Velvel Lederman is a children’s entertainer and Jewish educator in Sydney. To his legion of preschool fans, he is fondly known as “Uncle Velvel.” One year, in the early 2000s, immediately after Sukkot, he had a thought: What would happen if he cut open his etrog from the recent festival and planted the seeds in his backyard?
Etrogs, the yellow citron used by Jews for the festival, traditionally thrive in tropical climates and warm temperatures; Australian Jews typically import them from Israel or Europe. But Lederman thought that Sydney’s climate, with an average winter temperature of 62 degrees, seemed perfect for growing its own etrogs. The fruit trees are especially partial to sunlight, which is in plentiful supply in Bondi, the Sydney beach community where he lives.
“Most people who attempt to plant etrogs do it with one carefully planted seed,” he said. “I took more of a chance. I decided to throw in a few seeds and was thrilled when, lo and behold, over the next few weeks they sprouted.”
The first year after Lederman planted his etrog seeds, he saw many bees buzzing around his new etrog seedlings, and about two years later, the tree sprouted its first etrog fruits—right around Hanukkah.
Lederman immediately faced two problems: One, living in Australia, where the seasons are the opposite of the Northern Hemisphere’s, his etrog tree had flowered at the wrong time of year. While there were potential ways to protect the etrog until Sukkot, he didn’t get the chance due to his second problem: possums. Native to Australia, brushtail possums—small, furry bush animals that also live in cities—have long tails and pointy noses, and are around the size of a cat. Herbivores by nature, they are partial to eating leaves, fruits, and flowers; it appears, according to Lederman’s anecdotal evidence, that they love the taste of etrogs.
“I had one really big etrog on that first tree, virtually just under the size of a soccer ball,” he said. “I really should have been smart and covered it with a net, but unfortunately I didn’t, and the possums got to it and bit right through it.”
Disappointed that his etrogs had been eaten, but excited that he had some early success growing them in the first place, Lederman was hopeful that he would get another crop of etrogs the next year. However, although he waited a few more years, the tree did not flower again.
So Lederman decided to try to grow a second etrog tree from scratch, in his front yard. “Every year after Sukkot I keep my etrogs in the original box that I buy them; etrogs don’t disintegrate, they just shrivel up and become hard like rocks,” he said. He took one of his old etrogs that he had not thrown out from three years earlier. “I got the seeds from the old etrog and threw them on the ground. I waited six weeks and used mega amounts of fertilizer and took really good care of the seedlings, and lo and behold, sprouts came up and the etrog tree started to grow.”
After a few more years, Lederman saw that this second tree looked like it had the beginning of an etrog growing. “I had taken care of the tree for a few years and it hadn’t flowered,” he said, “and then in early 2019 I noticed that it was growing something green and round that looked like the beginnings of an etrog!”
This time Lederman knew that he would have to protect the budding citron if he wanted it to last: “I didn’t want the possums to get it this time, and I also knew that it would flower earlier than Sukkot, due to the opposite seasons in Australia; so, I covered it with a net.”
For months, every day he would check on his fruit. “I would come out and say, thank God it’s there! It’s as if God had told me, you wanted to see if there are live seeds in the old etrog you used, and here are the fruits of your labors—now use this special growing fruit for special labor.”
By Rosh Hashanah, the etrog was as big as a grapefruit. By the time Sukkot came around, it was enormous. “My etrog on the tree was huge,” said Lederman. “I had to use my two hands to hold it and when it finally came time to cut it, I invited all my family around and we did a special cutting ceremony; we put it on Instagram, took it off the tree and thanked God for what had grown in my garden.”
Although Lederman was thrilled to have grown such an enormous etrog that had been cut in time for Sukkot, after so many years of waiting and taking care of his trees, there was still one final hurdle to pass.
“As soon as I cut the etrog from the tree, I took it to my local synagogue, the Tzemach Tzedek Shule in Sydney, and asked my rabbi, Avrohom Perlow, whether my etrog was kosher for use on Sukkot,” he said. “After Rabbi Perlow confirmed that the tree was more than five years old [to ensure it met biblical tithing requirements], he let me know that despite a small number of insect marks on my etrog, he couldn’t see anything that would render it passul [invalid for ritual use], so therefore it was kosher for use on Sukkot.”
Lederman added: “He also could not believe how big the etrog was.”
Lederman was ecstatic with the outcome. After all his hard work planting and taking care of the tree, he had been able to harvest the etrog during the right season in time for Sukkot. “I took my massive homegrown etrog to synagogue to use during the traditional Hoshanah prayer when the congregation circles the bimah,” he said.
When I spoke with him on the phone in the lead up to Sukkot this year, he reported that although it had been a few years since his successful 2019 etrog, this year there were no fruits growing on either of his trees. “This year one of my trees sprouted beautiful blossoms, but unfortunately none of them have pollinated,” he said.
Lederman wasn’t too disappointed though, as he has now used his specialist etrog-growing skills to take his passion one step further. At the local Jewish day school in Sydney, Moriah College, he has worked with a local preschool teacher, Hazel Blend, and taught her how to pot and grow etrog trees from seed for the local Jewish preschool children to take care of. These trees at the school are growing nicely.
“Hazel wanted to plant etrogs because she loves germinating seeds and seeing their growth; she’s a wonderful gardener and she takes care of her etrogs with lots of love, care, and sunshine,” he said. “Hazel compares the etrog tree to children’s growth: If you give the plant care and get a good root system, the tree will grow up.”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.