A Hasidic Pilgrimage to Saint Mary of the Etrog

Every year ahead of Sukkot Orthodox Jews descend on Italy’s Calabrian coast, known for its world-class citrons.

Aurelio Candido

At dawn, before the summer heat starts baking the countryside, groups of bearded men with black kippas descend upon the citrus groves that dot the coast of Calabria, in southern Italy.

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The sight of Hasidim wandering the fields and villages in this relatively isolated Italian region could seem incongruous, since practically no Jews have lived in the area for half a millennium. But local farmers have gotten used to the groups of Orthodox Jews who visit every summer to supervise the harvest of the etrog, one of the four species essential to the rituals of Sukkot.

Ahead of the holiday, a growing number of Jews from various Orthodox groups travel to the part of Calabria known as the “Riviera dei Cedri” –- the “Etrogim Riviera” -– to pick, box and ship only the best, unblemished citrons to faithful around the world.

The delegations of rabbis, mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) and yeshiva students belong mainly to the Chabad Lubavitch and Satmar movements, whose members traditionally favor Calabrian etrogim to celebrate Sukkot.

“It used to be just a couple of people picking a few hundred etrogim,” says Rabbi Menachem Lazar, Chabad’s envoy in Rome. “Now dozens of people come every year and collect tens of thousands of fruits.”

The Calabrian etrogim are sought after not only for their quality and conformity to strict halakha requirements, but also for their connection to the once-thriving Jewish communities of southern Italy, which were expelled when the area became a Spanish domain in the early 16th century.

The Lubavitchers believe that Moses, celebrating Sukkot in the desert, used an etrog from Calabria brought to him by angels. While the Moses tradition may be a bit of a stretch, historians think it was Jews who first brought the citron to Calabria in the 1st century, and the fertile area supplied the fruit to communities across Europe through the Roman period and the Middle Ages.

In the modern era and until after World War II, the Calabrian citron was exported to Europe and the Americas though the northern Italian port of Genoa, and thus became known in Yiddish as “Yanover esrog.” But in the 1950s, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad’s spiritual leader known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, decided to send envoys directly to the groves of Calabria to ensure the fruits were kosher.

Because the citron plants have a short life span and their roots are sensitive to cold spells, farmers had started grafting the etrog onto other, hardier citrus trees, which makes the fruit not kosher, says Lazar.

“Today modern technologies have increased yields and the farmers know the rules of kashrut,” Lazar said in a phone interview. Once inspected in the field, the fruits are shipped -- mainly to the United States, France and the United Kingdom, where they fetch prices ranging from $60 to more than $100, he said.

Sephardim prefer Moroccan etrogs

Israel allows the import of only a few hundred Calabrian etrogim, despite calls by the Haredim to allow more in. The Agriculture Ministry said earlier this month that it authorized, for the first time, the import this year of 1,500 citrons from Morocco, which are traditionally preferred by Sephardic Jews.

Back in Italy, Lazar said that locals in the Etrogim Riviera welcome their Jewish guests and the extra business they bring. Authorities routinely organize events and conferences highlighting the Jewish roots of a trade that is so important to the area that one of the main villages is named Santa Maria del Cedro –- Saint Mary of the Etrog.

The Riviera is just one of the spots in southern Italy where Jewish links are slowly being rediscovered.

Spain took control of the southern part of the Italian boot a few years after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews, and once again tens of thousands of Jews were forced to flee or convert. Prosperous communities that were recognized throughout Europe as major centers for Torah study vanished overnight. But for centuries some of those who had converted to Christianity continued to secretly observe and hand down Jewish rituals and, today, many families often unknowingly follow traditions such as covering mirrors when mourning a death or burning a piece of dough when making bread.

In recent years, many southern Italians have rediscovered their Jewish roots, leading in some cases to conversions and the reestablishment of synagogues and small communities. In 2004, for example, Jews in the Puglia region, east of Calabria, rededicated the ancient synagogue in the port of Trani, which had been turned into a church, and the town now hosts a yearly weeklong festival of Jewish culture.

While there are still only a few dozen Jewish families in Puglia, there are hundreds of young people interested in learning about Judaism and starting the conversion process, says Francesco Lotoro, a musician who converted in 2004 and is considered one of the community’s leaders. The new community in Brindisi, also in Puglia, is building a synagogue, while prayer and study groups have developed in Sicily, especially in the town of Siracusa. This burgeoning renaissance often develops on its own, with little or no connection to the institutions of the larger, modern Orthodox communities in Central and Northern Italy. That is the case in the Calabrian mountain village of Serrastretta, where in 2007 American Rabbi Barbara Aiello founded a Reform synagogue where locals can learn about their forgotten heritage.

“You can see there is a revival, that Judaism is not something foreign to the south of Italy,” says Lotoro. “It’s as if a veil was suddenly lifted after hundreds of years.”