The lulav and the etrog. One week a year, we shake this magic rainstick and its citrus companion in the air. During the harvest festival of Sukkot, we orient ourselves upon the Earth and in nature by waving them in the cardinal directions, then up and down. It is a dance. In Jewish liturgy, dominated by singing and reciting, this embodied ritual is a total outlier.
More properly called the arba minim (four species), it is a collection of one palm frond (lulav), branches of myrtle and willow, and a citron (aka etrog). Why these four species? The short answer is because the Bible says so. For the long version, I waded into the issue this year, seeking out the most serious lulav-ers among us, those who source their arba minim locally. Some seek out palm, etrog, etc. grown nearby, while others get creative, selecting four indigenous species to replace the traditional plants.
Thus, I found myself at the Berkeley home of Rabbi Sara Shendelman, examining foliage and fruit-bearing trees. There is a palm tree in front of her house, a willow tree across the street in Grove Park and, in her backyard, three varieties of etrog trees and a bay laurel, which she uses as a replacement for myrtle.
“Ritual allows your ego to relax, and you can invite your higher self in,” she told me. “I feel the richness of Jewish tradition. It has roots in us.” Roots indeed. All over her crowded backyard.
The etrog varieties are Ashkenazi (yellow dimpled skin, sometimes with touches of green, etrogs you’ll see in the hands of most American Jews), Sephardic (greener and smoother) and the most glorious etrogs I’ve ever seen, the Buddha’s hand citron. This Asian variety looks like the etrog as reimagined by H.R. Giger. At one end, it splits off into a dozen or so tentacles (“Fingers,” Shendelman corrected me). Each one looks different, with a personality all its own. On one, the fingers were close together. Another was like a mutant octopus with the fingers going off every which way.
Shendelman brought up the term avodah, usually translated as prayer or work. To Shendelman, it means devotion. And at this time of year, she devotes herself to the environment by growing these prayerful plants. “It’s all local. And it’s carbon-free.”
What, I wondered, makes bay a good stand-in for myrtle? Shendelman noted that each of the four plants symbolizes part of the body: straight and sturdy palm frond for the spine; oblong etrog for the heart; willow leaves for lips; and myrtle for eyes. Indeed, the bay leaves are eye-shaped. So that checks out.
In a much newer trend, some Jews are thinking about plants indigenous to where they live, total replacements for the traditional plants. I called my friend Sarah Chandler, a Jewish environmental and food educator in New York. She lived and worked for five years at the Isabella Freedman Center, a Jewish retreat and environmental center in Connecticut. There, she created a variety of local lulav variants.
“The first time, we just got creative and got something round like an apple; something with evergreen-like leaves so I used a fir; something tall and long — my favorite is a sumac,” she told me. “Willows grow everywhere in the northeast, so that’s easy to find.”
One year, she used a walnut for an etrog. They ripen around the same time of year, and when they first drop from the tree, they look rather like a small etrog, covered in a smooth, yellow skin.
Over the years, Chandler got further into the details. Not all willows are acceptable, she told me. The biblical text references specifically “willows of the brook,” that is, willows that grow near water. So the common weeping willow isn’t an exact match.
Ironically, I reached Chandler while she was in Brooklyn shopping for lulavs and etrogs grown far away and shipped to the United States. She manages school gardens and rarely buys any non-local produce, so she gets a pass this year.
“There’s a mitzvah to shake the lulav, but there’s also a mitzvah to take it,” she reminded me.
“If I take them from a dude on Avenue J, rather than taking them from the land, I’m relying on a lot of intermediaries. But when I can, the experience of taking them myself brings me a lot of joy in the season of joy,” she said. (Sukkot, which runs Oct. 13-20 this year, is called z’man simchateinu, our time of joy.) “It does disturb me that I don’t know the conditions of the farmers who grew these things or how much pesticides — though I’m pretty sure there are a lot of pesticides on the etrogim.”
A 2017 zine called “The Book of Lulav” contextualized the creation of local lulavs as a leftist political act. Rather than importing “expensive ritual items produced by a very small number of private companies” in far-away lands, the authors advocate selecting your arba minim from local plants.
“The Book of Lulav” includes instructions for four local lulavs: Detroit, Philly, North Carolina and California. The California lulav, created by Gabi Kirk, represents four different California ecosystems: the coast is represented by redwood, a stand-in for willow; valley/foothill chaparral is represented by oak, a stand-in for palm; mountain by Jeffrey pine or bay laurel for myrtle (like Shendelman); and desert by prickly pear fruit. In a follow-up article last year in Jewish Currents Kirk suggests a specifically East Bay lulav, similar to the California lulav, but using a pine cone instead of a prickly pear.
While I was at Shendelman’s house, her friend Madeline Prager stopped by to pick up her arba minim. “Oh, give me one!” she said with delight upon seeing the Buddha’s hand. “They’re gorgeous. And they smell amazing!” Indeed, they are the best-smelling etrogs I’ve ever encountered.
Prager has been getting her arba minim from Shendelman for years. “I used to order them from a store. They’re sprayed with pesticides, shipped in plastic from overseas,” Prager told me. “But one year, Sara said she’s got all this stuff, so I came running.”
While I was there, I figured I might as well pick up my arba minim. I quickly picked out my willow, palm and bay, but dithered over which etrog I wanted. Shendelman helpfully pulled out her divining pendulum, held it over the two I was considering, and pronounced the one on my right the best etrog for me. Good enough.
Shaking it for the first time in the sukkah at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco on Monday morning, I was pleased. My lulav was local. It was unruly, not tidy like all the store-bought ones held by others around me. And I had selected it myself. I shook it with joy.