Sunshine comes through the windows of our Calabrian
flat at five in the morning. Mustering our strength,
we get out of bed to pray. During this time, shortly
before Rosh Hashana, it is customary to blow the
shofar after morning prayer services. This blast is
one of the things it is my job to explain to our
neighbors, whose curiosity it arouses, even as it
rouses them out of their beds.
We eat breakfast and go downstairs to meet the Italian
workers who drive us to work in their dusty Fiats.
Our cars twist in and out of traffic on the narrow
roads, as wild Italian drivers enjoy doing. We go up
and down hills, past the ruins of a roofless medieval
castle that was once the center of a small town.
Archeologists found what appears to be the foundation
of a synagogue that Jews built in the shadow of that
castle centuries ago when this part of southern Italy
had a thriving Jewish community.
We leave the asphalt and enter an unpaved road,
bumping through the dirt next to a babbling brook.
We reach the field, a place where we have already
worked several times during recent weeks. The farmer
who owns it is here to greet us, as are his noisy,
tail-wagging dogs, excited to see so many people in
the territory they normally guard in solitude.
We walk among the orchards, our clothes brushing
against the trees, past a little shed to a space
covered by an awning. In its shade we set up our work
table and open our folding chairs. On the table we
spread a layer of foamy plastic, over which we place a
green blanket, for we work with fruit that bruises
We fill a bucket with water from the spigot (taps)
next to the shed. In this bucket we will moisten our
sponges to clean the fruit. The last step is to turn
on tape-recorders playing raucous hassidic music which
helps to wake us all up.
As we set up, the Italian workers disappear into the
orchards that begin a few meters from us. These
orchards grow etrogim, the fruit the Book of Leviticus
commands Jews to bless and enjoy during the festival
of Succot. Our job is to sort, pack and ship etrogim
from Italy to places all over the world.
THE ETROG is an unusual fruit. It does not grow
everywhere and the Jewish tradition has very specific
requirements for its use on this holiday. We have much
The Italians bring us baskets of etrogim. Those who
work with us know much about a demanding form of
harvest. They learned their skills from their fathers
and grandfathers, who picked etrogim for the father
and the grandfather of the man for whom I work here.
Those who work in the orchard fall into two groups.
The first slide on their backs beneath the low-lying
etrog trees, clipping off the fruit with heavy
These young men wear thick clothes and gloves to
protect themselves from the thorns with which etrog
trees naturally defend themselves. The trees
themselves do not grow high, but their branches go off
in several directions like vines. Wooden frames hold
these vines about one meter off the ground, so that
those who crawl beneath them have enough space to
reach up and cut.
Others, younger and less experienced, often high
school students working here in a summer job, carry
boxes lined with soft plastic in which they place the
etrogim that the cutters hand up to them. As they fill
their boxes, the box-carriers bring their boxes to us
at the table.
As the first box arrives, we form an assembly line.
I am the first in this line. My job is to take each
etrog out of its basket and sponge away any dirt
clinging to it, as well as wiping away white spots
that insect-killing chemicals leave on the fruit.
Jewish law commands that an etrog used for religious
purposes be without blemish. The white spots are
always insecticide. They come off easily. Black spots
might be either bits of dirt or tiny cuts in the skin
of the etrog.
If I see that the spot is not disappearing, I throw
the fruit into a barrel of etrogim that Jews cannot
use. I delicately line the faultless etrogim up on our
blanket, taking care that they do not touch each
other, because if they bump into each other even
softly, they will likely develop a bruise that we do
not see, but which will make the fruit unusable later.
The mashgiah examines each etrog; his examination is
much more thorough than my preliminary check. There
are mashgihim for meat, wine and everything that must
be kosher, but whose final user cannot himself examine
during the stages of its production when something
might make it unkosher.
The mashgiah's job is the uncompromising, time-burning
nuisance in our assembly line. We watch him peer
through his diamond-dealer's loop as he picks over the
etrog's skin with his other tool, a thorn from one of
the etrog trees.
I sometimes move from the beginning of our assembly
line to its end to pack etrogim in little plastic bags
that the Italian workers prepare in great numbers.
They make these sacks by hand, folding and sealing
bubble-plastic, and then cutting off a little hole at
one of the corners to let in some air. Each etrog goes
into its sack after I wrap it in a paper towel.
