Growing concerns over Calabria etrogim

The Calabria etrogim originate from the region of that name located in southern Italy.

CARRYING ON his family tradition of selling etrogim, Leizer Rodal poses on an etrog farm with a Calabria etrog in southern Italy in July 2016. (photo credit: Courtesy)
CARRYING ON his family tradition of selling etrogim, Leizer Rodal poses on an etrog farm with a Calabria etrog in southern Italy in July 2016.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

For centuries, thousands of Jews across the globe have customarily used a special type of etrog (citron) grown in Calabria, Italy, during the festival of Sukkot.

However this year, due to an extremely cold winter in the country’s southern region, a black frost formed that killed the majority of the etrog trees that were expected to yield this special citrus and supply many hassidic sects, including the Lubavitch Jewish community worldwide.

The Calabria etrogim originate from the region of that name located in southern Italy. These etrogim, grown on a strip of land on the coast known as “Riviera dei Cedri,” are also called Yanover etrogim, using the Yiddish name for the city of Genoa, in the north, from where they were shipped in the past.

According to Rabbi Moshe Lazar of Milan, who has been responsible for the kashrut supervision of the etrog harvest in Calabria since 1964, most of the fields of the Calabria etrogim were destroyed during the winter and only a few trees survived.

Sub-zero temperatures during the winter months led to black frost, a condition seen in crops when the humidity is too low for frost to form, but the temperature falls so low that plant tissue freezes and dies, blackened.

Lazar explains, “There will be a shortage for the next few years until all the trees regrow. People will have to obtain an etrog from other places or get a lower-quality etrog.”

He said one alternative source is Israel, where there are trees that were planted from Calabria trees.

The tradition of using the Calabria etrog dates back to the times of Moses, who, according to legend, sent emissaries to bring him etrogim from Calabria, “since this land was blessed by our father Isaac.”

“The Alter Rebbe said that when God commanded the Jews in the desert to take an etrog, he sent messengers on a cloud and they brought him the etrogim from Calabria. Since then the minhag [custom] of the rabbis, and therefore of the Chabad Hasidim, is to make a bracha [blessing] on an etrog from Calabria,” Lazar said.

“Tens of thousands etrogim are usually harvested annually. Today it’s just a few thousand.”

Jews who traditionally use Calabria etrogim will be hard pressed this year as the price of even a small etrog is expected to cost a hefty NIS 1,400 – NIS 900 over the usual price.

Sellers and growers lament Italian-born Leizer Rodal, carrying on a family tradition selling Calabria etrogim in New York, expounded on the desperation.

“90% of the trees had to be cut down. The trees that survived the winter were in shock. There are only two times you can cut each year – the first flowers start growing in May and at end of July the big ones [etrogim] are ready to cut. Chabad people like to use the big ones, but this year the flowers never grew or they fell off. Because of that only a few [etrogim] grew in time for the second cut. Satmar Hassidim like this shape and smaller groups of hassidim use the ‘migdal’ shape – this is the only shape of the etrogim growing now and a lot of people are cutting them, even if they are pretty small. They need to cut something,” he said.

Lazar said only one field where the large etrogim grow survived.

“One farmer covered his trees in plastic and topped them with water. The water froze and insulated his trees – he got the flowers. He has the only field with the big etrogim this year,” he said. One local farmer who had to cut down 5,000 of his harmed trees, told that one of the largest volume merchants who comes to Calabria and harvests about 50,000 fruits annually. “He will be lucky if he nets 3,000 etrogim this year.”

“In general there also hasn’t been a lot of water this year – it’s been hard year for wine and oil as well,” he said.

Rodal, whose parents were sent to Milan as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, comes from a family that has been supervising the growth of etrogim and selling them for three generations. He was born in Italy, although his father is Canadian and his mother is from New York.

“My grandfather was one of nine boys sent to Montreal to start a Jewish community there and also opened a Judaica store. He used to get trucks and went to get etrogim.

“My father became an etrog mashgiah [religious supervisor] and started to sell etrogim.  All of us used to make the 10-hour drive from Milan to the south [of Italy]. My dad would work while we had a holiday there. Two of my sisters were born here [in Calabria].

“As a kid I used to go to the fields with my father and find the little etrogim on the ground. We’d helped prepare them for shipping – ripping the towel papers to wrap around etrog and sorting them. Every year I got more involved with my father in selling them to Milan. I also did hashgaha [supervision] on etrogim for a few years.

“Five years ago I started selling the etrogim. I opened a shop called Esrogino in Brooklyn, New York. The name has an Italian twist. I knew all farmers from growing up and had good connections. Thank God for all the connections. Also the fact that I speak the language properly and I’ve been friendly with them since I was a child helped secure me a field,” he said.

“Not everyone was lucky enough to get produce, so people will have to spend a lot more money just to get a few etrogim. The cold winter hit those fields in the mountains hardest, where it is about five degrees colder. The fields that are closer to the ocean had better yields. I was able to secure a field [closer to the ocean this year] Baruch Hashem [thank God], and I talk with farmers about the situation. My father was able to come to the south and took a couple of pictures and we did an assessment. The farmers told us that some trees are looking better than other trees. There’s always risk involved [in farming etrogim] but we went for it and I have a field.”

Everyone in the etrog business is or will be affected.

According to Rodal, the alternative for the Jewish community is to buy etrogim grown in Morocco and Israel. One of the companies he uses to export his etrogim from Calabria, said there was a “crazy” amount of etrogim being imported from Morocco.

For all the new people in the etrog-selling market, “there will be less competition this year, but less fruit. It is hard to estimate what the cost will be. There will be no [small] etrogim [from Calabria] that cost less than about $150, but there’s no way to say for sure until we get to selling time.

“Those [sellers] who don’t have a field had to pay more [money] for worse quality produce, which means the sellers will have to charge more for the etrogim because the farmers are charging a lot more,” he said.

“This year most of the etrogim are being used for the Jews and there’s only about 1% left for farmers to make jams and liquors,” something that also plays a part in their year-round income.

“There’s usually quite a lot left over for them and this year, because of the demand in Jewish community, there won’t be,” Rodal explained.

Asked about the future situation of the Calabria etrog, Rodal said the farmers are working on planting more trees to replace those that were cut down.

“They try to regrow each tree from a branch. The best case scenario is nothing significant will happen for two years, meaning that it will take two years to grow new etrogim from these trees. This means that even next year there’s going to be a shortage of Calabria etrogim, although not as severe as this year. Hopefully there will be two cuts, because the trees that bore fruits this year, if all goes according to schedule, will have May flowers and July flowers [etrogim], so we’ll have at least two cuts, if not three, and there will be a lot more etrogim around. But there will still be a shortage,” he said.

“If all goes well, it will again be business as usual in two years… In addition to that, a lot of farmers planted about 2,000 new trees this year, so the future is looking good. “This is a business that is destined only to grow because the Messiah is going to come and every Jew is going to need an etrog,” Rodal concluded.