From Sukkot to Morning-sickness: The Magic of the Etrog

Uzi-Eli traces his knowledge back to Maimonides, who praised the healing virtues of the etrog in writings that date back almost 900 years.

Emil Salman

They call him the Etrog Man – and for good reason.

Uzi-Eli, as he is otherwise known, is the founder and owner of a one-of-a-kind shop in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that sells all things etrog, the citron fruit used in religious rituals during the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The etrog is not eaten during Sukkot, but rather, it serves as one of the four plant species shaken to fulfill the mitzvah associated with this holiday. According to Jewish legend, it’s meant to symbolize the heart, and in its bumpy-skinned, lemon-like raw form, it makes an appearance once a year, just before the start of this holiday. But in the bottles, canisters and jars that line the shelves of Uzi-Eli’s tiny shop, it’s a star all year around.

Among the assortment of derivative products here, there’s a spray made from etrog peel that’s meant to cure acne, age spots, mouth sores, baldness and even stuttering in young children. There’s a cream made from crushed etrog seeds and coconut oil that supposedly smooths out wrinkles. There’s a soap made from etrog essence that Uzi-Eli claims is effective in combating dandruff and general itchiness. There’s an ointment made from etrog extract, mint, ginger and cayenne pepper he vows will cure sinus problems, hemorrhoids and chronic pain. There’s an etrog drink sold in frozen packages that supposedly works wonders on morning sickness in pregnant woman (“If a woman drinks this during her pregnancy, the baby will also come out smelling as fragrant as the fruit,” he assures a prospective buyer.)

There’s a special version of the popular Yemenite spice hilbe with a bit of etrog extract mixed in that prevents the body, as Uzi-Eli explains, from giving off the strong odor usually associated with this condiment. And finally, there are the shop’s specialty smoothies made from etrog and khat – a plant Yemenites traditionally chew that is known for its stimulating effect – as well as a delicious etrog liqueur.

In the days leading up to Sukkot, Uzi-Eli’s shop is packed. Not only with the usual curiosity seekers interested in sampling his natural remedies, but also, shoppers in the market for an etrog to go with their three-branch lulav (palm frond,) so that they can fulfill the special mitzvah of Sukkot. In order to be considered kosher for the purpose of performing this mitzvah, the etrog must in most cases have an intact pitam, a small extension at the top of the fruit. But those with a damaged pitams are also in demand, says Uzi-Eli, for use as decorations in the hut-like sukkahs where many Jews traditionally eat their meals during the seven-day holiday that starts at sundown on Wednesday.

A robust and jovial 72-year-old with a mop of white curls under his yarmulke, Uzi-Eli and his potions are an unmistakable attraction in the market. Barely has one group of young sight-seers exited the premises when another enters (he gets anywhere from five to 20 groups a day, most of them on organized tours of Jerusalem’s storied marketplace.) In broken English, he regales them with tales of his childhood in Yemen. He tells them about his two grandfathers, who happened to be brothers and were both natural healers. He tells them about how one of them concocted a potion to dry up Uzi-Eli’s mother’s milk when, as a toddler, he refused to wean himself from her breast. He tells them about the goat who replaced his mother as his main provider of food, showing how he would get it to push its leg up in air so that he could crawl under its body. He tells them about how that goat was killed so that the family would have dried meat to eat on their long journey to the port city of Aden, where they eventually boarded a plane to Israel in 1949, and how he never overcame that loss. Then he proceeds to squirt the anti-acne etrog spray on the face of one of his visitors who’s agreed to serve as a guinea pig. Another gets a squirt of it in the mouth, and yet another gets Uzi-Eli’s finger, with a dab of the special sinus ointment on it, inserted straight up his nose.

It was 12 years ago that Uzi-Eli opened his shop. Some of the etrogs that serve as his raw materials are grown on fields he owns in an agricultural community outside Jerusalem, but most come from other farms around the country. Before going into the etrog-derivative business, he had worked as a chaperone at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. But that was just to get some food on the family table. He always dreamed, he says, of continuing the family tradition of natural healing.

Before opening the shop, Uzi-Eli recalls, he embarked on a bit of research.

“I would travel around the country to wellness conferences and festivals to try to learn exactly what ailments affect Israelis most so that I could come up with a way help them.”

And what did he discover? “Sinus, neck, knee and upper back pain – those are the most common problems in this country,” he says.

The basics of healing he learned from his parents who learned in turn from theirs.

But most of their knowledge, he says, can be traced back to Maimonides, the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher and physician, who praised the healing virtues of the etrog in writings that date back almost 900 years. “I simply took the basics and added improvements for modern times,” says Uzi-Eli. “Sometimes I even come up with ideas for new formulas in my dreams.”

Married five times (his latest wife is 30 years his junior), the Yemenite healer has two sons and a daughter and three grandchildren. The two sons have both joined him in the business, but neither one of them, he says, is privy to all the family secrets. “Each one knows only part of what goes in to making each product,” says Uzi-Eli, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.