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For Crown Heights Jews, An Italian Twist on an Ancient Tradition

By Sonja Sharp | September 27, 2012 8:48am

CROWN HEIGHTS — For Brooklyn shoppers seeking fall's most coveted heirloom fruit, provenance and pedigree are paramount. Pesticides, not so much.

Though they're anything but organic and far from local, for thousands of faithful, one rare and almost inedible citrus can command $200 or more.

That's because the lumpy and otherwise unappetizing citron — better known to most Jews as an etrog and almost totally unknown to those outside the fold — is a critical element of the festival of Sukkot, which begins on Sept. 30.  And while the majority of citrons sold in New York are grown in Israel or Morocco, the most prized citrus in Crown Heights comes not from the Holy Land but the Holy Roman Empire.

"The first Rebbe of Chabad, he was very pro-Israel, but when it came to etrog, he was very pro-Italian," explained Rabbi Levi Zarchi, who travels with a contingent from Crown Heights every year to harvest citrons in Calabria.  "When Moses got the commandment to get the etrog, they sent messengers to Italy to pick them up, and that’s what the Jews used in the desert."

The etrog is one of the four objects — a citron, a palm frond, a willow and a myrtle branch — used in the eight-day festival, during which observant Jews take their meals and spend much of the day in thatched-roof huts outdoors, reminiscent of the divine shelter that protected the Jews of the Bible while they wandered the desert.

"The whole year you get lost in the sense of your own competence and success — on Sukkot we try to reconnect with our ancestral dependence on the divine," said Crown Heights resident Jared Goldfarb, 25, who was out looking for an etrog at Shapiro Esrogim Center Thursday.

"I go to work and I make all this effort but everything I have comes from Hashem. When I'm sitting in a tent eating in a thunderstorm I realize my life really is precious."

For Lubavitchers like Goldfarb, tradition demands an Italian touch. Scores of pop-up shops appear along Kingston Avenue advertising kosher etrogs from Calabria with spirited recommendations from respected rabbis in the weeks leading up to the festival, when men with jeweler's loupes can be seen probing fruit for sale in U-Hauls and hat stores, in tents and on tables in the open air.

"Everyone wants to be the first one to see the best one," Zarchi said. "You try to keep everyone happy."

Size matters. Symmetry, too. Those who can afford it want to perform the holiday rituals with the most beautiful object possible, Zarchi explained. (For those who can't, a less lovely fruit can be had for about $30).

But for the citron, beauty is more than skin deep.

Unlike its hybrid cousins the lemon and the lime, a citron isn't kosher as an etrog unless it's purebred, a pedigree that requires constant monitoring. The trees are both short and spiny, making them difficult to harvest, and a single prick of the skin can make an otherwise enviable etrog worthless.

Which might seem ironic, given that after the holiday, they're all worthless anyway.

"We're going to spend $150 to $200 on something that in seven days will be so worthless we'll throw it around or make jam out of it," Goldfarb explained. "We all say everything comes from God, but who's got skin in the game? When you invest in an etrog that you know will be worthless, that's putting skin in the game."