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The Magic of an ‘Etrog’

Rokhl’s Golden City: How a strange fruit inspired Yiddish writers

Rokhl Kafrissen
October 11, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to marry me. He bought me books about yeshivas and steak dinners at Le Marais. That is to say, it was a typical New Yorkish courtship. One night, right after Sukes, he arrived with a beautiful esrog. It was cozy nesting weather and I had a wild desire to play out my balesboste fantasies. I halved the esrog and stuffed it inside a plump and oiled roasting chicken.

Ninety minutes later I had a beautifully browned chicken permeated with the mouth-curdling funk of esrog. It hadn’t occurred to me that an esrog was anything but a show-offy lemon. The failure of that chicken was a simen (sign) of the incompatibility between my gentleman friend and me. Separately, esrogim and chickens are great. Together, they just don’t work.

There are a number of traditional culinary preparations for the esrog, and a rich body of related folklore. That folklore points to the curious gender flux the esrog undergoes during its short but fragrant life. Traditionally, the hunt for the most beautiful esrog was the purview of men, who used the esrog (and lulav) during Sukes prayer services. A beautiful esrog was, and is, a very perishable status symbol—with a lifespan of seven days.

The esrog must remain kosher during the entire festival. This is where it gets complicated, and gendered. Opposite the stem end is a little knobby bit called the pitom. The most covetable esrogim have an intact pitom. The esrog doesn’t have to have a pitom to be kosher, but if yours has a pitom, and it falls off, then your fruit is unkosher. That isn’t just inconvenient, though.

Ashkenazi folk magic attached great significance to the power of the pitom. A woman could ensure that she would have a son if she bit off the pitom. (I’m not going to speculate on the psychological symbolism there.) The pitom placed under a pillow ensured an easy labor, or kimpet, in Yiddish. That labor could also be eased by a special esrog preserve, or ayngemakhts.

The power of the pitom nearly tears two brothers apart in Zalman Shneour’s short story “Opgebisn dem pitom” (With the Pitom Bitten Off). The brothers jointly own an esrog that gets passed between the households. But this year, each brother has a pregnant woman in his house and each is demanding the rights to the esrog’s potency. The women believe the pitom even has the power to change a baby girl to a baby boy in the womb. The stakes are high.

One of the women is desperate for a son and cannot wait. She bites off the pitom before any kind of agreement can be reached. This causes great strife, and comedy, between the two families. The other pregnant woman, Reyzl, then takes possession of the pitom-less esrog. Her mother-in-law consoles her, and begins preparations for turning it into preserves. At this point, the dignified esrog becomes the much more heymish esregl. The males of the household crowd around, khalishing for a taste of its golden ayngemakhts. But once transformed in the service of feminine magic, the esregl is strictly off limits to men.

Ironically, the woman who prematurely bit the pitom ends up having a baby girl and the woman with the ayngemakhts has an easy labor, and a baby boy. All is well, though, between the women, and they joke that perhaps the two little cousins are destined to become a couple. (Things were different then.)

Opgebisn dem pitom” was part of a larger cycle of stories Zalman Shneour wrote for the Forverts in the 1920s, at the behest of editor Abraham Cahan. Though he was already a serious poet of note in both Hebrew and Yiddish, it was his Shklover stories, based on his own childhood in Shklov, that made Shneour very popular, and very wealthy. One wonders how many pitoms a Yiddish poet had to bite to find that kind of luck.

Shneour’s Shklover Yidn (Jews of Shklov) stories looked back to the 1890s. Though funny and well crafted, their popularity also owed to the fact that the stories “responded to a growing cultural need, on the part of the already acculturated and relatively secure Jewish immigrants in the West, to look ‘homeward’ to their native East European towns and hamlets, now changed and unreachable because of wars and revolutions, with bittersweet nostalgia.”

The reader finds a note of nostalgia, more bitter than sweet, in the introduction to Bella Chagall’s volume of childhood stories, Brenendike Likht (1945) (Burning Lights). In the introduction, called “Yerushe” (Heritage), Chagall writes, “My old home is not there anymore. Everything is gone, even dead … The children are scattered in this world and the other … But each of them, in place of his vanished inheritance, has taken with him, like a piece of his father’s shroud, the breath of parental home … I am unfolding my piece of heritage, and at once, there rise to my nose the odors of my old home.”

The tone of the introduction is one of aching sadness of an adult who has already lost so much. The stories themselves, however, are bright and fragrant gems, told from the point of view of the young Bella, then called Bashe. The book is loosely arranged around the Jewish calendar. During Sukes, little Bashe exuberates in the fresh smells and excitement the holiday greenery brings: “And where is the etrog? The yellow citron, plump and big, is sprawled like a Pharaoh on a soft bed in the middle of the silver sugar box. In the place of the sugar, which has been removed, the citron gives off a fragrance like an emperor’s.”

