When Yoni Wattenshtein was younger and Sukkot rolled around, he wanted to be like the big boys. While he was stuck at home watching TV, his brothers were out till 2 or 3 A.M., stocking up on the four species central to the observance of the holiday, and preparing to sell them in markets that spring up across Israel in the days leading up to the weeklong celebration.
Today the 24-year-old sells etrogim (citron), lulavim (palm fronds), hadassim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches) at Tel Aviv's Four Species festival. At the south end of Rabin Square, opposite the municipality building, some 30 stalls are arranged for the annual event, which has been running for 30 years. The market generally stays open for three days ahead of Sukkot, which, this year, started after sundown on Wednesday (in other words, reader, you've missed it).
For Wattenshtein, it is his thirteenth year in the business, which, he admits, "is loads. It's half my life." Today, he lives it, he says. "Either you've got it or you don't. If you don't know how to sell, you'll sit here and do nothing, and you have to love it. It's sitting in the sun, in the heat, it's not the most fun in the world. But whoever enjoys it is fine." He does enjoy the work, and he likes explaining to secular Jews who know little about Sukkot what everything means.
This is the second year running at the Tel Aviv market for the student of economics and business administration at Ariel University in the West Bank. In the past, he sold in places like Petah Tikva and Bnei Brak, and has even run a home delivery service.
A few stalls up from Wattenshtein is 22-year-old Yossi Friedman from Ramat Gan, who first started selling the four species at his local synagogue when he was 15. Like Wattenshtein, he saw his older brothers get involved, and wanted a piece of the action.
After two years at the synagogue, he started selling in Tel Aviv around six years ago. Today, he is the only member of his family who still does it. He started out selling 40 or 50 sets, but has built up to "400, 500 sets, more or less."
Friedman, who finished his military service in the Golani Brigade two months ago, started preparing for the three-day market after Yom Kippur. All in all, he says, it takes up about two weeks to stock up from wholesalers, who rent out event venues where they sell in bulk, organize the stall, and sell the produce. But it's worth the investment. In that time, he says, he makes close to what he would make in two months elsewhere. Does he provide the four species for his family's sukkah? Of course, he says, "That's my job."
Wattenshtein explains that while smaller-scale salesmen spend a few weeks on the enterprise, "The big sellers who sell [in bulk] to others start six months, 10 months before Sukkot." People who sell in markets like the one in Tel Aviv invest a lot of money, he says. "I know someone in this market who put in NIS 30,000, and I know people who put in a lot more. But there's no guarantee they will make it back. This year is a weak year, maybe it's because there are less people, I can't put my finger on it," he says.
Assaf Burshan, whose corner stall offers not only the standard set, but also etrog liqueur – which tastes faintly of lemon – has invested more than NIS 15,000, including the stall, which cost him NIS 1,300 to rent for the three days of trading. It’s a risk, says the 19-year-old, a pre-army mechina student from Ramat Gan, but he is confident he will make the money back.
Burshan started out working a stall in Bnei Brak six or seven years ago, but for the past three years he has worked independently with his older brother, who has a stall next to his. "It's much better I think. First there's more profit than the 25% commission I made as staff, and I'm also more independent when it comes to prices." He can set his own, he says.
He buys from the same bulk seller in Bnei Brak every year. The kind of stock he gets, and the amount, varies depending on the market crowd. If he is selling in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, for example, he might take product that is of a higher level of rabbinic certification.
So, what does it take to succeed here? "You need good stock, to have good people skills, that’s it I think. There is always competition but there are good relations between the sellers." Burshan likes the Tel Aviv market, where he sees many of the same people every year, and everything is nice and organized. There is also a certain level of shlichut, he says, using the Hebrew word for a mission. "People come and ask what the four species are about, and it's nice to explain it to them, but of course, the money is an important factor."
The price of the four species varies depending on their level of rabbinic certification. For those in doubt, the Tel Aviv Chief Rabbinate is on hand at a stall to decide. A straw poll reveals prices ranging between NIS 65 and NIS 120 for a set of all four. And, as the days go on, and unbought stock piles up, people lower their prices.
Most of those selling at the market are religious, but Danny and Rachel, a married couple in their twenties who declined to give their last name, are not. Danny, who works in the hotel sector, grew up in a religious family so he knew how to get a foot in the door. "There is no way I would know about it otherwise," he says. Rachel, who was raised in a secular family, and had no idea about it. She was the one who pushed for them to try it out this year for the first time, however. They are between jobs; she is waiting to find out the results of her nursing exam, and it is a good way to make extra cash, she says.
Rachel doesn't feel out of place being the only secular woman on a four species stall, she says, adding that everyone is very friendly. Still, they won't be coming back next year. Aside from the fact that they are about to move to Berlin, Danny explains, "it’s a mafia, the prices are far too high." Uncomfortable with the high prices, they sell most of their sets at NIS 65, unless customers are very religious "and want something specific." And no one pays taxes, he says. "It's millions of shekels the country loses. It’s the same in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem…the country is blind."
Danny enjoys explaining the significance of the four species to customers who are not familiar with Sukkot, but Rachel doesn't find the undertaking spiritual in any way. "Let's be honest," she says, "everyone is here for the money. If it was about mitzvot they would sell it without the huge mark-up."