Branching out

Local farmers are changing the way they grow palm fronds, but will chemically treated lulavim hold up?

Four Species Succot 370 (photo credit: Havakuk Levison/Reuters)
Four Species Succot 370
(photo credit: Havakuk Levison/Reuters)
You see them springing up on street corners from Eilat to Metulla in the weeks preceding the Succot holiday: Arba Minim stands selling the four species – namely lulavim (palm branches), etrogim (citrons), hadassim (myrtle sprigs) and aravot (willow sprigs) – waved together during the holiday prayers by observant Jews since biblical times.
Barkers yell “Mehudar, mehudar” – a word indicating the high quality of their products – at potential customers as they pass by. Small children run tables full of tinsel and decoration for the succa itself and old graybeards in long coats and fur hats examine the species under jewelers’ loupes for imperfections that would disqualify them for ritual use.
The phenomenon lasts for only several days and the market window for growers and importers of the species is small. In the minutes before sunset and the commencement of the festival, as the sellers fold up their tables and box their wares, one can find a lulav that may have sold several hours before for tens of dollars for as little as a shekel. While the etrog is primarily grown in Israel, and is in fact exported internationally, the lulav has traditionally been sourced from Sinai’s El-Arish area.
Click for more JPost High Holy Day featuresClick for more JPost High Holy Day features
However, over the past several years, the market share of locally grown lulavim has increased and this year, the palm growers of the Beit She’an Valley have sensed an opportunity to step in and bring local production to the forefront, especially in light of recent developments in Egypt.
Since the fall of its longtime president Hosni Mubarak last year, Egypt has been in a state of messy transition, nowhere more so than in the Sinai Peninsula. While Egypt actively banned lulav exports last year, this year the barrier is not the government but rather the residents of Sinai.
The peninsula currently exists in a state of anarchy. Marauding Beduin tribes, some with connections to various Salafi terrorist networks, are openly defying Egyptian state power in the absence of authority engendered by the Egyptian revolution. While Egypt has begun sending in troops to quell the disturbances, which have also interrupted Israeli gas imports, the new crackdown is too late for this year’s lulav trade.
A spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry told The Jerusalem Post last week that the negotiations between Jerusalem and Cairo, currently experiencing a tense period diplomatically, were not “particularly strenuous” because of the increasing production of palm branches over the past few years and especially since the ministry encouraged local growers to ramp up production in response to last year’s Egyptian export ban.
The half-hearted efforts at negotiations were part of a “communications breakdown,” the JTA reported, “between the various departments across the border.” While the IDF allowed imports of palm fronds from Gaza last year to ease the shortage, a spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told the Post that there has not yet been a decision on opening up the blockade on the coastal strip to allow for the lulav trade this year.
Over the past several years, agricultural scientists at the Volcani Institute, Israel’s agricultural research organization under the aegis of the ministry, have been working on ways to make lulav production cheaper in Israel where there are greater labor costs than in the Sinai.
Dr. David Kenigsbuch is a researcher at the Volcani Institute and an expert on the preservation of foodstuffs post-harvest. Three years ago, initially at the behest of the ministry, Kenigsbuch and his colleague Nehemia Aharoni developed a technique for preserving the short-lived lulav for up to six months.
The challenge facing local growers is that lulavim must be harvested close to the holiday, thus precluding a biannual harvest.
Kenigsbuch and Aharoni’s research was subsequently continued under a further grant from a consortium of local growers. Despite the financial support for their research however, their new technique, consisting of coating the lulavim in a proprietary chemical bath and packing it in special packaging, did not take off initially.
The problem, Kenigsbuch said, is that “today the growers spent very little to grow the lulavim. Some grow deri, which is a mehadrin [extra fine] type and they make enough per lulav that they use the technology to save them, but the others only get a few shekels per lulav, so right now I am not sure if it is worth it for them.”
However, he had noted previously, the technique could become viable for mass adoption and enough lulavim could be grown in Israel to obviate the necessity of imports, should Israel face another year without Egyptian lulavim.
This is precisely the situation as it stands this year and Avner Rotem, a grower from Kibbutz Tirat Zvi near Beit She’an, says that this year there has been a mass adoption of Kenigsbuch and Aharoni’s technology.
While last year there were media reports that some ultra-Orthodox rabbis considered the chemical treatment to be “un-kosher,” there is “not such a controversy per se; it is only a small minority that is against the technique who saw one of the substances that we are using and showed it to rabbis in a way in which they misrepresented how it was used, not in the way that we use it, and there is a small faction in Mea She’arim that don’t want it,” Kenigsbuch noted.
This technique, says Rotem, will allow the prices of lulavim to be competitive with those brought in from Egypt. While he did say that there would be a price increase on the wholesale side, it should not, he claimed, cause financial hardship of a significant price rise of the retail market.
A Sinai palm frond, he said, sells wholesale for around NIS 1, while an Israeli frond, which is generally larger and of better quality, sells for NIS 9 or NIS 10.
Since the Orthodox population generally prefers Israeli lulavim for their higher quality, it is unlikely that the price increase affected them. Likewise, according to Rotem, those who bought early managed to obtain decent prices, as the gouging most likely only really came into effect between Yom Kippur and Succot, when the demand was at its highest.
Those most likely have paid more are secular or traditional Jews buying during the period of peak demand. However, it is unlikely that lulavim will be priced out of reach of most Israelis, as the increase in wholesale price per unit is less than $3.
Both Rotem and local retailers in Jerusalem denied that there would be any shortage this year either, citing a ramping up of production by local growers to meet demand.
The new chemical processes, Rotem noted, allows for the harvest to begin months prior to the holiday, which accounts for local farmers’ ability to provide sufficient fronds in the time required. Were he not able to utilize this technique and store fronds long-term, he said, there would most likely be a significant shortfall in production.
In a statement, the Agriculture Ministry quantified Rotem’s claims, stating that some 600,000 fronds would be produced in Israel this year.
The intersection of global geopolitics, commerce and technology in Israel can affect even the most mundane aspects of religious observance, a fact never more readily apparent than during the days leading up to Succot.
Nevertheless, though the methods may change, some things stay the same – like the seasonal “Mehudar” criers and the spontaneous outcroppings of street-corner Arba Minim stands.