Israelis overcome palm pinch

Suppliers scrambled to deliver the million palm fronds needed for the Jewish Sukkot holiday.

This year, it was down to the wire. Or, more accurately, down to the lulav.

Israel needs anywhere between 800,000 to 1 million lulavim, or palm fronds, in order to allow religious Jews to fulfill the commandment to wave the branch - along with a citron and sprigs of myrtle and willow - during the week-long holiday of Sukkot, usually translated as the Festival of Booths, and known in the Christian world as the Feast of the Tabernacles.

This year, however, there was something of a lulav crisis - an expected shortage of palm fronds when Egypt, Israel's neighbor and main supplier for two decades, said it couldn't send the amount Israel needed, citing environmental concerns.

Something of a lulav panic loomed. Newspapers carried front-page stories. How would people in Israel - and Jews around the world, who have the fronds and citron fruits shipped in at famously costly prices - fulfill the requirement for each person to have his own set of the four species?

With the long, green lulav held at the center of the four, worshippers say special prayers - a long set of supplications in search of divine gifts as spiritual as salvation and as mundane as rain. The holiday follows Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and is a continuation of the process of asking for forgiveness for misdeeds in the past year and sustenance in the new one.

"They came in at the very last minute," says Yonadov Furth, a young lulav salesman, who, at 16, already runs a tableside business where people can buy fronds and the other harvest items necessary for the prayers. "I was pretty worried."

Because of the shortage, the price of a lulav, which sold before the holiday at around $7 to $10 for an average frond - skyrocketed. Prices reached $20 for the average palm frond, and over $40 for the most luxe of lulavim. The Israeli government intervened, seeking shipments from Jordan and Spain. To calm fears of a frondless holiday, Israel's Ministry of Agriculture made an announcement early last week. Not to worry, it said. Israel would get just enough for the holiday - including nearly 300,000 from Egypt, which eventually agreed to send along more.

"Some people look for a lulav that points straight up, to show that we're looking for our prayers to go straight to Heaven. Others want one that bends just a little bit at the top because it shows a sort of humblenenss towards God, " says Avinoam Bitton who, after leaving prayers, bought a new lulav because his had been damaged in the first two days of the holiday. With the crisis over, he paid just $4.

The Sukkot holiday is one of the three yearly pilgrimage festivals Jews are instructed to observe in the Bible. The command comes from Lev. 23:39-43, which says the children of Israel should build a sukkah, or booth, and dwell in them for a week in memory of the temporary shelters they lived in while in the desert, after the exodus from Egypt and before being led to the Promised Land.

In practice, observant Jews build small huts, shacks, or tents outside their homes in which to eat - and sometimes sleep - for the week.

While primarily a time of happiness and hospitality - inviting guests to one's sukkah is all the rage even among non-religious Israelis - the holiday is meant to be a reminder of the fragility of human existence.

Sukkot, like the other pilgrimage holidays, is at heart an agriculture festival, says Rabbi Nachum Danzig, carrying his Sukkot bundle like a autumn bouquet as he heads into Shteiblach, a Jerusalem synagogue.

"I think of it as a nature holiday," he says. "I also see it as a fertility right. It's for bringing rain, and in kabala, the rain is seen as male and the earth is female."

But this year, Sukkot came late in the year - and plenty of rain with it. But if it gets too uncomfortable, according to the Talmud, whether due to cold, rain, or snow, people are permitted to just break bread in the sukkot and go back inside.

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