Thursday, October 09, 2014

Meet the Etrog Man from Yemen

 Meet Etrog Man - the 72-year old Yemenite Jew who has made a speciality out of marketing the magical properties of this lemon-like 'vegetable', in great demand for the Jewish festival of Succot. Uzi-Eli was suckled by a she-goat in Yemen. When the goat was killed to provide meat for his family, then fleeing for Aden and Israel in 1949, Uzi-Eli never got over his loss. Wonderful article by Judy Maltz in Haaretz.

Uzi-Eli, the Etrog Man (photo: Emil Salman)

They call him the Etrog Man – and for good reason.

Uzi-Eli, as he is otherwise known, is the founder and owner of a one-of-a-kind shop in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that sells all things etrog, the citron fruit used in religious rituals during the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The etrog is not eaten during Sukkot, but rather, it serves as one of the four plant species shaken to fulfill the mitzvah associated with this holiday. According to Jewish legend, it’s meant to symbolize the heart, and in its bumpy-skinned, lemon-like raw form, it makes an appearance once a year, just before the start of this holiday. But in the bottles, canisters and jars that line the shelves of Uzi-Eli’s tiny shop, it’s a star all year around.

Among the assortment of derivative products here, there’s a spray made from etrog peel that’s meant to cure acne, age spots, mouth sores, baldness and even stuttering in young children. There’s a cream made from crushed etrog seeds and coconut oil that supposedly smooths out wrinkles. There’s a soap made from etrog essence that Uzi-Eli claims is effective in combating dandruff and general itchiness. There’s an ointment made from etrog extract, mint, ginger and cayenne pepper he vows will cure sinus problems, hemorrhoids and chronic pain. There’s an etrog drink sold in frozen packages that supposedly works wonders on morning sickness in pregnant woman (“If a woman drinks this during her pregnancy, the baby will also come out smelling as fragrant as the fruit,” he assures a prospective buyer.)

There’s a special version of the popular Yemenite spice hilbe with a bit of etrog extract mixed in that prevents the body, as Uzi-Eli explains, from giving off the strong odor usually associated with this condiment. And finally, there are the shop’s specialty smoothies made from etrog and khat – a plant Yemenites traditionally chew that is known for its stimulating effect – as well as a delicious etrog liqueur.

In the days leading up to Sukkot, Uzi-Eli’s shop is packed. Not only with the usual curiosity seekers interested in sampling his natural remedies, but also, shoppers in the market for an etrog to go with their three-branch lulav (palm frond,) so that they can fulfill the special mitzvah of Sukkot. In order to be considered kosher for the purpose of performing this mitzvah, the etrog must in most cases have an intact pitam, a small extension at the top of the fruit. But those with a damaged pitams are also in demand, says Uzi-Eli, for use as decorations in the hut-like sukkahs where many Jews traditionally eat their meals during the seven-day holiday that starts at sundown on Wednesday.

A robust and jovial 72-year-old with a mop of white curls under his yarmulke, Uzi-Eli and his potions are an unmistakable attraction in the market. Barely has one group of young sight-seers exited the premises when another enters (he gets anywhere from five to 20 groups a day, most of them on organized tours of Jerusalem’s storied marketplace.) In broken English, he regales them with tales of his childhood in Yemen. He tells them about his two grandfathers, who happened to be brothers and were both natural healers. He tells them about how one of them concocted a potion to dry up Uzi-Eli’s mother’s milk when, as a toddler, he refused to wean himself from her breast. He tells them about the goat who replaced his mother as his main provider of food, showing how he would get it to push its leg up in air so that he could crawl under its body. He tells them about how that goat was killed so that the family would have dried meat to eat on their long journey to the port city of Aden, where they eventually boarded a plane to Israel in 1949, and how he never overcame that loss. Then he proceeds to squirt the anti-acne etrog spray on the face of one of his visitors who’s agreed to serve as a guinea pig. Another gets a squirt of it in the mouth, and yet another gets Uzi-Eli’s finger, with a dab of the special sinus ointment on it, inserted straight up his nose.

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Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

MEMRI video clip showing Berber poetess defending Zionism.

Anonymous said...

Etrog liqueur. Sounds lovely.