Jews joke that if Halloween were a Jewish holiday, pumpkins would cost $36, or $72 for a really nice one. As is, October’s Jewish holiday, Sukkot, brings frightening prices that aren’t a joke. The exorbitant price of a standard etrog, a Sukkot necessity, is being sold for $70 by some shuls, such as the Young Israel of Hillcrest, and upwards of $100 by other shuls for supposedly nicer ones. The Upper East Side’s Kehilath Jeshurun is selling an etrog for $50, “but we hope that you will help us continue our good works by remitting more than $50 per set… a tax deductible donation to our nearly 150-year-old synagogue.”
Oh, so there’s a tax write-off. Or maybe not. Riverdale Jewish Center, in recent years, has been selling etrogs through the Riverdale Judaica store for $40, $60 or $80, but advises buyers that “this is not a tax deductible donation, but [Riverdale Jewish Center] does receive a portion of the sale.” That the tax deduction is even discussed is indicative of how most shuls justify the high pricing as a charitable contribution, without indicating how much of the price is for the etrog and how much of the price is a legitimate write-off.
(Etrogs are ritually used alongside a lulav, hadass and aravah – a palm frond, myrtle and willow branches – fairly inexpensive items, sold as a set whose price is based on the etrog’s perceived beauty and other ritual requirements.)
Well, etrogs cost a lot, and synagogues that sell the four-piece “arba minim” are providing a service, as your local shul is often the only place to buy them, with the closure of so many Judaica stores. (In some heavily populated Orthodox neighborhoods etrogs are sold by freelance dealers, with more negotiable prices, at sidewalk tables).
Of course, your shul can get an etrog for you wholesale, but chooses not to.
Etrog Sets, a wholesaler on Brooklyn’s Avenue M, is selling a lulav-etrog set for $18, in a wholesale batch of 75 (many shuls sell more than 75), far less than any synagogue is charging. We checked with more than 20 major synagogues in the metropolitan area and not one was selling etrogs for less than $36, and often several times the wholesale price of $18.
Alan Paisner, ritual coordinator for Park Avenue Synagogue, told us he ordered 70 lulavs and etrogs from a Brooklyn dealer: “I give him the order and he tells me how much it costs. I think we charge people $40 and the wholesale price is $40.”
We asked, don’t you get a better deal for your congregants by buying wholesale?
“There may be some discount,” said Paisner, “but there’s no haggling.”
Why not haggle if you’re buying in bulk?
“Because they need to stay in business and we need to stay in business.”
Was $40 the only price to keep everybody in business? “There were some more expensive options,” said Paisner, “but we went with 40 because there’s no real difference between them.”
David Pollock, associate executive director of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, told us one would think that with “the number of importers increasing, the prices would come down.”
Prices haven’t come down. Why not? “That’s an interesting question,” said Pollock. “There are probably informal agreements about pricing.”
It seems every year or so, there are scare-stories about problems with the etrog crop, or the lulav crop, or agricultural Sabbaticals, each of which is blamed for the high prices, but when there are healthy crops the prices never come down. Pollock added, “I don’t get the sense that the prices have changed.”
In fact, there hasn’t been a serious shortage for a while. In 2014, The New York Times reported, “Israel grows about a million etrogs each year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. A third are exported, most to the U.S.” In Israel, The Times went on, “wealthy buyers might pay $1,000 for an especially fine specimen.” In the movie “Ushpizen,” the poor chasid, wanting what he thought was the most beautiful specimen, spent $300 that he didn’t have on an etrog that he couldn’t keep. In recent years, more realistically, the Israeli price, according to government figures, was $10-$15 retail.
Pollock said he buys his etrog from Chabad of the West Side. “I think they charge $45; we give them $100. I understand that even at $45 they’re making money,” but he willingly gives the extra money knowing Chabad will provide a lulav and etrog below cost for Jews who may be elderly, unemployed or down on their luck. He’s also aware of a “whole industry, putting yeshiva bochurs [boys] to work” getting the hadasim and arovos [willows and myrtles] into plastic air-tight bags, what one dealer advertises as “the famed Monsey/Swiatitzky vacuum-packed arovos.”
All of that’s legitimate, said Pollock: “It’s part of our ‘Jew tax,’ supporting other people in the community.”
Nevertheless, at what point are consumers not supporting “bochurs” but a cartel? Why must religious Jews be subjected to exorbitant prices on religious necessities? What if Shabbat operated the same way, and one could only get Shabbat candles or yahrzeit candles through the synagogue at $36 a box — a fundraiser, don’t you know — or what if you could only buy one brand of challah at $20 a loaf, with the money supporting a charity, not of your choosing?
Pollock recalled that in 1990 he convinced Mark Green, who was the consumer affairs commissioner, to publicize a Passover “market basket,” to spotlight price spikes before Passover as a way to force inflated holiday prices back to earth. “And you know what? Prices came down,” said Pollock. “Once kosher consumers knew that you could get a Pesedik [kosher for Passover] product for $2.25, say, instead of $4.50, in a particular neighborhood, people went into their local store and said I can go there and get it for less. Prices came down.”
Could it be done for Sukkot? “It’s a good idea,” said Pollock, “but there’s not much time to do it.” Unlike Passover, which has a month-long run-up of shopping, with time for publicizing prices and comparative shopping, there’s only four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and etrogs (a perishable fruit) are almost never sold until Yom Kippur’s over.
How we get Consumer Affairs to monitor the etrog market “is something I’d have to think about it,” said Pollock. “It’s an interesting question.”
He added, “That shuls are selling at a mark-up to raise money is legitimate as long as buyers understand that they’re making a contribution,” and ideally if the charitable donation is voluntary and not arm-twisted in combination with the sale of ritual necessities.
Before the Internal Revenue Service or the Commissioner of Consumer Affairs gets involved, in the spirit of Pollock paying $100 for a $45 etrog, several shul activists we spoke to suggested that one way for shuls to raise money but ease the situation for the lower-end buyer is to raise the price on the upper tier ($70-plus) etrog, while lowering the price on the lower-tier etrog to, say, $18, the wholesale price. In that way, the poorer Jew need not beg or approach Sukkot with anxiety, while the wealthier Jew could know that the few extra dollars paid for his etrog was making the holy day more accessible for others.