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Shortage of Date Palm Fronds Has Israelis in a Holiday Bind

Amid hints of fraud, prices have soared for lulavim, which are used for Sukkot observances. Rush shipments are expected to fall short.

October 14, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In devout Jewish neighborhoods here, the annual Sukkot holiday comes wrapped in a drama over palm fronds this year.

Israel has been struck by a shortage of imported date palm fronds, which for the religiously observant are essential for prayer during the Sukkot celebration that will begin Monday night. News that there may not be enough fronds, or lulavim, has prompted religious leaders to mull backup plans and led to nearly doubled prices, to $25 each or more for the most common variety.

Israeli officials have scrambled to arrange last-minute shipments of hundreds of thousands of date palm fronds from Egypt and the Gaza Strip in hopes of closing the gap. But agriculture officials said they expected that effort to fall short by perhaps 300,000 lulavim, more than a third of the quantity purchased during most years.

The shortfall was initially attributed to a decision by Egypt to export fewer fronds from Israel's traditional source -- El Arish, in the Sinai peninsula -- due to worries that the harvest was hurting date production.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Sukkot -- An article in Friday's Section A on a shortage in Israel of the date palm fronds known as \o7lulavim, which are used during the Sukkot holiday, was accompanied by a picture of Orthodox Jews bearing palm fronds. The fronds shown in the picture, however, were not \o7lulavim but larger branches used in the building of the huts, known as \o7sukkot, that give the holiday its name.

But the story took a darker turn when Israeli authorities suggested that one or more of the lulav wholesalers might have orchestrated the shortage in order to raise prices.

The daily Maariv newspaper reported this week that unidentified Israeli importers had paid off Egyptian growers to limit exports to 350,000 fronds, half the supply during a normal year. Israel Radio, meanwhile, said Israel's Ministry of Agriculture believed that "criminal elements" had suppressed alternative imports from Jordan by paying Jordanian growers and threatening and beating traders who sought to ship lulavim to Israel.

Maariv said the importers had then alerted Orthodox Jewish political leaders in Israel, seeking to fan buyer panic in hopes of sending prices higher still.

A Ministry of Agriculture spokeswoman said the shortage stemmed from several factors, including the dearth of expected shipments from Jordan and Spain. The spokeswoman, Dafna Yurista, declined to comment on reports of possible criminal wrongdoing.

Amid the confusion, what seems clear is that fewer lulavim have reached the makeshift shops in Orthodox neighborhoods such as Jerusalem's Mea Shearim and Geula, where prices for the spiky, 4-foot fronds have in some cases reached $50.

"They're saying it is only the beginning. It might go up. It might go down. No one knows," said Avi Fuchs, selling lulavim and other Sukkot-related items in a second-floor apartment converted for holiday sales. "People are just now starting to know about it."

The lulav is among the four species -- along with the etrog, a lemon-like fruit, and myrtle and willow branches -- that are held by worshipers during Sukkot prayer. Devout Jews consider the items sacred and shop as carefully as if buying jewelry, often scrutinizing the merchandise with magnifying glasses to check for the tiniest blemish. (An ideal lulav, for example, has a central leaf that is unparted.)

This demand gives rise to a bustling specialty market in the days before Sukkot, a weeklong harvest festival during which celebrants also build makeshift booths, or sukkot, to evoke the biblical accounts of their ancestors' wanderings.

Fuchs, 29, wearing a thick beard, side locks and a black coat, said his cheapest fronds were selling for $15 to $20 each, while premier lulavim from Israel were going for $45. Some merchants were charging even more, visits to other shops showed.

Fuchs, standing before a table piled with about a dozen lulavim packed in individual plastic cases, said he took little cheer -- or extra profit -- from the higher prices. His costs too had risen significantly, he said.

"We are trying very, very much to keep the prices down because we know that the person who comes to buy wants to pray. This is a holy item," he said. "It isn't right to just steal money."

Religious leaders have raised various ideas for coping with the shortfall, including having each community share a few fronds or allowing the use of lulavim from Israeli palms that are considered of lower quality.

One of the nation's two chief rabbis, Yona Metzger, declared it forbidden to take advantage of the shortage to raise prices.

Israeli officials at first said the extra imports would ease the shortage in time but now acknowledge that a gap is likely to remain. The issue was deemed serious enough that Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom intervened this week by calling Egyptian officials to hasten shipment of 100,000 more fronds.

Shaul Yahalom, an Israeli lawmaker from the National Religious Party, said the scare showed there was a need for formal agreements governing lulav imports, and bidding rules for traders to ensure an adequate supply in the future.

Some shoppers said, however, that they would pay what they must in order to pray in the way the Bible instructs.

"Other people prefer to spend their money on trips abroad or restaurants. For me, it's a good way to spend money," said Dina Cohen, emerging from a back-alley shop with a $45 frond that her husband had bought. "This is for the next world. Secular people spend in this world. This world passes."

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