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City Turns Over Old Leaves for Jewish Rite

October 19, 1986|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Sarah Levai said she used to send her husband out to scour the neighborhood for palm fronds when it came time build a backyard hut for the ancient Jewish holiday of Sukkoth, which started Friday night.

Now, however, tipped by neighbors to a more reliable source, she was happy to stuff the trunk of her family car with freshly harvested fronds from a city-run distribution point in the Fairfax district.

"This is the best," she said. "From now on, I'll be here every year."

Palm fronds make an ideal roof for the sukkah, a temporary structure that Jews traditionally set up near homes and synagogues every year to commemorate the desert wanderings of their ancestors after the Biblical Exodus from Egypt.

The city has been supplying fronds from palm trees it has trimmed at no charge for years, but demand has been growing while the municipal inventory of palm trees has remained static.

The program has had its share of heated moments, with pushing, shoving, screaming matches and occasional fisticuffs.

"It can be very, very difficult at our distribution locations," said Robert W. Kennedy, superintendent of the street tree division of the city's Department of Public Works. "People get very outrageous, because they want their palm fronds."

The distribution is not widely publicized and depends on word of mouth in the Jewish community. The city gives fronds away at two points: one in Fairfax, one in the San Fernando Valley.

Yellow city pickup trucks brought in a new load of fresh, green fronds at half-hour intervals and workmen dumped them in a pile.

Then individuals, ranging from bearded rabbis in long black coats to a young woman in a Harvard sweat shirt and UCLA shorts picked them out and dragged them off to their cars.

"We haven't always been as observant as we are now," said Lela Sabin, the woman in the athletic outfit. "We were here last year, too. It was hectic. They were yelling. There was a lot of competition for the palm fronds."

Synagogue representatives bearing official letters from the street tree division (signed in yellow ink to frustrate counterfeiters) had first pick, up to a maximum of 100 fronds, while other individuals were limited to 15 each.

"We try to keep some kind of control," said Joe Parra, a city worker who was taking names of frond-seekers. "Most of the time the people cooperate pretty good, but sometimes

they get too anxious."

In all, about 32,000 fronds were distributed, Kennedy said, freshly taken from some of the city's 50,000 palm trees, which are trimmed on a seven-year cycle.

Despite the growing demand, he said, only so many fronds can be taken at one time. "We do understand," he said. "We want the people to have them . . . (but) we're not going to endanger the health of those trees."

While Los Angeles trims its palm trees year-round, smaller cities dispose of their trimmings at Sukkoth time.

In West Hollywood last year about 3,000 fronds were quickly snapped up, but only a few hundred were available this year, according to Councilman Alan Viterbi.

Beverly Hills sells 6,000 to 8,000 fronds to its residents, a spokesman said, charging $13 for the first 10 and 75 cents for each additional frond.

Known in Hebrew as skhakh , the leafy roofing can actually be made of any bough. In fact, many religious families have switched to long-lasting bamboo to avoid the yearly hassle over skhakh .

But Canary Island date palms are favored because of their long, slender leaves, which fulfill the traditional requirement to provide shade while allowing the stars to be seen at night.

Palms are also significant because during the Sukkoth holiday (the name is the Hebrew plural of the word sukkah), religiously observant Jews use palm leaves along with myrtle, willow and citron (a lemon-like fruit) in an ancient synagogue rite that blesses the first rains of the season.

The beauty of the long, tapered palm frond is also a factor. "They're considered elegant," said Rabbi Gilbert Kollin of Hollywood Temple Beth El. "They're also used in Israel, so where available they would be preferred for aesthetic reasons."

In his Brooklyn childhood, Kollin recalled, he would harvest sea reeds from the wetlands near what is now Kennedy Airport for use in the family sukkah.

"The sukkah represents the years in the wilderness, but Sukkoth is also Thanksgiving, a harvest festival," Kollin said.

"It also reminds us of the temporariness of life," said Allan Schranz, rabbi of Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles. "Sitting at temporary booths reminds us that everything material is temporary and passing. It's a temporary, impermanent kind of roof, and we have to be able to see the stars."

The Book of Jewish Knowledge links the holiday to an ancient festival of the harvest moon, a celebration "marked by primitive rites that had magical ends in view. These were consummated by revels, with feasting and choric dancing to the liquid flutings of the double-pipe."

All of which was not on the mind of Sarah Levai on Thursday morning, at least not in so many words.

"I do it because the kids learn about it at school," she said. "They like to eat there for the next seven days. The food tastes better there, somehow."

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