THE HASSIDIM for whom I work rent the fields in which
the etrog trees grow. The farmers who own these fields
are responsible for taking care of them during the
year. My employer has had a contractual relationship
with a local man for 30 years whose job it is to keep
an eye on the several fields we use. Their fathers
worked together before them. Politicking goes on among
the various farmers, the man we employ to watch over
the situation during the winter and other farmers who
work with other hassidim.
These fields are small farms by American standards.
Unlike American farms that are spread far across the
open countryside with the family living in an isolated
farmhouse, Calabrian farmers live in villages from
whence they set forth to work their nearby farms.
Italians are strong on "campanelismo," that feeling of
local patriotism for their own village in which their
ancestors have lived for centuries. Campanelismo
derives from the word for the bell-tower of the local
church. It implies that people should not live further
than their ears can hear the music of the bell-tower
of the church where they and their ancestors were
There are many things to do during the winter, or the
so-called off-season. The etrog orchards must be
planted and replanted; some trees die.
One thing the farmers absolutely cannot do is to graft
an etrog sapling onto the trunk of another kind of
fruit tree, but fruit from a grafted tree is not
kosher. When a mashgiah sees a field for the first
time, he checks for grafted trees.
Grafting (murkav), is immediately visible because of
the elbow-like knot where the two trees meet. Once,
about 20 years ago, a farmer tried to fool a mashgiah
by grafting just below the soil line, but the alert
mashgiah saw it. That farmer lost his professional
relationship with the hassidim.
We no longer hear about such things happening, because
farmers understand it is not worthwhile for them to
play such games.
The farmers must also protect their plants from winter
weather. Calabria is very hot in the summer, but it is
equally cold in the winter. Farmers put canvas on
bamboo poles to protect their trees from the snow that
often falls. A heavy rainstorm can knock most of the
fruit off the trees of an entire farm, a disaster that
actually happened to a field we worked last year; its
owner had no crop this summer.
An etrog tree lives for about 15 years. It must be
lovingly tended, by pruning and by giving it
insecticide - medicina in Italian - for the three
years it grows before it yields even one fruit. As the
vines extend themselves from the trunk, the farmer
must build the wooden frames that support them, so
that they will not grow uncontrollably. Even after
these three years the tree produces less fruit than it
will when it matures.
BECAUSE OF the mashgiah's bottle-necks, or if the
cutters are finding fewer etrogim than they would like
in a particular field, I usually have time to read
Dant or whatever other book I take to the field that
One of my reasons for taking this job was to build up
my skills in speaking Italian. We can spend 10 hours
in several fields during one day, so we talk a lot.
The people around the table often have much to tell,
especially the older ones. A Lubavitcher hassid, now
in his 60s, told me about his childhood during the
German siege of Leningrad, when people were dying of
hunger in the streets, and how his father, a very
devout Lubavitcher, went looking for corpses under
shell-fire to give them a proper Jewish burial. His
father wrapped the arms of the corpse over his own
shoulders and around his neck to drag it to the
An etrog merchant now living in London, a man in his
80s, who every year drives alone from London to
Calabria, talked about the day of his liberation from
a concentration camp in 1945. He said that most of his
camp was liquidated by Hitlerjugend, German teenagers
too young to serve in the army, who shot most of the
prisoners in order to prevent advancing British forces
from discovering German war crimes.
We also talk about ordinary things, such as Talmud or
We know it is time for lunch when we hear two or three
Fiats bustling down the dirt road in our direction.
The wives of the Italian workers bring them their
food, usually long cheese or pork sandwiches and table
wine. We have our own sandwiches that we make in the
mornings before setting out. We pick onions, tomatoes,
figs, apples, cucumbers, hot peppers and whatever else
is growing nearby to eat with our meals. Italians and
Jews eat different kinds of food, but we sit together,
sharing the fruit and vegetables that we have picked.
The children of those who work for us join us for
lunch. Music accompanies our picnic, usually bouncy
recordings of hassidic singers, which sounds to the
Calabrians like their own Tarantella music.
The Satmar Hassidim who employ me speak Yiddish,
Hebrew and English, languages which are not widely
spoken in Calabria. One of the ways in which I am
useful down here is that I speak Italian, but I meet
many people, especially the elderly, who speak the
Calabrian dialect, rather than the standard Florentine
Italian that I studied. An old woman lives near us
with whom I cannot conduct a conversation at all.
