Special delivery from Italy

Every year the orchards of Calabria produce a rare crop of etrogim.

calabrians88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Sunshine comes through the windows of our Calabrian flat at five in the morning. Mustering our strength, we get out of bed to pray. During this time, shortly before Rosh Hashana, it is customary to blow the shofar after morning prayer services. This blast is one of the things it is my job to explain to our neighbors, whose curiosity it arouses, even as it rouses them out of their beds. We eat breakfast and go downstairs to meet the Italian workers who drive us to work in their dusty Fiats. Our cars twist in and out of traffic on the narrow roads, as wild Italian drivers enjoy doing. We go up and down hills, past the ruins of a roofless medieval castle that was once the center of a small town. Archeologists found what appears to be the foundation of a synagogue that Jews built in the shadow of that castle centuries ago when this part of southern Italy had a thriving Jewish community. We leave the asphalt and enter an unpaved road, bumping through the dirt next to a babbling brook. We reach the field, a place where we have already worked several times during recent weeks. The farmer who owns it is here to greet us, as are his noisy, tail-wagging dogs, excited to see so many people in the territory they normally guard in solitude. We walk among the orchards, our clothes brushing against the trees, past a little shed to a space covered by an awning. In its shade we set up our work table and open our folding chairs. On the table we spread a layer of foamy plastic, over which we place a green blanket, for we work with fruit that bruises easily. We fill a bucket with water from the spigot (taps) next to the shed. In this bucket we will moisten our sponges to clean the fruit. The last step is to turn on tape-recorders playing raucous hassidic music which helps to wake us all up. As we set up, the Italian workers disappear into the orchards that begin a few meters from us. These orchards grow etrogim, the fruit the Book of Leviticus commands Jews to bless and enjoy during the festival of Succot. Our job is to sort, pack and ship etrogim from Italy to places all over the world. THE ETROG is an unusual fruit. It does not grow everywhere and the Jewish tradition has very specific requirements for its use on this holiday. We have much to do. The Italians bring us baskets of etrogim. Those who work with us know much about a demanding form of harvest. They learned their skills from their fathers and grandfathers, who picked etrogim for the father and the grandfather of the man for whom I work here. Those who work in the orchard fall into two groups. The first slide on their backs beneath the low-lying etrog trees, clipping off the fruit with heavy cutters. These young men wear thick clothes and gloves to protect themselves from the thorns with which etrog trees naturally defend themselves. The trees themselves do not grow high, but their branches go off in several directions like vines. Wooden frames hold these vines about one meter off the ground, so that those who crawl beneath them have enough space to reach up and cut. Others, younger and less experienced, often high school students working here in a summer job, carry boxes lined with soft plastic in which they place the etrogim that the cutters hand up to them. As they fill their boxes, the box-carriers bring their boxes to us at the table. As the first box arrives, we form an assembly line. I am the first in this line. My job is to take each etrog out of its basket and sponge away any dirt clinging to it, as well as wiping away white spots that insect-killing chemicals leave on the fruit. Jewish law commands that an etrog used for religious purposes be without blemish. The white spots are always insecticide. They come off easily. Black spots might be either bits of dirt or tiny cuts in the skin of the etrog. If I see that the spot is not disappearing, I throw the fruit into a barrel of etrogim that Jews cannot use. I delicately line the faultless etrogim up on our blanket, taking care that they do not touch each other, because if they bump into each other even softly, they will likely develop a bruise that we do not see, but which will make the fruit unusable later. The mashgiah examines each etrog; his examination is much more thorough than my preliminary check. There are mashgihim for meat, wine and everything that must be kosher, but whose final user cannot himself examine during the stages of its production when something might make it unkosher. The mashgiah's job is the uncompromising, time-burning nuisance in our assembly line. We watch him peer through his diamond-dealer's loop as he picks over the etrog's skin with his other tool, a thorn from one of the etrog trees. I sometimes move from the beginning of our assembly line to its end to pack etrogim in little plastic bags that the Italian workers prepare in great numbers. They make these sacks by hand, folding and sealing bubble-plastic, and then cutting off a little hole at one of the corners to let in some air. Each etrog goes into its sack after I wrap it in a paper