Shaken Up

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

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. (more…)

Earth Mother

Myra Goodman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm, is the Brooklyn-born daughter of Holocaust survivors and an unlikely organic-food pioneer

Drew and Myra Goodman, circa 2004. (Courtesy Earthbound Farm)

Three miles east of California’s coastal Highway 1, nestled among the steep hills of the Carmel Valley, the Earthbound Farm roadside farm stand overflows with autumn bounty in the week before Sukkot. A dozen varieties of winter squash lie scattershot across hay bales in the yard, and rows of raspberry bushes languish under the weight of an early season rain. Inside, goat cheese and root beer share shelf space with fresh-baked bread and cut flowers. But it’s a brightly lit refrigerated display at the back wall that catches the eye. There plastic clamshell containers of Earthbound’s signature organic salad greens sit shoulder to shoulder like soldiers at roll call—a sight no doubt familiar to shoppers at thousands of supermarkets across the country that carry the label. Earthbound Farm, the first American company to successfully sell pre-washed, bagged lettuce, is the largest supplier of organic produce in the country.

Just minutes from the affluent seaside town of Carmel, this is where Drew and Myra Goodman, two transplants from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, started selling organic raspberries in 1984. Their company now draws produce from 36,000 acres of farmland spread across six states and five countries, washes and wraps it in recycled plastic containers, and ships it across the continent. Today, Earthbound is available in three-quarters of supermarkets in the United States. If you’re buying organic baby spinach at a Whole Foods in December, chances are it’s from Earthbound.

Myra Goodman, an unlikely organic pioneer, is the face of this agricultural behemoth. The Brooklyn-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, she is an effusive talker, leaping from tales of her childhood to the well-rehearsed story of Earthbound’s founding and back again, peppering the narrative with details of her Rosh Hashanah dinner (“We said all the prayers. We didn’t blow the shofar.”), Drew’s weekly basketball game (“the longest running pickup game in the history of the Valley”), and her support group of local empty-nesters. (more…)


Evonne Marzouk, the Orthodox co-founder of a Jewish environmental group, insists the Torah holds us responsible for the earth’s well-being

(David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)

Sukkot, which begins later this week, celebrates the end of the harvest season. People decorate their sukkahs with branches and fruits as a way of giving thanks for the season’s bounty. Yet Jews generally shy away from nature worship, with its echoes of idolatry and paganism. It is even argued that Judaism’s human-centered worldview—the belief that humans alone are made in God’s image—makes us particularly ill-suited to respond to warnings about shrinking glaciers and dying species.

How, then, does a religious Jew who is deeply concerned about threats to the environment galvanize her community? Evonne Marzouk, the founder and executive director of Canfei Nesharim, a Jewish environmental organization, addressed that question for Vox Tablet. She spoke to host Sara Ivry about rabbinical and Torah-based justifications for making environmental sustainability a priority, her own journey to environmental advocacy, and the unique skills Orthodox Jews can bring to the challenges of sustainable living. [Running time: 19:38.] 


The second day of some Jewish holidays is mandated by rabbinic tradition, not Torah law. In today’s world, they’re increasingly hard to observe.

(Margarita Korol)

Margy Horowitz, a 37-year-old mother of two whom I know, is a private piano teacher in Los Angeles. She is an Orthodox Jew, as are about a third of her students. Paid per lesson, she forgoes up to $300 of income on each day she can’t teach. And in the fall, when Rosh Hashanah ushers in a month-long series of multiday holidays, that adds up: seven missed workdays in just over three weeks, if no holidays fall on a weekend. “The income I lose,” Horowitz said, “is an entire month’s rent.”

Observant Jews cannot work for two days on Rosh Hashanah, which this year starts tonight. Then eight days later there’s Yom Kippur, two days of Sukkot five days after that, and two days of Simchat Torah another week after that. What’s most troubling for people like Horowitz is that this financial hardship is twice as bad as it needs to be: Only one day of the two-day holidays—yom tov, in Hebrew—is mandated by the Torah; the other is rabbinic tradition from another era. Horowitz has thought about teaching on the second day of these two-day holidays, but the rabbis won’t allow it. “If I started working on yom tov, I wouldn’t feel as much like part of the Orthodox community anymore,” she told me.


It started as a clerical issue.

Rabbinic Judaism—that is, the Torah as interpreted by the rabbis, and the mainstream form of Judaism for more than a millennium—follows a lunar calendar. After the destruction of the Second Temple, but before the establishment of a formal calendar, Jews who had left Israel for Babylon, Egypt, and Rome needed to be informed of the new month. This happened via smoke signal or messenger dispatched from Jerusalem, depending on where you lived. Once the start of the month had been determined, you’d know when the holidays would take place. (more…)

Make Like an Egyptian Tree, and Avoid Israel

Palm frond export ban threatens Sukkot lulav supply

A lulav (the palm frond) and an etrog (the small citrus fruit).(wordscraft/Flickr)

On Sunday, Egypt announced a two-year prohibition on the export of palm leaves to Israel, due in part to a troublesome Red Palm Weevil. The move threatens the supply of lulavs, a crucial instrument in the Sukkot ritual: Egypt annually exports up to 700,000 palm fronds to Israel, and roughly half that number to the United States and Europe.

While Egypt’s agriculture minister cited both excessive harvesting and disease in announcing the ban, some were quick to link his statement to the recent contretemps between his country and Israel, which brought tensions to perhaps their highest point since the 1979 peace treaty.

