Catering to Jews Seeking the Perfect Etrog

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Some discerning haredi Orthodox Jews are spending as much as $350 for unblemished citrons sold in a Brooklyn neighborhood and grown in a storied region of Morocco.

NEW YORK — Naftali Berger’s quest for perfection ends in victory when the 24-year-old kollel student enters Tsvi Dahan’s trailer on Wallabout Street in the haredi Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
 
“Find something wrong with it — find it!” a glowing Berger exclaims Monday as he holds his treasure: a bumpy, lemon-like fruit.
 
In open-air markets and on tables unfolded on sidewalks in Jewish communities throughout the world, many Jews preparing for Sukkot look for lovely etrogim, the fruit that constitutes the centerpiece of the biblically mandated four species to be blessed during the weeklong holiday.
 
Many celebrants will take the basic etrogim commonly sold by synagogues, Jewish schools and shops for about $50 for a set that also includes a lulav (palm branch), myrtle and willow.
Then there are men like Berger, who think nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars on an especially beautiful etrog, which they believe enhances their fulfillment of the mitzvah.
 
No sooner does Yom Kippur end than such customers seek out Dahan, 38, a resident of Jaffa who owns three hotels in Tel Aviv but has trekked to New York City the past 15 autumns to hawk his high-end etrogim. They are rippled and slightly smooth, hefty and slim, shiny in hue and subdued — in etrog selection, as in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
 
All come from the 200 trees on a half-acre plot of land Dahan leases in Dumdir, a village in southern Morocco, his parents’ homeland. Dahan visits four times a year to monitor their growth and consult with his one full-time employee.
 
Dahan, a slightly built modern Orthodox man dressed in jeans, lights a cigarette and inhales.
 
The business is “very hard,” he tells a visitor in Hebrew. The customers “are very hard — justifiably so because they’re spending a lot of money.”
 
The entire enterprise yields an annual profit of less than $10,000, Dahan says.
 
“I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the tradition,” he says.  His late grandfather, Yaakov Assayag, a tailor in Marrakesh, got into the business 70 years ago, and several of Assayag’s sons followed suit.
 
A customer enters. The first etrog proffered fails to impress in price ($275) or looks. The second ($300) falls short, too. Dahan hands over a third costing $350.
“It’s a beauty,” he says.
 
 

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