Communication is therefore a problem. The Calabrians
and the hassidim solved it by creating a new language,
which we might call Etroguese. This language contains
elements of Hebrew, Yiddish and Calabrian. The
vocabulary of Etroguese uses words from all three
languages, recycled into new pronunciations that all
will understand. The Hebrew phrase ba'al habayit,
which means the owner of the house, and which is used
to refer to the employer, is pronounced in Yiddish as
bahlabus, but in Etroguese it sounds more like
bahlaBOOsa. The hassidim thus pronounce it when
speaking with the Italians, even though they employ
the standard Yiddish pronunciation among themselves.
ETROGIM AND Jews are inextricably connected to the
identity of this town, Santa Maria del Cedro. Cedro is
the Italian word for etrog, so the town's name
translates as Saint Mary of the Etrog. The town is in
the Italian province of Calabria, the "toe" of the
Italian boot, not far from Sicily.
We do not know exactly when etrogim arrived here, but
the likelihood is that Jews began cultivating them in
the area when it was part of the Byzantine Empire 12
centuries ago. Etrogim are temperamental fruit,
requiring highly specific soil, water and weather
conditions to prosper. Etrogim refuse to grow even a
few kilometers north or south of Santa Maria del
Israel and parts of Morocco can produce this fruit,
and I have heard that someone is experimenting with
them in Thailand, but the etrog is destined to remain
a rare tree, whose principal home is in Calabria.
In addition to naming the town, the etrog is part of
its traditional culture. One sees its vines growing in
private gardens. Shops and bars picture it on their
signs. The inhabitants make carbonated etrog juice,
they brew an alcoholic liqueur from it, and they make
Jews put the cedro in Santa Maria del Cedro, giving it
an agricultural product that is unique and that will
be forever part of its identity, even as cars are part
of Detroit's identity.
Hassidim are also part of Santa Maria del Cedro's
In no other Italian city do people see men with long
peyot (sidelocks) and shtreimlech (fur hats).
Jews have become an intellectual hobby for many
inhabitants. They read Italian translations of Isaac
Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok. They are curious
about the people who descend upon them every summer.
Part of my job is to answer questions people ask, such
as why anybody would walk around in a fur hat and a
long black coat in that kind of heat. This question
became particularly urgent when one of the older etrog
buyers collapsed from heat exhaustion on the sidewalk
one Shabbat. Another question I aam asked every day is
why hassidim are so ill at ease around dogs.
The relationship between etrogim and the town of the
same name might be ancient, and a Jewish community
definitely lived here during the Middle Ages, but Jews
returned here only during the last generation.
Local farmers sold their etrogim to syndicates that
brought them to the great Italian port of Genoa, home
of Christopher Columbus. Before World War II, Jewish
etrog buyers from Poland went to Genoa and other
Eastern European countries to buy the fruit. For this
reason the Yiddish name for Italian etrogim is
yanover, a Yiddish corruption of Genova, the Italian
name for Genoa.
This system continued until the late 1960s. The first
Jew to go directly to the source was, needless to say,
a Lubavitcher hassid. Soon after him came the
grandfather of the Satmar hassid who hired me. The
Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoilish, encouraged direct
involvement of Jews in Calabria, because he wanted the
etrogim to have solid mashgihim making certain they
were kosher. The merchants went for that reason, but
they, of course, wanted to lower the prices they were
paying by cutting out the people who brought the
etrogim up to Genoa.
Hassidic etrog dealers make some contribution to the
prosperity that Santa Maria del Cedro enjoys today.
Calabria, like most of southern Italy, is poorer than
northern Italy, but real peasants no longer exist
here. The farming families, the basket-carriers and
the families with whom we eat every day benefit
economically from the relationships they have formed
with the Jewish etrog merchants.
Hassidim who went to Santa Maria del Cedro 30 years
ago remember when the people were dirt poor,
traditional, old-fashioned peasants. The kids who
carried the etrog boxes then were 12 years old and not
going back to school. Today's etrog carriers are
saving up to study computers at university; one is
becoming a pianist and has already won several
regional and national competitions.
More conservative and Catholic than northern Italy,
religion is more important to the Calabresi than it
would be for people, say, in Milan. This has created
another point of contact with the hassidim, who are,
by definition, very conservative and religious. And
the fact that many of these etrog merchants are
running generations-old family businesses also
resonates with farming families who have been on the
same land for generations.