Bashe is allowed to play in the suke while it’s being built, but once the holiday begins, she is only allowed as far as its door, to hear the blessing. Then, her father and brothers sit and wait for their meals to be served to them through a window. Bashe is relegated to the apartment, with the women and servants. There they hurry to ready the holiday meal for the men. Little Bashe is acutely aware of the way gender shapes her life.

In “The Courtyard,” Bashe contemplates the family’s shelves of sforim: “I fancy that all the books are upset because I am gazing at them. I run away; they cry after me as my old grandfather shouted at mother, asking why they were teaching me Russian, why they did not rather hire a teacher to teach me Yiddish.”

At 17, Bashe left Vitebsk to attend university in Moscow. She and Moyshe Chagall had already been acquainted for some time, but her well-off parents didn’t see him as a suitable match. Nonetheless, in 1915, when she was almost 20, they married. In 1935, the Chagalls visited Vilne and attended YIVO’s World Conference, a trip that made a great impression on both of them. Though she was now Bella, a sophisticated woman of the world, the trip to Vilne drew her back toward the language of her childhood.

“It is an odd thing,” she writes. “A desire comes to me to write, and to write in my faltering mother tongue, which, as it happens, I have not spoken since I left the home of my parents … just once, I want very much to wrest from the darkness a day, an hour, a moment belonging to my vanished home.” It’s hard to believe the book was written in 1939, before the final effacement of the world Chagall knew as a girl. But as a woman of 44, she had already seen wars and revolution remake Europe. Chagall tragically passed suddenly of a viral infection in New Jersey, in 1944. When she was writing the book, did she suspect that she might not even live to see it published?

Sukes is both a harvest festival as well as a holiday of memory. In the Torah, God commands the Jews to dwell in “booths” to recall the temporary structures they occupied during their 40 years in the desert. Forty years is an awful long time to live temporarily. Forty years is an awful long time to not be at home.

My most memorable Sukes was in 2013. During kholemoyd, my brother and I drove a rental van from New York to Maryland. My mom moved there after I went away to college. Six years after her death, we finally had to retrieve the remnants of her townhouse from a rented storage space. Before we sold the house, the basement had flooded. After we sold the house, we moved the basement stuff we couldn’t deal with to the storage space. Then that flooded, too. I’m not a Tanakh expert, but there are only so many signs from God one may safely ignore.

If you’ve never had to travel to a faraway state to stand in a concrete maze tossing precious childhood memories into a dumpster because you just don’t have room for one more thing, I don’t recommend it. However, if my pink windup teddy bear and collection of Sweet Valley Highs were what made a home, I could’ve just moved into the self storage on Route 3. Stuff is nice, but it’s not the point.

During Sukes we are commanded to recreate the domestic anew, furnished with materials guaranteed to melt in the first downpour. It’s a ritual reminder that temporary is the most fundamental human condition. Enjoy it while it lasts.

(With thanks to Miriam Udel for providing me with the Yiddish text of Opgebisn dem pitom)

READ: The forbidden fruit (or citron) is always irresistible. In Sholem Aleichem’s “The Esrog,” a little boy finds himself dangerously attracted to that which he must not touch. … You should read all of Bella Chagall’s wonderful Brenendike Likht. You can read it in Yiddish, for free, here.

WATCH: I still love Ushpizin, the 2005 Israeli movie by and about a Breslover couple in Jerusalem. There’s a tiny bit of esrog-related Yiddish in the beginning, too.

MORE: The Congress for Jewish Culture is offering a three-day Yiddish literature seminar in New York City. The class will be led by Shane Baker and focus on the stories of Lamed Shapiro. (For advanced Yiddish students). Oct. 15-17. Register at [email protected] … I’m thoroughly tickled that Austostraddle has a new Yiddish-flavored cooking column called Gey in kikh (Go in the kitchen) … Yiddish New York has put out a call for its 2019 Visual Arts Exhibition. The theme is Utopia: Visions and Traditions. Deadline Nov. 25. … Have you ever dreamed of touring Yiddish South Africa, and maybe seeing some charismatic megafauna while you’re at it? The Congress for Jewish Culture is putting together a trip to Cape Town for Summer 2020. If you’re interested, make your voice heard now. Drop an email to [email protected]BRAZIL: If you’re going to be in Sao Paulo, Kleztival, the 10th International Jewish Music Festival is running from Oct. 26-Nov. 3. … LONDON: My friend Vivi Lachs will be giving a talk on the Yiddish popular culture of London’s East End on Nov. 17 at 2:30 p.m. On the same day, David Rosenberg will be leading his Rebels and Radicals walking tour of Brick Lane. Part of the Writeidea Festival. Make sure to book tickets. … WASHINGTON, D.C.: Theater J in Washington, D.C., opens a season of its new Yiddish Theater Lab on Oct. 28 with Golem Stories. … Alicia Svigals, klezmer fiddler, and Uli Geissendoerfer, piano, will be in concert presenting the absolutely gorgeous “Beregovski Suite: Reimagining a Long-Lost Klezmer Archive.” Dec. 1 at 3:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art, West Building, West Garden Court.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.