As holidays go, Sukkot has its fair share of rituals. In addition to building the huts and eating in them, the prayer for dew, the ushpizin and of course the blessing of the four species, I’ve added one of my own.
Each year in the hours before the chag I journey to my beloved Avenue J, which has been transformed to a replica of Machane Yehuda . Numerous young Jewish men have set up shop there peddling lulavim and etrogim, at bargain basement prices. Once the sun sets, these items will become overstock.
In one sense I’m taking advantage by waiting until the last minute. On the other, I’m helping these young men cut their losses. For weeks beforehand, those who prefer to have their pick of the most mehudar items, and/or don’t have time for last-minute shopping, are paying top dollar for the greenest palm stalk or the roundest, firmest etrog.
When I arrive at the northern tip of the Avenue J strip, by the Q train station, one entrepeneur generally hopes to have the advantage of placement. This year, he asks $30 for a set. Fat chance. Down the street are bound to be better buys.
Sure enough, the next vendor I encounter, a kid of no more than 12 or 13, wants $15 a set. I was prepared to pay $50 for three sets, so we have a deal. He even throws in some extra aravos, the willow twigs that dry out quickest, and I reward him with a $5 tip. Had I the time to shop further I might have found a better deal. But I always say that when time and money are in equal supply, choose the time savings.
Of all the holidays, Sukkot is the most commercially exploited as everyone and his chavrusa goes into tbe business of Lulav Ltd. and Etrog Enterprises. Then there are the chol Hamoed activities, concerts, shows and events, not to mention possibly the most lucrative ritual sales business there is: Sukkah sales; the cheapest, moderate size sukkah these days averages about $600.
There’s nothing wrong with good, clean free enterprise, as long as the prices are reasonable; and just about all these merchants donate plenty of their wares to the needy to ensure they are included.
But as the sun sets and the festival begins as I write this, here’s hoping we all remember that the true origin of this joyous celebration is to remind us of our humble origins wandering the desert and living in huts.
(originally posted Oct. 5, 2009)