American Orthodoxy

How Zionism Saved the Etrog in America

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Zev Eleff

In 1866, etrog merchants failed to deliver citrons on time to thousands of Jews in the United States. From New York to Texas, Louisiana to Kansas, “congregations were sadly disappointed,” opined one Jewish newspaperman at the time, “but not more so than the unfortunate importers, who, on the arrival of the steamer, received some splendid Corfu Esrogim, but, alas too late!”

The disappointment shared in the unhappy report indicates that many Jews in this so-called Treifene Medine had wished to observe the laws of Sukkot. Their plans, though, were stymied by the too-much-delayed delivery of the Greek etrogim. In fact, Jews in the United States had a long tradition—one that began with Shearith Israel in New York—of fundraising before Sukkot to ensure that anyone who wished could acquire the religious equipment to perform the holiday rituals.

Of course, America was not exactly the “Goldene Medine” either. By the 1870s, the etrog market was in steep decline. Mitzvah merchants—a terrific term coined by historian Annie Polland—like Hyman Sakolski continued to sell etrogim along with sacred books on Manhattan’s Division Street. However, Sakolski made it clear that etrogim were no longer a profitable item. He sold them to ensure that the dwindling number of interested Jews could observe the holiday. Peddlers and shopkeepers no longer bothered to make the necessary international arrangements to import the sacred goods. Accordingly, the number of newspaper circulars advertising etrogim for purchase speedily decreased. One Jew from Cincinnati summed up the sentiments of his coreligionists this way:

If you have no Esrog, no Lulav, etc., oranges, grapes, pears, and apples will do, not to be shaken, but to be gratefully enjoyed as God’s blessing bestowed upon our beautiful land. Instead of shaking, send a nice basket of choice fruit to some poor family or families, and you have done quite well. Be glad, be blessed.

Overall, religious observance among America’s Jews was at a nadir. It wasn’t that most observant Jews had migrated toward Reform and abandoned traditional rituals. Usually, it was the case in the post-Civil War period that young Jews no longer looked to any form of Judaism. Sukkot, therefore, suffered along with Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. In September 1876, one Lower East Side merchant claimed with some exaggeration that he was the lone provider of etrogim left to Jews in the United States.

Then, something happened. In 1887, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger of New York reported that the “number of merchants selling etrogim” had “increased greatly in recent years, and the competition is now exceedingly great.” Here are Rabbi Weinberger’s observations found in his Ha-Yehudim ve-Yahadut bi-New York, translated into English many years ago by my teacher, Jonathan Sarna:

This has brought with it a certain amount of good. In New York, any Jew can now easily observe these mitzvot in the strictest possible fashion, without worrying about spending more than he can afford. Only a few years ago, a poor man in New York could not buy a lulav and etrog of his own; even the most highly Orthodox had to observe the commandments with etrogim circulated around every morning by poor peddlers. Now it is hard to find any kosher traditional home without an etrog of its own. In many synagogues, especially the small ones, there are as many etrogim as worshippers.

What had happened? For one thing, the Jewish population in the United States increased due to mass migration from Eastern Europe. In 1880, there were a quarter-million Jews living on American soil. By the turn of the century, that figure was closer to a million. The rise in interest in etrogim also had something to do with their new place of origin. For instance, the newspapers announced that Mr. J.H. Kantrowitz of 31 East Broadway had “imported from the Holy Land a choice lot of Esrogim. This is the first time that Esrogim grown in the Holy Land have been sold in this city, and Mr. Kantrowitz’s enterprise deserves liberal patronage.” Mr. Kantrowitz did quite well for himself, convincing others to arrange for etrog shipments from Eretz Yisrael, as well. In short order, American Jewry experienced a great spike in etrog sales—and, accordingly, etrog observance.

There is no requirement to use an etrog from Eretz Yisrael. Yet, the connection between observance and the Holy Land triggered something powerful. Jews started to take a greater interest in the fruitful holiday of Sukkot. No doubt, they were moved by the news of the pioneering efforts to rebuild and replant the Holy Land. To them, support of etrog importation meant support for the Yishuv.

Mitzvah merchants still peddled some Corfu etrogim. However, Holy Land etrogim emerged as the citron of choice. Orthodox Jews in the United States, for example, were happy to learn in 1881 that the “Agricultural School of Jaffa produces excellent white wine, and this year a small number of Esrogim were among its products.” Decades later, America’s Jews also started to purchase imported etrogim from Petah-Tikva. The lesson learned here is that religious observance can—and oftentimes is—inspired by ancillary, if not altogether righteous causes. In the case of etrogim, Zionism was this great cause.

Among the Orthodox, Zionism was not a controversial item. In June 1898, the founders of the Orthodox Union spent hours deliberating whether to call their new organization “Orthodox,” debating the pros and cons of such a nomenclature. However, the other plank decided at that inaugural meeting, on Zionism, required just minimal conversation and reached an overwhelming consensus in very short order. Likewise, the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim, established in 1902, was composed of much more religiously “rightwing” members compared to the Orthodox Union leadership. Yet, the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim agreed wholeheartedly with its Union counterparts.

The renewed prominence of the etrog in American Jewish life piqued the strange curiosity of Christian neighbors. In 1916, the editors of the Country Gentleman, the journal of record for the “farm, the garden and the fireside” in Philadelphia, told their readers about the “sacred Jewish citron” and the high prices paid for it by “Orthodox Hebrews.” The magazine noted that while most are imported from Palestine to the United States, to the delight of agricultural opportunists that, owing to the ongoing Great War, “it is possible that the etrog might be profitably grown on a small scale in some of the citrus sections of Florida and California.”

The plan did not work, but some still try. As of 2011, there was one 80-year-old etrog farmer who raises etrogim not too far from Sacramento. Aside from that, etrog yields from American soil are sparse if not non-existent. For more than a hundred years, Jewish bookstores and pop-up merchants in storefronts and residential basements urge their customers to purchase the slightly pricier Israeli etrog to support farmers in the Holy Land. Dutifully raised in a Religious Zionist home, I usually comply. It isn’t that Californian or Floridian etrogim would be any less kosher. However, there is much to be said for the ever-increasing extra layers of meaning of the mitzvot we observe.