Etrog grower, Ilan Assayag
Etrog grower Haggai Kirschenbaum at his home on Moshav Yishrash. Photo by Ilan Assayag
Text size

Although he has an entire orchard of citrons and Sukkot is approaching, Aharon Shmuel is far from pleased. His Moshav Kfar Zeitim orchard of the citrus fruit, called etrog in Hebrew and used in traditional Sukkot celebrations, is in a "dire state," he says. The August heat wave seriously damaged the crop.

"The strong heat and the strong winds dropped many to the ground, and the etrogim that stayed on the trees don't look too good," he says.

Haggai Kirschenbaum, from moshav Yishrash near Rehovot, one of the largest and oldest etrog growers in Israel, agrees.

"The fruit is not as nice as in recent years, because of the heat wave," he says. "Usually some 10 percent of the etrogim are considered [of highest quality], and this year it's maybe one percent. People got used to very beautiful fruits in recent years, the consumers got used to very high standards. But we can't live up to those this year. I can't recall a heat wave as severe. And it's difficult to ask a lot of money for a fruit that isn't pretty."

Despite the unfortunate weather, Kirschenbaum, a fifth-generation grower who has orchards stretching over nearly 20 acres, doesn't see himself moving to a different field.

"It may be easier to grow ordinary citrus fruits, but once you're in, you're in," he says.

Shmuel, on the other hand, only grows half an acre, and already has regrets. "The etrog demands so much work - pruning, trellises, and so on and so on - and then you get a small, unattractive crop because of the weather."

A gargantuan lemon in his lemon orchard soothes him somewhat, and he prefers to praise it than to talk about the lackluster etrogim.

Israel has some 15 large-scale etrog growers, and a considerable number of small-scale ones. Together they produce some 1.5 million fruits annually, of which 300,000 are exported.

Although the etrog is a part of a long tradition, the market has its own dynamics and trends, catering to specific needs of different sects and communities.

Recently, for instance, there was a steep rise in demand for large Yemenite etrogim. The strain was rarely grown some years ago, but now some 150,000 fruits are estimated sold annually.

The growers need to be aware of the specific demands of each community: Lithunian Haredi Jews don't place too much importance on whether or not there is a pitam, a stigma at one end of the fruit, while some Hasidic communities see it as a priority.

There are also technological advances, with a special chemical now being used to ensure the etrog has a proper pitam. The chemical, a component in a weed killer used by the National Roads Company, was discovered by accident, after other citrus fruit in orchards near roads where the weed killer was sprayed developed perfect pitams.

And there's competition - after years in which the market knew only small quantities of etrogim from Italy and Morroco, Mexico has begun exporting the fruit to America. Some 100,000 non-Israeli etrogim are marketed in Jewish communities abroad, mostly for those who object to buying produce from Israel.