As Sukkot nears, Jewish world shaken by looming lulav shortage

Egypt says it will no longer provide the palm leaves to suppliers in the US, Israel, and elsewhere.

American legislators, Israeli officials and Jewish groups are working diplomatic channels in an effort to stave off a looming lulav shortage ahead of Sukkot. Their efforts follow a surprise move by Egypt, which — after years as the world's primary supplier of the palm fronds that form the spine of the ritual lulav — said it no longer would provide the leaves to suppliers in the United States, Israel and beyond. "We've got everybody on the case, and I told them to shake a leg," Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) told JTA, pun intended. Ackerman has raised the issue in meetings with the Egyptian ambassador to the United States and America's ambassador to Egypt, and says he also has put a call in to Osama el Baz, a top political adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In addition, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has sent a letter to the Egyptian ambassador urging Egypt to "consider the needs of Jewish communities around the world and allow for a sufficient number of these palm fronds to be exported this year." Staff members from the office of Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) also have voiced concerns on the issue to the Egyptian Embassy. Israel's Ministry of Agriculture also is in contact with its Egyptian counterpart, which has said that palm-leaf exports had to be cut because removing the fronds damages the trees. The pressure seems to be having some effect: Israeli officials say they now believe some lulav shipments from Egypt — the source in past years of about 1 million lulavs worldwide — could go forward, and Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel for Agudath Israel of America, said Monday he'd received word from the Egyptians that "a partial release" was in the works. Still, with a significant cut in the number of lulavs reaching distributors still likely, Jewish officials are concerned they may shortly have a "lulav crisis" on their hands for Sukkot, which falls this year in mid-October. "The Egyptian action will not only create a tremendous shortage, so that some people won't have lulavim, but those who do might have to pay an exorbitant price," Cohen said. Cohen said his group has been in contact with the Egyptian Embassy, the White House and the State Department on the issue. Egypt's concerns are backed up by horticulturalists, who say removing the fronds could damage a tree's ability to produce fruit and thrive. "It is detrimental to the health of the palm to remove the green, productive leaves," said John Begeman, a horticulture agent with the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in Tucson. "They are doing the work of the palm in manufacturing food" through photosynthesis. Date palms typically have 15-20 healthy green leaves at any one time, and removal of leaves should be limited to the dead and dying brown leaves at the trees' base, Begeman said. The Encyclopedia Judaica translates the Hebrew word lulav as "a young branch of a tree" or "a shoot." The lulav is one of the arba'ah minim, or four plant species, that are joined together and shaken on Sukkot. The others are willows and myrtle, which are bound to the lulav with strips of palm; and the etrog, or citron, which is held beside the lulav as it is waved. Calls to the Egyptian Embassy were not returned. Those in contact with the Egyptians say they have been receptive to Jewish concerns. No one interviewed believed that the Egyptian move was politically motivated. They said they hoped the Egyptians might take steps to cushion the blow in light of the appeals. "We're surely sensitive" to Egypt's needs, Cohen said. "What we're looking for is some way to allow them to pursue what's in their best interest, but at the same time allow us to adjust and develop or tap into other sources." Cohen suggested, for example, that instead of cutting off lulav shipments at once, a decrease could be gradual. While Egypt long has been the major producer of lulavs — the majority come from the El Arish region of northern Sinai — some distributors have gotten portions of their supplies from California, Arizona and Israel. In light of the news out of Egypt, several Israeli distributors reportedly visited Jordan recently to determine if the Hashemite Kingdom could become a new source. Palm fronds also play a role in Christianity. On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, many Christians use bunches of green palm leaves — pruned from date, Sago and other palm varieties — as they mark Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in the days prior to his crucifixion. In many churches, the fronds later are burned and their ash used on Ash Wednesday. Distributors of Christian goods say the Egyptian decision is unlikely to affect Christians this year as the vast majority of their palm supply comes from Florida and Mexico. As Erev Rosh Hashanah fell, Judaica stores that supply lulavs to local consumers were unsure about the status of their orders. "I'm very nervous about it," said Madelyn Heyman, proprietor of Bala Judaica in suburban Philadelphia. Heyman said her distributor had promised that the lulavs would arrive — and already had raised the price on them. "It's very unusual just to raise the price on the one item," she said. "We sell them as a set." Heyman was able to get relatively inexpensive etrogs, and as such was not planning to raise the price on the lulav-etrog sets. "I'm hoping that we're all wrong and that there's going to be plenty of supply," she said. "We have to be optimistic at this time."