayri palms exclusively for Sukkot. Those trees, however, won’t mature for several years. In the meantime, Futterman said, there is an opportunity for people with less exacting interpretations of halakha. “The minutiae the Eksteins want are not present in most varieties—they will look at the last little leaf to make sure it’s sealed closed,” Futterman said. “But in my mind, you can take any center frond that’s not opened up, like a rosebud.” And, he went on, “if that’s your understanding of closed, then there are thousands here.”

Which is how Rabbi Summers of Anshe Emes has managed to satisfy his congregation’s needs this year. “I work through someone who said there was a big problem because of Egypt, but he was able to secure lulavim from Palm Springs,” Summers said last week. Still, Summers had a Plan B: “I have two date palms in front of my house, and you can see the lulav in the middle. It’s kind of high up, but I was thinking, this year, if I’m really stuck, I can always just get a ladder.”

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