towel. THE HASSIDIM for whom I work rent the fields in which the etrog trees grow. The farmers who own these fields are responsible for taking care of them during the year. My employer has had a contractual relationship with a local man for 30 years whose job it is to keep an eye on the several fields we use. Their fathers worked together before them. Politicking goes on among the various farmers, the man we employ to watch over the situation during the winter and other farmers who work with other hassidim. These fields are small farms by American standards. Unlike American farms that are spread far across the open countryside with the family living in an isolated farmhouse, Calabrian farmers live in villages from whence they set forth to work their nearby farms. Italians are strong on "campanelismo," that feeling of local patriotism for their own village in which their ancestors have lived for centuries. Campanelismo derives from the word for the bell-tower of the local church. It implies that people should not live further than their ears can hear the music of the bell-tower of the church where they and their ancestors were baptized. There are many things to do during the winter, or the so-called off-season. The etrog orchards must be planted and replanted; some trees die. One thing the farmers absolutely cannot do is to graft an etrog sapling onto the trunk of another kind of fruit tree, but fruit from a grafted tree is not kosher. When a mashgiah sees a field for the first time, he checks for grafted trees. Grafting (murkav), is immediately visible because of the elbow-like knot where the two trees meet. Once, about 20 years ago, a farmer tried to fool a mashgiah by grafting just below the soil line, but the alert mashgiah saw it. That farmer lost his professional relationship with the hassidim. We no longer hear about such things happening, because farmers understand it is not worthwhile for them to play such games. The farmers must also protect their plants from winter weather. Calabria is very hot in the summer, but it is equally cold in the winter. Farmers put canvas on bamboo poles to protect their trees from the snow that often falls. A heavy rainstorm can knock most of the fruit off the trees of an entire farm, a disaster that actually happened to a field we worked last year; its owner had no crop this summer. An etrog tree lives for about 15 years. It must be lovingly tended, by pruning and by giving it insecticide - medicina in Italian - for the three years it grows before it yields even one fruit. As the vines extend themselves from the trunk, the farmer must build the wooden frames that support them, so that they will not grow uncontrollably. Even after these three years the tree produces less fruit than it will when it matures. BECAUSE OF the mashgiah's bottle-necks, or if the cutters are finding fewer etrogim than they would like in a particular field, I usually have time to read Dant or whatever other book I take to the field that day. One of my reasons for taking this job was to build up my skills in speaking Italian. We can spend 10 hours in several fields during one day, so we talk a lot. The people around the table often have much to tell, especially the older ones. A Lubavitcher hassid, now in his 60s, told me about his childhood during the German siege of Leningrad, when people were dying of hunger in the streets, and how his father, a very devout Lubavitcher, went looking for corpses under shell-fire to give them a proper Jewish burial. His father wrapped the arms of the corpse over his own shoulders and around his neck to drag it to the cemetery. An etrog merchant now living in London, a man in his 80s, who every year drives alone from London to Calabria, talked about the day of his liberation from a concentration camp in 1945. He said that most of his camp was liquidated by Hitlerjugend, German teenagers too young to serve in the army, who shot most of the prisoners in order to prevent advancing British forces from discovering German war crimes. We also talk about ordinary things, such as Talmud or hassidic politics. We know it is time for lunch when we hear two or three Fiats bustling down the dirt road in our direction. The wives of the Italian workers bring them their food, usually long cheese or pork sandwiches and table wine. We have our own sandwiches that we make in the mornings before setting out. We pick onions, tomatoes, figs, apples, cucumbers, hot peppers and whatever else is growing nearby to eat with our meals. Italians and Jews eat different kinds of food, but we sit together, sharing the fruit and vegetables that we have picked. The children of those who work for us join us for lunch. Music accompanies our picnic, usually bouncy recordings of hassidic singers, which sounds to the Calabrians like their own Tarantella music. The Satmar Hassidim who employ me speak Yiddish, Hebrew and English, languages which are not widely spoken in Calabria. One of the ways in which I am useful down here is that I speak Italian, but I meet many people, especially the elderly, who speak the Calabrian dialect, rather than the standard Florentine Italian that I studied. An old woman lives near us with whom I cannot