In early October, Kingston Avenue, Crown Heights’ Hasidic hub, was bustling with anticipation of Sukkot, the weeklong Jewish harvest festival, right around the corner. Black-hatted men zig-zagged in and out of religious shops, women pushed strollers stuffed with groceries, and street vendors called out their prices to the clientele scurrying about.
In an art gallery a bit removed from the commotion, Italian-born Leizer Rodal, now a practicing rabbi in Arizona, opened up shop under the name Esrogino, his family business now three generations old. This was Rodal’s second year in Crown Heights selling Italian esrogim (the plural of esrog), a type of citrus fruit, resembling a large lumpy lemon.
The esrog is not just any citrus fruit. Each of Rodal’s fruits sold for $20 to $300 – and in some cases an esrog for Sukkot can cost thousands of dollars, though the untrained eye will find it hard to detect significant differences between the fruits priced at the high end and those at the low end.
“The esrog represents the perfect person,” said Rodal, “but people also like to get the perfect esrog. And that’s one in a thousand.”
The esrog’s role is essential in Sukkot, an annual commemoration of the 40-year period when the Israelites wandered the desert and lived in temporary shelters. Each observant Jewish family builds a makeshift hut, eats its meals there for seven days, and performs a daily ceremony with a palm branch, willow twigs, myrtle branches – and an esrog. The plant products are brought together to symbolize the diversity of Jewish character types. Unlike the three others, the esrog has both taste and smell, representing perfection: someone who does good deeds and studies Torah, the Jewish Bible.
According to Rodal, esrogim should be symmetrical and clean. “Even a tiny, tiny blemish will for sure take off the price a lot,” he said. “You’ll see people coming with a magnifying glass, the one they use for diamonds, and looking at an esrog under a white light.”
Size is also important, said Uriel Dunn, one of Rodal’s customers. “The bigger the size of the esrog, the more you spend.”
Part of the expense is also the hard work involved in growing the fruit, said Rodal, who spent his childhood summers on his family’s fields in southern Italy. “They literally take every single esrog like a baby,” he said, describing meticulous techniques such as carefully removing all thorns to raise healthy perfect esrogim.
But why spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars, when a $20 esrog could be just as kosher? Among the Orthodox, buying an expensive esrog is considered beautifying a commandment, or “hiddur mitzvah.” “There is a lot of merit for doing mitzvah in the most beautiful way if you have the means,” said Bracha Leeds, a rabbi’s wife. “It’s also about education,” she added, “teaching your children that that’s what you should spend your money on —doing mitzvah.”
The Leeds family, like many Chabad Hasidim, prefer Italian esrogim like those brought to Crown Heights by Rodal. Jewish text says that Moses grew esrog trees in Calabria, a region of southern Italy, where Rodal’s family’s fields are located.
Esrogim from Israel and Morocco are also popular, said Rodal. According to online Jewish culture magazine, Tablet, the U.S. has only one large-scale esrogim grower: a Presbyterian in California who follows Jewish law in growing the fruit. But “Italian esrogim are the strongest esrogim out there,” said Rodal, who said his fruit stays fresh longer than those from Israel.
Near the art gallery where Rodal set up shop, Shmuel Katzenstein, a teenager from Israel, sold Israeli esrogim for Sukkot. His fruit was smaller than Rodal’s and the highest-priced were $30.
This year Rodal sold his esrogim in custom-made boxes. “You know, I’m Italian, so I like a little style. And people like that,” he said. When Rodal came to Crown Heights last year, he also realized how strong his family name was in the esrog industry. This year, he also experimented with also selling jams, liquor, and cosmetics made from esrogim. “It’s a great gift for the holidays, for Sukkot,” he said.
Customer Uriel Dunn suggested there were other reasons to buy Rodal’s fruit, as well. “It’s the quality control,” he added, while noting Rodal’s personal connection to the growers in Italy. Dun observed that selling esrogim in an art gallery also had a bit more cache than the street vendors outside. “You come here, there’s art on the wall, and also, these guys are the friendliest people in town!”
The esrog industry is a tough business, according to Eli Reiter, a former Brooklyn esrog seller. “Esrog shopping is like buying a used car,” he said. “You pay too much and hope to God you didn’t get a lemon.”