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Shaken Up

Egypt’s politically expedient ban on the export of palm fronds has altered the lulav market in unexpected ways

Allison Hoffman
October 12, 2011
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
A date-palm farmer in Iraq, where officials are working to rebuild the country’s crop.Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
A date-palm farmer in Iraq, where officials are working to rebuild the country’s crop.Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

In August, a few days after Israeli forces mistakenly killed six Egyptian police and military personnel during a counter-terror operation in the Sinai, Cairo announced that it would ban the harvest and export of palm fronds and hearts—effective immediately. Egypt’s agriculture minister, Salah Youssef, said the move came out of concern for the country’s date palms, which have been afflicted by a parasitic weevil. But the timing was more than a little conspicuous: He was hailed for defying another longstanding policy of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that was perceived to favor Israeli interests over domestic ones.

Palm fronds are like Douglas firs: crops that have value only when marketed to a particular group of people at a particular time of year. Known as lulavs, palm fronds are as important to observant Jews during Sukkot, which begins tonight at sunset, as Christmas trees are to Christians in December. The tightly furled spears of immature fronds are one of the four species traditionally shaken during the holiday, a mimic of ancient rituals performed by priests in the Temple.

Egypt, as it happens, is the largest supplier of lulavs in the world, shipping as many as 700,000 fronds to Israel and about as many to the United States and Europe every fall. So, the threat of a potentially holiday-wrecking shortfall sent distributors—and politicians—into a frenzy. “Let my lulavs go!” exclaimed a press release sent out by Rep. Howard Berman, a Los Angeles Democrat, who is facing a tight re-election battle in a newly drawn—and heavily Jewish—district.

This isn’t the first time Sukkot observers have had to cope with lulav drama. The last big scare was in 2005, when Egyptian authorities curtailed palm-frond exports over concerns for the country’s date crop. The result was a run on lulavs in New York’s Orthodox precincts, where prices for the lowest-end fronds shot up from $2 to $10. (And that was after Egypt agreed to release about 450,000 fronds to Israel and another 100,000 to the United States, once aggressive lobbying from Jewish officials prompted the State Department to get involved.) But earlier panics featured villains closer to home: In 1999, Israeli authorities filed a complaint against an Arab-Jewish cartel suspected of cornering the market on Egyptian output, driving the price up. In 1986, American Jews were stymied by U.S. regulators who impounded a crucial 90,000-frond shipment from Tunisia, leaving them to rot in a warehouse for want of a proper certificate of origin.

This year’s episode has struck many as evidence of a structural problem in the lulav market that can’t be ignored any longer. “Why would anyone rely on a single source of anything?” asked David Wiseman, a Dallas-based distributor of Sukkot sets known as arba minim, which include an etrog, or citron, and myrtle and willow branches alongside palm fronds. “It’s crazy.”

The trouble for buyers like Wiseman is figuring out where else to go. Egypt is the world’s leading producer of dates, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan—all unlikely suppliers of lulavs for anyone looking to diversify. Israel ranks No. 17, producing a mere 22,000 metric tons to Egypt’s 1.3 million. Jordan, which helps boost Israel’s supply, doesn’t even rate in the top 20, according to the most recent U.N. statistics. Kosher lulavs, which must be straight and have unsplit green leaves, can only be obtained from particular varieties of palms that, today, are under relatively limited cultivation. And American demand, by all accounts, is steadily rising, from an estimated 270,000 fronds in the mid-1980s to at least 500,000 today. “The market has exploded,” said Yitzchok Summers, the rabbi at Anshe Emes, an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. “When I was growing up here, there were a couple of places you went to get your lulav and etrog, but last year when you went down Pico Boulevard there were kids sitting outside the Judaica stores who would do drive-up service.”

Israeli officials announced last week that they expected to satisfy domestic demand for about 650,000 lulavs, in part thanks to new preservatives that allow for a longer harvest window in Israeli date groves. Jordan provided a buffer shipment of about 110,000 palm fronds—including, traders told Ha’aretz, some contraband Egyptian lulavs. Special import licenses were also granted to Spanish growers, though Hamas nixed efforts to open up imports of 50,000 fronds from Gaza.

But everyone seems to agree that Israel’s patchwork solution has strained global supply—leaving American Jews to figure out their own plan for replacing the high-quality, low-price lulavs from the Sinai. The obvious solution, according to Summers and Wiseman, is to buy domestic— specifically, from California and Arizona, the top two date-producing states. Late last week, Wiseman said he was still waiting on a cut of the Egyptian supply, but he’s posted a notice on his website announcing that he is only selling California lulavs this year and for the foreseeable future. “As far as we know,” the announcement read, “we are the first major dealer to make this decision, and we have received the overwhelming support of our customers.”

The majority of dates produced in the United States are deglet noor or medjool, whose fronds tend to be too weak to meet halakhic standards. But Wiseman estimates there are enough trees of sturdier varieties in California—including the dayri palm, whose tight fronds command premium prices—to produce as many as 40,000 lulavs each year. “I got California ones last year because I wanted to wean people off Egyptian lulavs,” Wiseman told me. “But there is no infrastructure. The trees can produce, but you need a system of cutting them, packing them, sorting them, and distributing them.”

Calls to growers in the Coachella Valley, in the desert east of Los Angeles, suggested the first hurdle is actually explaining to growers what a lulav is. (“Are you sure? Palm fronds are really big,” said a woman who answered the phone at Brown Date Garden, when she heard about the ritual lulav-shaking.) Even among those who know about Sukkot, there is hesitation about getting into the lulav business. “We’ve been approached in the past and have never engaged,” said Albert Keck, the president of Hadley Farms, one of the best-known growers in Southern California. “I cringe at cutting off the central terminal of a young palm.”

That hasn’t stopped smaller growers from getting into the market. Arthur Futterman, a small grower in Indio, Calif., who was raised in a Reform Jewish household but is now an evangelical Christian, has worked for the past six years with dealers from the anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidic community, which does not buy Israeli products. “At first I was helping them locate farmers around the desert who had dayris and helping them do their packing and shipping,” Futterman explained this week. It was slow work: Each grower who agreed to participate had fewer than a dozen of the high-end dayri palms. Futterman said most growers limit cuttings to four fronds per tree. “It’s like cutting your fingernail to the quick,” he said. “You can do it a little, but not too much.”

Now Futterman has leased several acres to brothers Shulem and Schmiel Ekstein, Satmar dealers who have planted several dozen dayri palms exclusively for Sukkot. Those trees, however, won’t mature for several years. In the meantime, Futterman said, there is an opportunity for people with less exacting interpretations of halakha. “The minutiae the Eksteins want are not present in most varieties—they will look at the last little leaf to make sure it’s sealed closed,” Futterman said. “But in my mind, you can take any center frond that’s not opened up, like a rosebud.” And, he went on, “if that’s your understanding of closed, then there are thousands here.”

Which is how Rabbi Summers of Anshe Emes has managed to satisfy his congregation’s needs this year. “I work through someone who said there was a big problem because of Egypt, but he was able to secure lulavim from Palm Springs,” Summers said last week. Still, Summers had a Plan B: “I have two date palms in front of my house, and you can see the lulav in the middle. It’s kind of high up, but I was thinking, this year, if I’m really stuck, I can always just get a ladder.”

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.