Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jews are buying Moroccan 'etrogim'

Morocco is supplying the Jewish demand for etrogim (the correct plural), the citron prized by Jews observing the Succot holiday, which begins tomorrow evening. Jews apparently began etrog production in the mountainous Berber region near Marrakesh, and the locals still grow them. Interesting JTA article :(With thanks: ASF)

 Mohammed Douch grows etrogim for the Jewish market (Ben Sales)

“I don’t know exactly why Jewish people are coming to take this product,” said Douch, who like many Moroccans is Berber, through a translator. “Maybe it is that this product is used by Jewish people in worship.”

Douch and his grove are part of southern Morocco’s small and unlikely etrog industry, which has popped up here each summer for centuries. Almost no Jews live in Morocco, but a few dozen Jewish merchants support the industry, sending etrogs — called citrons in English — to Jewish communities on three continents for Sukkot. On the fall harvest holiday, Jews are commanded to pray with a fragrant, colorful collection of four plants, including the etrog.

And even though Morocco does not have formal relations with Israel, the etrogs make it there, too. Because 5775 was a “shmita, or sabbatical year, when Jewish law prohibits agricultural activity in Israel, demand for etrogs grown in Morocco is especially high this season.

“The etrogs from the mountains have a special shape, and they have a beauty we don’t find in other places,” said Naftali Levy, a French etrog merchant. “The color and form, the protrusions are very nice.”

Crouched on a narrow dirt path last week, Douch surveyed his small etrog grove through intense eyes lined with deep wrinkles. The trees’ branches grew only a few feet high, sloping down an uneven embankment in tangles of large, oblong leaves. The bright green etrogs hung just inches from the rocky soil. Beyond the grove were sandy brown mountains covered in palm trees.

“We are attached to our town, and it’s obligatory to visit our original town,” Douch said. “We cannot leave our town because it’s a part of our body. The process I use for this plant is a heritage from my grandfathers.”

Jews were the first Moroccans to plants etrogs — near Marrakesh as far back as 2,000 years ago — said Hebrew University agriculture professor Eliezer Goldschmidt. Their Berber neighbors adopted the crop and continued to grow a small number of etrogs after the Jews left for Israel starting in 1948. Jews have bought the yellow fruits from Berbers for Sukkot ever since.

There are no statistics on the etrog industry in Morocco, but up to hundreds of thousands of etrogs leave the country each year. Merchants said most of the fruits go to Europe, the United States and Canada. Israel began importing etrogs from Morocco in 2013 with a first shipment of 1,500.

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