Ever since the government of Egypt announced a ban on the export of date palm branches, life in the Sukkot business has been high-stress for everyone — but not David Wiseman.
A British-born Orthodox Jew transplanted to Dallas, Wiseman sells Sukkot’s ritual bundles of flora and has developed a domestic source of palm fronds, better known as the lulav, a key element in the foliage shaken and waved during observance of the harvest holiday.
The Jewish world, now focused on reducing its reliance on Egyptian palm branches, is playing catch-up with Wiseman. While his colleagues were wringing their hands and paying a premium for product flown in from Spain, he was serenely supervising the cutting of his own stock.
“If anyone wants lulavim, they have to come to me,” he said. “There’s no genius involved in this. You have a critical component of an item that you sell. You have to make sure it’s coming from a place that you can rely on. It’s a simple supply issue.”
Typically, most of the palm fronds used worldwide during Sukkot hail from the Sinai, but in August, the Egyptian government prohibited their sale, citing danger to the trees. Egyptian growers willing to flout the ban hiked their prices, and the chain of merchants who move the branches from desert orchard to Judaica shop passed the increase along.
That’s why many sellers are raising prices on Sukkot sets of etrog, date branch, myrtle and willow by about $10 this year. It’s also why they’re now seeking suppliers who, like Wiseman, have cultivated alternative sources of date palm branches.
“It’s not fair to the merchant to have to swallow this whole huge nut and lose tens of thousands of dollars,” said Avi Fox, owner of Rosenblum’s World of Judaica in Skokie, Ill., who is raising prices on lulav-and-etrog sets by $10 to offset the higher cost of lulavs shipped by air from Israel and Spain.
Prices for the sets in the U.S. range from about $45 at the low end to more than $80 for the specimens judged sufficiently gorgeous to fulfill the obligation of “beautifying” the mitzvah, although cheaper sets can be found on the street in heavily Jewish neighborhoods like Kew Gardens Hills in Queens right before the holiday starts.
Called a lulav, the date palm branch is combined with myrtle and willow into a bundle, also called a lulav. The foliage, together with an etrog, or citron, is held and shaken while reciting certain prayers on Sukkot.
The problem of lulav supply is not a new one. Egypt forbade exports in 2005, causing a shortage, and the possibility and rumors of similar bans has loomed over the holiday since then. It was that episode that spurred Wiseman, whose business is named Zadie Reuven’s Esrog Farm after his grandfather, to start buying from a domestic date palm orchard. Wiseman’s operation started in 1995 as a backyard orchard from which he sold ornamental etrog plants, and it was inspired when his weekly Talmud class met in a sukkah, the temporary hut built during Sukkot, and decided on a whim to taste an etrog.
True to the business’ scholarly roots, Wiseman has written a 60-page treatise, “The Esrog,” under the nom de plume Zaide Reuven, covering everything from botany (Epidermis vs. Hypodermis) to recipes (Candied Esrog) to stories (The Esrogim that Cured the King) and, of course, reams of relevant laws. He will e-mail it to you for $12.
Now he works with a partner who owns an etrog orchard in California that produces thousands of citrons, Wiseman said, but he would not reveal how many sets he is selling this Sukkot.
After this year’s experience, Fox and other merchants say they will urge their suppliers to follow Wiseman out of Egypt for good, even if the non-Egyptian lulavim cost more. In fact, Fox would have saved significantly this year by buying from Wiseman, who charged $6 per lulav, more than the $4 price of a typical Egyptian lulav but much less than the $15 Fox said he paid.
“The good thing about this year is that it shows we don’t need [the Egyptian suppliers] anymore,” said Levi Zagelbaum, president of New York-based wholesaler The Esrog Headquarters, whose operation buys lulav-and-etrog set components from an Israeli firm whose name he would not reveal, then assembles them and sells them to synagogues, schools and retailers. Zagelbaum also declined to discuss the size of his business.
While Zagelbaum normally relies on Egyptian lulavim, this year, only 30 percent of his supply came from there. He procured the rest from Israel and Spain, and because he paid more to do so he will charge his customers higher prices this year.
“God willing, everyone knows there’s a problem, and they’re going to order from other sources,” Zagelbaum said.
Historically the cheapest component in a Sukkot set, the lulav became instead the driver of higher prices in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” protests. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak has complicated trade between Egypt and Israel. Since Mubarak’s ouster, for example, a pipeline carrying Egyptian gas to Israel has been attacked several times.
Yet in Israel, lulav prices have not gone up.
In a normal year, Israel would import about 450,000 lulavim from Egypt and grow about 200,000, Meir Mizrahi, head of plant quarantine services at the Ministry of Agriculture, told The Jewish Week. At the urging of the government, Israeli growers filled in the gap left by Egypt this year.
Also, Jordan has supplied a record number of 150,000 lulavim because Israeli merchants wary of an Egypt-related shortage took the time to teach Jordanian date palm growers how to cut the branches, Mizrahi said.
“We were initially concerned, but it turns out there was no shortage,” said Binyamin Levine as he did a brisk business at a Four Species market opposite the Mahane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem.
American merchants say they’ll meet demand as well. But prices are inspiring sticker shock because they reflect air versus ocean shipping, the higher cost of labor in Spain and Israel, and the reduced Egyptian supply, which at about 200,000 was less than half what the United States normally imports.
“By and large people have been very understanding, but there are always people who will complain,” Fox said. “They will be told they owe us an additional $10 and they’re going to go nuts. It’s not going to be fun, but that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Fox claims that with sufficient planning, the American Jewish market can liberate itself from the unpredictable Egyptian lulav trade. But it might not be that easy, points out Shlomo Perelman, who owns Judaism.com. His supplier, Schwartz Esrog Center, “fought for him” this year and secured him an adequate supply of Israeli lulavim. But he can’t control their business decisions, he said.
Wiseman wants the industry to know that he might be on the verge of discovering a second source, this time in Florida, which he is going to inspect after the holiday. He can see a day when he’ll be able to satisfy the domestic lulav demand himself.
But Egypt’s bounty, as ever, beckons, said Chaim Pauli, who owns Elli-chai’s One Stop Judaica Shop in Silver Spring, Md., and is absorbing the higher costs rather than raise his prices this year.
“Until everybody agrees, it’s not going to happen,” said Pauli. “Next year the Egyptians will get smart, they’ll flood the market with a half-million lulavim.”
With reporting from Israel by Michele Chabin and Amy Spiro.