Making Lemonade Out of Lemons — Er, Etrogs

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When you think of foods from Italy, you probably think of pizza or spaghetti. But there is another import the country is known for this time of year: etrogs.

Photo via Flavio/Flickr

As Sukkot draws nearer, synagogues are starting to advertise sets of lulavs and etrogs for the holiday.

But if you’re looking for a Calabria etrog from Italy, you might have to spend a little more than usual this year.

The southern region of Italy for which the etrog is named faced a winter frost that destroyed a whopping 90 percent of this year’s crop, according to news reports. Due to the shortage, one supervisor told JTA he is picking fruit he would have deemed “too homely” for export in normal years, as long as the fruit is kosher.

Commonly referred to as the Four Species, combinations of a single palm branch known as a lulav, three myrtle twigs known as hadassim, two willow branches known as aravot and a single citron known as an etrog, are held together during specific prayers throughout Sukkot. Etrogs tend to be the most expensive part of the package, although Israel has a robust export business in the fruit.

One synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine tried to buy a single Calabria etrog for $500.

But while it probably won’t cost you that much, some locals are concerned about what they will or won’t be able to get this year.

Lubavitch of Bucks County, for instance, sells a lulav and etrog set for $50, or for $80 if you want a Calabria etrog. Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein noted it’s still “up in the air” as far as the quality and amount they will be able to get.

One of his suppliers is a rabbi raised in Italy who lives in America but returns to his native country each year to visit the etrog fields.

“He does have access to an etrog field and will be able to get us some. I’m not sure what that’s going to cost us yet. He didn’t tell me anything about pricing, but he did tell me he’s going to try and reserve a few,” Weinstein said.

In addition to Italy and Israel, Morocco is the other top exporter of the fruit, which resembles a bumpy lemon.

“The ones from Israel don’t seem to be a problem at all,” Weinstein said, “but the ones from Italy we know are in short supply and so we’re concerned. We’ll see what we can actually get, what the quality of them will be and what the cost will be, which is sort of up in the air.

“It’s going to be a lot of suppliers who are trying to get access to a very small supply,” he added.

While he acknowledged that many congregants probably won’t be willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money for an etrog, he said as a Chabad rabbi he will follow the predominant Lubavitch custom of getting an etrog from Italy despite the price. He doesn’t believe it will cost too much — not $500 anyway — but it may be more than an average year.

In a normal year, he can get Calabria etrogs for congregants for $80 each from a different supplier. He and his son also make sure to get one each year; he usually pays $150 per etrog.

One of the concerns about an etrog is that it be from the authentic etrog family and not have been grafted with any other type of fruit, he explained.

“There is a special value to having an etrog that you absolutely know is not grafted and mixed with other types of [citrus] to enhance the fruit in any way, which actually would invalidate the kashrus of an etrog,” he said. “So while many etrogim come from Israel and other places, which I have no doubt are 100 percent kosher, we do have a tradition that the etrogim from Italy have never been tampered with.”

A Calabria etrog enhances the mitzvah, he added, emphasizing that all of the etrogim they provide to congregants are absolutely kosher.

After the holiday, some members collect the fruits for jam. Some even use etrogim to make vodka, Weinstein added.

He will check in with his suppliers to check on progress, but he hopes to be able to get a few for the holiday.

“I’m not particular about my suits and shoes coming from Italy,” he quipped, “but I am particular about my etrog coming from Italy.”

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