For most Jews, the etrog is relegated to a fleeting, supporting role. Held beside the lulav (palm frond) once a year during the festival of Sukkot (Oct. 13-20 this year), the etrog is then left to dry out or, if it’s lucky, turned into jelly.
We have massively underestimated this thick-rinded, super citrus.
The etrog, or citron, is far more than a prop. It’s a wellness goldmine that’s been lauded throughout history — from Alexander the Great’s troops who may very well have (but probably didn’t) discover it when passing through Persia, to Buddhist monks in ancient China — for its wide-ranging healing properties.
It also has great genes! As one of the oldest citrus varieties, the etrog is basically the great-great-grandfather of oranges and lemons, which were developed through hybridization with it.
Luckily the Yemenite Jewish community stayed woke and quietly enjoyed the etrog’s numerous benefits for centuries until, 15 years ago, a shrewd entrepreneur named Uzi Eli set about introducing Israelis to the generations-old etrog-centric remedies passed down in his family.
Known as “Etrog Man,” Uzi opened a stall in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market and then, a decade later, in Tel Aviv’s Carmel market.
He’s a colorful character who once told me that his secret to looking far younger than his 70-plus years was etrog juice and breast milk — his sole form of nourishment until the age of 10.
I spent a lot of time with Uzi and his daughter, Maayan, who oversees the Tel Aviv stall while working as a culinary tour guide in Israel. She has impossibly dewy skin.
For months I watched from afar, bemused, as they shpritzed and massaged various oils and creams on tourists on the promise that they would cure acne, fade wrinkles and increase libido.
I stopped being a bystander when Maayan insisted on rubbing their etrog-infused vitalium lotion, a “multi-use herbal concentrate [that] functions as a comprehensive local analgesic,” on a nasty-looking burn I’d acquired while wrestling my oven that morning. Two days later, with no trace of a scar, the burn was gone — and I was hooked.
Ayurvedic medicine, a holistic healing system developed in India more than 3,000 years ago, uses etrog juice to curb nausea and excessive thirst. References in Ayurvedic literature from 800 BCE have led many to believe that the citron is native to India.
Others argue that it originated in China, where until today, a variety known as the Fingered Citron (also known as Fo Shou or, my personal favorite, Buddha’s Hand), is used to treat nausea, bloating and chronic coughs.
Perplexingly, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Botany,” praised the vomit-inducing properties of the etrog, which he prescribed when “one has drunk a deadly poison.” This seems to be a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans situation (from “Harry Potter”), best played only by the sturdy-stomached.
For the more cautious, I’d suggest brewing a simple tea from the etrog’s leaves, or mixing etrog jelly with sugar and honey a la yuja-cha, a popular Korean cold remedy made with yuzu.
Modern medicine advises avoiding the etrog’s seeds, contrary to the advice of Pliny the Elder, a Roman Empire-era commander, naturalist and etrog enthusiast who endorsed chewing the seeds to reduce morning sickness.
Despite his dodgy advice, Pliny wasn’t alone in connecting the etrog to pregnancy. Due to its breastlike appearance, the citron is a feminine symbol in Jewish spiritualism and has long been linked to childbirth-related segulot (Jewish superstitious charms or rituals). One segula dictates biting off the pitom (the little stem) to guarantee a son, or placing it under your pillow for an easy labor.
To the cynics among you, I can only relay my sister-in-law’s story with a shrug: After she was force-fed etrog jam by my mother-in-law when her contractions began — on the promise that it would ensure the birth was as painless as possible — her daughter basically fell out.
After pestering my mom friends for intricate play-by-plays of their birthing experience, I take the view that anything that could potentially reduce the torment of childbirth is worth a try.
When it comes to wellness, we need not look much further than Jewish healing and spiritual tradition. The etrog, which combines both, is an excellent place to start.