Unexpected Israel: Mandarins return to China

This being the Middle East, even a fruit can cause a political storm.

Ruth Corman picking oranges.  (photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
Ruth Corman picking oranges.
(photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
It was in 1936 that 14-year-old Pnina Davidovich first saw her new homeland from the deck of the ship bringing her family to Haifa. In Hungary, her father had been a wealthy timber merchant and owned extensive woodlands. In the early 1930s, however, the growing anti-Semitism filled him with concern and he decided to immigrate with his family to the Land of Israel.
Pnina’s first memory of Haifa was of being handed a banana by a Jewish welcome group. She had never seen the fruit before and did not know what to do with it; she was shown how to peel and eat it. She loved bananas for the rest of her life.
The family was taken to a part of Rehovot surrounded by orange groves where they were allocated a tin hut. Pnina’s mother was appalled by such living conditions, so far removed from their luxurious home in Hungary, and immediately decided that she would return. Her husband said, “Fine, you can go, but the children are staying here with me,” so she stayed, fortunately for her considering what was to happen under the Nazis.
Pnina and her sister immediately found employment in an orange packing plant, where they also lived, sleeping on the orange sacks at night. They loved their work, surrounded as they were by many other boys and girls of their own age, and quickly adjusted to their new lives.
The orchard – the first to be planted in Rehovot – had been started by Swiss-born Zalman Minkov in 1904. An idealist, imbued with the philosophy of “Jews working the land,” he would only employ Jewish laborers.
These included such luminaries as Y.H. Brenner, A.D. Gordon and the poetess Rachel.
Minkov was a man of extraordinary vision and vigor. At Rehovot, the water table lay very deep, so he excavated a well 26 meters down (the height of an eight-story building) and six meters across. This was a mammoth undertaking, given the limited equipment available. But he succeeded, and then fitted a pump which operated all night so that his specially constructed reservoir would always be full of water. Each morning the workers opened pipes to allow it to flow into an aqueduct which led to smaller channels near the trees, below each of which was a hole for irrigation. The reservoir also proved a great attraction for the local children who splashed around enjoying the cool water, particularly in the hot weather.
At the entrance to the walled compound, Minkov constructed an impressive gate leading to a large courtyard with a smithy, cowshed, barns and other working buildings.
Tragically, Zalman Minkov, who had so enthusiastically created the whole enterprise, died aged 34, on the very day his daughter Zalma was born. His family returned to Switzerland and the orchard was sold to others who cultivated it until the end of the 1960s. The site then fell into neglect and it was not until the 1970s that a nephew of the founder provided funds to restore the orchard.
My connection to this story was through my friend Etti Goren whose mother was the teenager Pnina who had arrived so many years earlier. Etti told me how, when the orchard was restored, she took her mother, then aged 88, to visit it. How moving it was, Etti said, to observe her mother’s reactions on seeing again the place of which she had such happy memories.
She explained to Etti how the fruit was picked by hand and placed into rail carts for transport to the sorting shed. Here it was sized and placed in crates for transfer to the packing shed where she had worked. Oranges were wrapped in orange colored tissue, grapefruits in pale yellow. Etti demonstrated for me the special method her mother had used to wrap the fruit.
It was then placed in crates, which, when full, would be closed by a carpenter using hoops which had been soaked in water to make them flexible. Here they waited until a line of camels or a horse and cart arrived to transport the goods onward.
In the early ’30s, Rehovot was known as “Citrus City.” From such modest beginnings together with the produce of other orchards, the export of citrus fruits boomed, reaching its peak in the 1970s.
The origins of the orange in fact go back to medieval China. It was brought to Portugal by Vasco da Gama in 1498. But it was Captain James Cook, the 18th-century British navigator, who encouraged his crew to eat lemons and limes to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. British sailors were thenceforth nicknamed “limeys” – a derogatory term still used by Americans for all Englishmen.
One impressive aspect of Israel’s citrus industry has been its range of new fruits.
These include the “Sunrise,” a pink grapefruit and a Clementine called “Or,” developed by scientists at the Volcani Institute.
The “Flamingo” is a red pomelo which contains natural lycopene, considered to prevent cancer. In addition, scientists at the Hebrew University have established that the juice of the “pomelit,” a hybrid of grapefruit and pomelo, can reduce cholesterol levels.
But this being the Middle East, even a fruit can cause a political storm. In 2009, shoppers in Tehran found that they were being offered Israeli pomelos. Enraged Iranian politicians declared this a “Citrus Fruit Conspiracy” and demanded that all those involved be “brought to justice.”
Theories abound as to how this innocent Israeli fruit managed to penetrate Iranian border security. But I find it fascinating that the offspring of a little orange, originally brought from China to Portugal by Vasco da Gama and then onward to the Holy Land, should have caused such an uproar several hundred years later.
To complete the circle, in 2016, citrus fruits, including a special new range of mandarins, are being exported by Israel to China. A nice turn of events – a bit like selling ice to the Eskimos or coals to Newcastle?
The writer divides her time between Jerusalem and London. Her new book, Unexpected Israel, published by Gefen, will be launched in May. It is now available from [email protected] or the publishers. You can read other stories of hers at ruthcorman.wordpress.com