What is sickness? asks the Etrog Man.
Unhappiness. Worries. Pressure.
That’s what ails us in the 21st century.
But the Etrog Man, whose real name is Uzi-Eli, wants to counteract all of that.
“I want people to live healthier lives,” he tells me. “I want to help people from the inside out.”
A bear of a man with a head of salt-and-pepper curls capped by a kipa and a white, closely cropped beard, he leans over the counter of his shop in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda shuk, a carrot in his hand, the buzz of the juicer blending away, and shares his philosophy with me.
Born in Yemen in 1943, for the past 10 years he has been whipping up all kinds of yummy juices and natural lotions, balms and salves, from his stall squeezed between the new fish-and-chips place and the women’s ceramics cooperative.
All of his concoctions center on the mighty etrog — you know the etrog, which seems to only make a guest appearance on Sukkot — and are based on the teachings of the 12th century scholar and doctor Maimonides (Rambam), who believed that the etrog has 70 different healing properties (segulot). Among its many benefits, the etrog is considered restorative for pregnant women, and is good for the heart and also for the skin, which makes it a natural fit for cosmetics.
The shop itself is an experience. See-through tanks filled with a variety of juices greet visitors from the outside. Passion Fruit, anyone? Or how about the Rambam Special, which contains almonds and dates? After passing under overhanging wind chimes and dried herbs, you come face to face with the man himself, who holds court among his staff, diagnoses people, dispenses blessings and greets what seems like an endless stream of groups — Israeli and tourists alike — who visit his stall.
But between customers, Uzi-Eli wants to talk to me of his childhood in Yemen.
There he learned in a cheder, where the boys sat around the rabbi and learned the Torah. Do you know how the rabbi made the boys pay attention? He would put a stone on the top of each child’s head, under their chin and on each shoulder. If they moved at all and the stone fell off they would get whacked.
What do you know, but they learned the entire Torah by heart and were able to accomplish in one hour what can take four hours without, er, corporal punishment.
But what I’m really obsessed with is the story of how Uzi-Eli breastfed for so long. Up until age 5 he fed from his poor mother, who finally had it when he embarrassed her by lifting her dress in front of mixed company.
She turned to her father for help. He advised her to smear a mixture of aloe vera and charcoal on her breasts, which worked like a charm. For three days Uzi-Eli did not eat a thing. “I was starving!” he recalled. Then his grandfather instructed his daughter to buy Uzi-Eli a goat. And so for the next two years he subsisted on goat’s milk.
It wasn’t until the family made aliyah in 1949 as part of Operation Magic Carpet, which ultimately brought 49,000 Yemenite Jews to the young State of Israel, that Uzi-Eli actually ate solid food.
But what does this have to do with etrogs? Or with healing?
Because after working for years for the American Consulate, escorting diplomats throughout Israel, Uzi-Eli finally returned to his roots and decided to open a business based on his family’s healing remedies. He chose to open his shop in the shuk because of its access to fresh fruits and vegetables. He grows the etrogs on 10 acres of land near his moshav outside of Jerusalem.
During the day, Uzi-Eli is busy helping customers, but after the shuk closes when it’s quiet, he whips up his lotions and sprays, all of which are kept in the refrigerator and are adorned with a snazzy label bearing his likeness complete with a natty scarf tied around his neck.
He even blesses each formula. “That way people will feel the energy inside their body,” he says.
Interestingly, he has deliberately only shared one part of his secret three-part formulas with each of his three children. That way, when he is no longer here, they will never be separated, he tells me.
Before I leave, he takes my hand and asks me to close my eyes. He proceeds to see secrets from the inner recesses of my being that I thought were only evident to my Maker. And possibly also to my mother.
He then blesses me. Which I take. I’ll take any blessings I can get!
As I head out, I notice a young couple entering the shop. She with her head covered, he with a big, black velvet kipa.
They, too, have come to receive a blessing from the Etrog Man.
Abigail Pickus’ column appears the first week of the month.