conduct a conversation at all. Communication is therefore a problem. The Calabrians and the hassidim solved it by creating a new language, which we might call Etroguese. This language contains elements of Hebrew, Yiddish and Calabrian. The vocabulary of Etroguese uses words from all three languages, recycled into new pronunciations that all will understand. The Hebrew phrase ba'al habayit, which means the owner of the house, and which is used to refer to the employer, is pronounced in Yiddish as bahlabus, but in Etroguese it sounds more like bahlaBOOsa. The hassidim thus pronounce it when speaking with the Italians, even though they employ the standard Yiddish pronunciation among themselves. ETROGIM AND Jews are inextricably connected to the identity of this town, Santa Maria del Cedro. Cedro is the Italian word for etrog, so the town's name translates as Saint Mary of the Etrog. The town is in the Italian province of Calabria, the "toe" of the Italian boot, not far from Sicily. We do not know exactly when etrogim arrived here, but the likelihood is that Jews began cultivating them in the area when it was part of the Byzantine Empire 12 centuries ago. Etrogim are temperamental fruit, requiring highly specific soil, water and weather conditions to prosper. Etrogim refuse to grow even a few kilometers north or south of Santa Maria del Cedro. Israel and parts of Morocco can produce this fruit, and I have heard that someone is experimenting with them in Thailand, but the etrog is destined to remain a rare tree, whose principal home is in Calabria. In addition to naming the town, the etrog is part of its traditional culture. One sees its vines growing in private gardens. Shops and bars picture it on their signs. The inhabitants make carbonated etrog juice, they brew an alcoholic liqueur from it, and they make etrog jam. Jews put the cedro in Santa Maria del Cedro, giving it an agricultural product that is unique and that will be forever part of its identity, even as cars are part of Detroit's identity. Hassidim are also part of Santa Maria del Cedro's life. In no other Italian city do people see men with long peyot (sidelocks) and shtreimlech (fur hats). Jews have become an intellectual hobby for many inhabitants. They read Italian translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok. They are curious about the people who descend upon them every summer. Part of my job is to answer questions people ask, such as why anybody would walk around in a fur hat and a long black coat in that kind of heat. This question became particularly urgent when one of the older etrog buyers collapsed from heat exhaustion on the sidewalk one Shabbat. Another question I aam asked every day is why hassidim are so ill at ease around dogs. The relationship between etrogim and the town of the same name might be ancient, and a Jewish community definitely lived here during the Middle Ages, but Jews returned here only during the last generation. Local farmers sold their etrogim to syndicates that brought them to the great Italian port of Genoa, home of Christopher Columbus. Before World War II, Jewish etrog buyers from Poland went to Genoa and other Eastern European countries to buy the fruit. For this reason the Yiddish name for Italian etrogim is yanover, a Yiddish corruption of Genova, the Italian name for Genoa. This system continued until the late 1960s. The first Jew to go directly to the source was, needless to say, a Lubavitcher hassid. Soon after him came the grandfather of the Satmar hassid who hired me. The Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoilish, encouraged direct involvement of Jews in Calabria, because he wanted the etrogim to have solid mashgihim making certain they were kosher. The merchants went for that reason, but they, of course, wanted to lower the prices they were paying by cutting out the people who brought the etrogim up to Genoa. Hassidic etrog dealers make some contribution to the prosperity that Santa Maria del Cedro enjoys today. Calabria, like most of southern Italy, is poorer than northern Italy, but real peasants no longer exist here. The farming families, the basket-carriers and the families with whom we eat every day benefit economically from the relationships they have formed with the Jewish etrog merchants. Hassidim who went to Santa Maria del Cedro 30 years ago remember when the people were dirt poor, traditional, old-fashioned peasants. The kids who carried the etrog boxes then were 12 years old and not going back to school. Today's etrog carriers are saving up to study computers at university; one is becoming a pianist and has already won several regional and national competitions. More conservative and Catholic than northern Italy, religion is more important to the Calabresi than it would be for people, say, in Milan. This has created another point of contact with the hassidim, who are, by definition, very conservative and religious. And the fact that many of these etrog merchants are running generations-old family businesses also resonates with farming families who have been on the same land for generations. n The writer can be contacted at http://DavidFarer.com and at http://systematicity.blogspot.com