Egypt announced a similar ban in 2005, and, additionally, the Israeli daily Maariv reported that unidentified Israeli importers paid off Egyptian palm growers to limit their exports to drive up prices; the resultant shortage affected Jewish communities around the globe. In 2010, despite another announced ban, Egypt maintained its normal output. (The issue is important enough as to merit mention in a just-dumped WikiLeaks cable.)

In addition to Egypt, Israelis also use lulavs from the West Bank and even Gaza, so we’ll have to wait to see how things shake out this year. Fortunately, Israel does not appear to rely on the hot Iranian desert for its etrogs.

Egyptian Government Bans Export of Palm Leaves to Israel [AlMasry AlYoum]

‘After the Holidays’

Your weekly dose of Israelispeak

(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning of the Hebrew, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday in The Scroll, our lexicon reveals what is really being said.

Now that shofar blasts are no longer reverberating in the air and sukkahs no longer sit on the balconies of the Holy Land, the long-awaited period of aharei hahagim (literally, “after the holidays”), when the nation’s month-long excuse for getting nothing done—other than shopping for chicken and pomegranates, of course—finally reaches its expiration date. This year, no less than others, aharei hahagim is a time for action. (more…)


Sukkah City, in New York’s Union Square, was my attempt to bring Sukkot the attention it deserves

New Yorkers at Sukkah City. (Courtesy Roger Bennett)

In 1995, historian Jonathan Sarna published an essay titled “A Great Awakening,” in which he told the story of a group of youngsters calling themselves the Young Men’s Hebrew Association who, in the 1870s, single-handedly revived a then-obscure festival called “Chanucka.” All it took was the organization of a military-style pageant to, in their words, “rescue this national festival from the obscurity into which it seemed to be rapidly falling.”

This essay has motivated nearly all of my work, though perhaps nothing as much as my most recent project: Sukkah City, an international design competition organized with my friend Joshua Foer, based on the primitive, biblical construction of the sukkah. If the members of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association could turn the minor holiday of Hanukkah into a major annual festival, maybe could we reverse the process and restore Sukkot—a ritual once central to the Jewish year—to its rightful pedestal.


The Sukkah City crew entered in Union Square as interlopers: a phalanx of nervous architects and engineers accompanying a dozen hulking sukkahs, partially built and arriving on a procession of flatbed trucks. At dusk on the evening of September 18, our convoy had left from a holding site in Brooklyn. We didn’t reach Union Square until downtown was dark. (more…)

Sukkah of the Soul

What would you take inside?

(our local sukkah at night by Bill Rogers; some rights reserved.)

To celebrate Sukkot, Tablet Magazine asked several folks what “must-haves” they would take with them into a sukkah. Here are some of the replies.

Fureigh, guitarist in The Shondes.

1. My guitar—a few days is a long time to go without practicing!

2. My journal and a pen.

3. A copy of The Urban Homestead, to aid in thinking more about ways to bridge the gap between this holiday and my regular life.

4. The sleeping bag I use on tour.

5. Earplugs—I’m still in Brooklyn, after all.

Laurel Snyder, author of several books, including Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.

What matters most to me on Sukkot is that I want it to feel like a real harvest. So what I need to have in my sukkah is whatever I feel I’ve been harvesting that year. In Iowa, when I knew lots of musicians and poets, I remember having jazz in the sukkah, and writer-friends, and that was a harvest. Last year, I drove 12 hours with my toddler-sons so they could build their first sukkah with their grandfather, and that was a harvest. This year, I’m doing a sukkah with members of my new (and first) havurah, and that feels like a harvest, too. I guess my sukkah is generally a good peek into what I’m prioritizing in my life.

Sukkah of the Soul

What would you take inside?

(our local sukkah at night by Bill Rogers; some rights reserved.)

To celebrate Sukkot, Tablet Magazine asked several folks what “must-haves” they would take with them into a sukkah. Here are some of the replies.

Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service.

I would bring as my guests a group of people whose conversations I would like to hear: A loan recipient from Haiti; a woman farmer without land title from Pakistan; a health organizer from Kenya; a Darfur refugee in Chad; a human rights activist from Uganda; and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to talk with all of them, learn from them, teach them, and help them in their efforts to change and heal the world.

Rob Kutner, comedy writer.
When I was asked to describe my “Soul Booth,” at first I thought it was a pitch for a new Wayans Brothers movie. But upon further reflection (not a lot, but further), I began to picture it: It’s a temporary structure for the soul, just like the one mine resides in now—right down to the weedy, increasingly thin cover on top. Dangling above me are the sweet goals I still reach for every day: Kindness, compassion, repair of my world, mindfulness, and gratitude. The walls are of man-made material and protect me from the winds of circumstance, but there’s always a doorway open to change and challenge. Decorating them are children’s drawings of my younger, purer self—the more passionate, idealistic spark I struggle to fit into my jaded old todayness. Last but not least is the ground tarp: Because let’s face it—my soul is one messy place.

The Grave Outdoors

To the neurotic urban parent, Sukkot might as well be called Booths of Death

Most of us, at least here in New York City, lead lives divorced from nature. We are hermetically sealed in our climate-controlled homes and minivans, safe from the terrors of the outside world. But Sukkot is an opportunity to get in touch with the wilds of nature. And for parents weaned on the “hidden dangers” stories screaming from the pages of parenting magazines, a sukkah is nothing but a thatch-topped deathtrap. Behold, the seven top risks lurking in your backyard! (Click around the illustration to find the risks!)


Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.