Friday, October 14, 2016

In NYC, perfect etrogs command top dollar 

Naftali Berger's quest for perfection ended in victory when the 24-year-old student entered Tsvi Dahan's trailer in the haredi Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

"Find something wrong with it — find it!" a glowing Berger exclaimed as he held his treasure: a bumpy, lemon-like fruit he had just purchased for $200.

In open-air markets and on tables unfolded on sidewalks in Jewish communities throughout the world, many Jews preparing for Sukkot, which begins Oct. 16 this year, look for lovely etrogs, the fruit that constitutes the centerpiece of the biblically mandated four species to be blessed during the weeklong holiday.

Many celebrants will take the basic set commonly sold for $30-$40 that also includes a lulav (palm branch), myrtle and willow.
Then there are men like Berger, who think nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars on an especially beautiful etrog, which they believe enhances their fulfillment of the mitzvah.

No sooner does Yom Kippur end than such customers seek out Dahan, 38, a resident of Jaffa who works for a company that owns three hotels in Tel Aviv but has trekked to New York City the past 17 autumns to hawk his high-end etrogs. They are rippled and slightly smooth, hefty and slim, shiny in hue and subdued — in etrog selection, as in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Above all, though, Dahan's fruits are symmetrical and close to blemish-free — and are pure, ungrafted. They come from the 200 trees on a half-acre plot of land Dahan leases in Dumdir, a village in southern Morocco, his parents' homeland. His late grandfather, Yaakov Assayag, a tailor in Marrakesh, got into the business 70 years ago, and several of Assayag's sons followed suit. Lore holds, Dahan explains, that Morocco's Dumdir has yielded the finest etrogs since the exile following the Second Temple's destruction.

 Dahan visits four times a year to monitor his crop. Before Rosh Hashanah, he selects the 2,000 best etrogs, then sorts for the top 200 most pristine specimens to bring to Brooklyn.

He's not alone catering to the market in Williamsburg, with its primarily Hasidic community. In the weeks before Sukkot, several other storefronts and trailers pop up in the neighborhood, with dealers and growers offering premium etrogs from Israel and Italy, along with Morocco.

In the trailer, Berger slides his eyeglasses down near the tip of his nose, the better to inspect the etrog he's grasping. He takes a cotton swab from a box and dabs at the surface surrounding the pitom, as the stem is known, trying to discern if the pinhead-sized speck he spots is merely a wayward dirt particle or a blemish.

Ten minutes into the inspection, Berger phones his rabbi, detailing his observations in Yiddish. He hangs up, calls again, then returns the etrog to a foam-lined box that he sets aside on a table.

"I'm going to have a cup of coffee and think about it," Berger says.

Ten minutes later, he returns, seizing another etrog and examining it.This one is smaller, but Berger is smitten.

"It's clean — perfectly clean. For me, that's the most important," Berger pronounces of the $200 etrog that he calls "a bargain."

The business is "very hard," Dahan tells a visitor in Hebrew. "[The customers] are very hard — justifiably so because they're spending a lot of money."

Another customer enters. The first etrog proffered fails to impress in price ($275) or looks. The second falls short, too. Dahan hands over a third costing $350.

 "You won't find better," Dahan states. "Don't make a mistake. You'll wait for the last day, won't get what you want and you'll be going crazy."

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