A top-quality lulav from Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, made of palm fronds picked in the broiling Israeli summer, will cost as much as $100 in chilly New York this week, as people prepare for the Sukkot holiday, which starts Friday.
Lulavs are ritual objects used only on Sukkot, and Moshe Zakai, who works on Tirat Zvi's date palm plantations, is proud of the overseas demand for his products. But in Israel, these same lulavs will probably fetch at most NIS 70 - due to what local farmers consider unfair competition from Egypt.
Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz located south of Beit Shean, is the largest date grower in Israel, with 18,000 trees. Initially, lulavs were not part of its business. But 28 years ago, Zakai said, "a yeshiva student from Safed came to us and said he wanted to buy lulavs." And when the kibbutz looked into whether it could accommodate him, it made a startling discovery: The strain of date palms with the least commercially viable fruit proved to be the best for lulavs. Overnight, a new business was born.
Since then, lulavs have become big business for the kibbutz. Working with scientists from the Agriculture Ministry's Volcani Institute, it developed a way to preserve the palm fronds in pristine condition for several months. That enables farmers to harvest them in the spring, right after Pesach, and sell them in the fall, for Sukkot.
This year, the kibbutz produced about 70,000 lulavs. That is only a fraction of the approximately 600,000 a year Israelis buy; the rest come from other local growers or are imported from Sinai.
The price varies widely according to quality, usually ranging from NIS 10 to NIS 70 - though a really special lulav can go as high as NIS 250, Zakai said.
But growers complain that competition from Sinai depresses both prices and sales volume. Otherwise, they said, Tirat Zvi could sell 100,000 lulavs this year. But they were afraid to harvest that many, because they were concerned they would not be able to sell them.
"Aside from the danger of bringing in plant diseases with the imported lulavs, buying domestically should be encouraged in this field, too," complained Nehemia Rafal, secretary general of the Religious Kibbutz Movement.
The Agriculture Ministry countered, "The lulav market is a free market, so the Agriculture Ministry has no way of preventing the import of lulavs in advance of the holiday. Moreover, there are years when bringing in lulavs is not just an option, but a necessity, both to satisfy the demand for lulavs in Israel and to maintain a reasonable price for consumers."
The ministry added that it takes stringent precautions to prevent the import of disease-bearing fronds.
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