On a cold and rainy night this week, a major New York-area distributor of lulav and etrog sets drove his truck to a Brooklyn pier at midnight and hauled away 10,000 sets for next week’s Sukkot holiday.
He bought the sets in a cash-only transaction from an importer (no questions asked) who had told him that if he wanted his supply, he should "be there at midnight."
"I felt like I was in a crime movie," the distributor later told a friend.
The worldwide shortage of lulavim has caused wholesalers and retailers alike to scramble for the scarce product, whose price in some cases has jumped significantly this year.
Daniel Levine, president of J. Levine Books and Judaica in Manhattan, said he had to pay an extra $10 per set this year but that he is absorbing the increase because he had already taken orders at last year’s prices. Levine said he typically sells 200 sets.
The shortage developed after Egypt, the major source of lulav palm fronds in recent years, announced that it would not permit its fronds to be harvested this year due to concerns for the health of its palm trees. Palm fronds are the backbone of the lulav.
Israeli and American lawmakers, including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I.), were so concerned about a possible worldwide shortage of lulavim, they lobbied the Egyptian government to reverse its decision.
Egypt reportedly then agreed to harvest at least 400,000 fronds, compared to more than 700,000 last year, most destined for Israel.
"We have received no formal information from Egypt," said Meir Mizrachi, the soft-spoken, overworked head of the Israel Agricultural Ministry’s Plant Protection and Inspection Services. "What we know comes from those involved in commerce."
As of Tuesday, two enterprising (some say dishonest) businessmen had managed to import 300,000 fronds from Al Arish, in northern Egypt, into Israel, Mizrachi said. Another 100,000 were stuck at the Egyptian-Israeli border awaiting inspection and certification from the Agricultural Ministry’s Quarantine Service.
"Without certification that they are free of pests, we cannot let them into Israel," Mizrachi said, sounding weary. He added that "for the first time we agreed to allow 150,000 fronds from Jordan, and even inspected their orchards, but as yet not one has arrived from Jordan. I don’t believe they will arrive at all, quite honestly."
The small number of fronds grown in Israel, primarily in the Bet Shean region, are the most expensive on the market and are in great demand, Mizrachi said.
He stressed that his ministry had no jurisdiction over prices and no way to prevent price gouging.
"It’s a matter of supply and demand: what the market will bear," Mizrachi said.
He told The Jerusalem Post that "selling lulavs is a shady business. It attracts all sorts of people. Some are truly honest, but others are criminal types."
Levine said he had heard that after Egypt released a shipment of fronds, "one Jewish guy grabbed them as they went through Customs" and jacked up the price by cornering the market.
"It’s obnoxious," Levine said. "It’s bad enough that this world is filled with earthquakes and hurricanes, for Jewish people to do something like this to other Jews is very upsetting.
"This is a holiday of joy and serving God. Doing this is very selfish and not in the spirit of the holiday," he said.
In Chicago, Avi Fox, owner of Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, said he has been forced to impose what he calls a $10 "surcharge" on every set because of the price increase he paid. Fox said about 5,000 sets are sold in the Chicago metropolitan area and he sells 90 percent of them.
The morning after Rosh HaShanah, Fox said he was told by his supplier that if he wanted lulav and etrog sets, he had to tell him immediately whether he would pay the price increase.
"I agreed, with the support of the rabbinate in Chicago," Fox said. "Thus far nobody has flinched. Everybody understands that it is a legitimate problem and that this is not a gouging business."
He said he has heard that in some stores in New York, a lulav-etrog set that sold for $50 last year is selling for $125 this year. And he said that some smaller Jewish communities in the United States will not be able to get any sets.
A report in a Hebrew weekly newspaper attributed the lulav shortage to an Israeli importer who conspired with Egyptian authorities to reduce the amount of lulavim it exports and then sell that limited supply exclusively to him.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he has been looking into the problem for several weeks and has heard various stories about the reason for the shortage.
"There has to be a full investigation into the matter to assure an ample supply in the future and that people are not taken advantage of," he said. "The investigation should be done by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and by the Israeli government with the Agricultural Ministry."
The Movement for Quality Government has called for an investigation into the possibility that the lulav shortage is purely manmade, stemming not from concern for palm trees but from greed on the part of producers, importers and exporters.
"There are families who can’t buy a lulav this year because of the price," the movement’s lawyer, Orna Gelbstein, wrote to the Israeli Department of Investigations, according to Arutz Sheva, a religious news service. "We suspect that [the shortage was conceived] through agreements with Egyptian suppliers and control over existing supplies by local traders."
Gavriel Pappenheim, a spokesman for the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem, said some people involved in lulav sales "are taking advantage of the shortage."
"There are people who won’t be able to afford the high prices," he said. "Last year a lulav grown in Israel cost [up to 70 shekels]. Today they’re going for up to 220 shekels.
"Some families will have to share their lulav with another family," Pappenheim observed.
Jacob Sonnenfeld, an Orthodox Jerusalemite shopping on the seam that divides the fervently Orthodox neighborhoods of Geula and Mea Shearim, where dozens of stores were selling lulavim and etrogim, said that last year a moderately priced lulav cost $1 to $2 and that today "some are going for $15 or $20 and up."
On the frenetic main street of Mea Shearim, more than a dozen stores were selling lulavim, some for about $75 and even more.
White-shirted yeshiva students and side-curled chasids crowded into the stores, many of them makeshift shops established solely for the holiday, and inspected the lulavim and etrogim with the scientific intensity. Outside, families purchased Sukkah decorations, including Christmas tinsel, an item religious Israelis do not connect to Christmas.
In one of the shops Michael Schiller, a 29-year-old yeshiva student originally from Far Rockaway, explained the price discrepancy between the various fronds tied neatly into lulavs.
"The ones from Al Arish usually aren’t so nice. They’re usually drier and not as green as Israeli lulavs."
Asked whether he was willing to spend 150 or shekels or more on a lulav this year, Schiller acknowledged, "I usually spend more than I had planned. It’s a mitzvah, so as long as you can afford to pull it off, you do it."
The store’s salesman, who gave his name as Yeshayahu, admitted that his prices were high but stressed that "on erev yontif [the eve of Sukkot], the prices drop and the poor will be able to afford to buy lulavs. There are also charitable organizations that provide them to the poor."
"According to halacha, you donít have to buy an extraordinary lulav. As long as it’s kosher, it will suffice," another shopper noted.
A beggar on the street who appeared to be in his 60s complained, "I can barely feed my family at the best of times. Now even the least expensive lulav will put me back 50 shekels rather than 10 shekels. How will I be able to justify that to my wife?"
At least one rabbinic authority, Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan outside Tel Aviv, has stated that fronds from canary date palm trees, which are plentiful in Israel, can be made into kosher lulavim.
Whatever the reason for the shortage, some Jews believe that the current situation is favorable to the environment and that lawmakers should not intervene with Egyptian officials.
"Should we as stewards of the earth be ‘working diplomatic channels’ that in the end will be detrimental to nature?" Donald Cohen-Cutler, a legislative assistant at the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism asked in an essay on the commission’s Web site.
"Will there be enough lulavim to go around this year for Sukkot? We do not know," he wrote. "But perhaps we can only order one lulav instead of two. By conserving both our environmental resources and our diplomatic ones, we will be able to celebrate this harvest festival in an environmentally friendly manner. We can save the world one palm frond at a time."
Michele Chabin is an Israel correspondent. Stewart Ain is a staff writer.