From Chabad.org by Dovid Margolin:
By now, Calabria’s delicate citron trees should be straining under the weight of heavy green fruit, ready to be harvested. The Cedro della Riviera dei Cedri, or Calabria citron, grows nowhere else in the world but a portion of this southern coastal region of Italy, a small area of farmland squeezed between blue sea on one side and green mountains on the other.
Called an etrog (or esrog) in Hebrew, Jews have for thousands of years been using the Calabria variety for the Sukkot holiday. The trees usually flower in June, and the fruit is ripe by the end of July, when farmers, rabbis and etrogmerchants choose, cut and pack away the choicest ones, shipping them to Jewish communities around the world.
But not this year. A highly unusual winter frost in January brought four days of below-zero weather to the region, destroying some 80 percent of the citron trees and causing the worst citron crisis in the area in the last half-century.
“I am just coming from the fields now; there is nothing to cut at all,” says Rabbi Moshe Lazar, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Milan, Italy, who has been traveling down to Calabria to oversee the kosher etrog harvest since the mid-1960s. “We’re not going to see any fruit for at least another month,” he tells Chabad.org.
Partially damaged trees have been trimmed down to their stumps, while other trees have been destroyed completely and must be replaced. It takes about three years for a newly-planted citron root branch to grow into a tree and yield its first etrogim.
Merchants and kosher supervisors say that consequently, this year a far smaller number of Calabria citrons will be available for Sukkot—the holiday will be celebrated this year from Oct. 4 to Oct. 11—and even those harvested will be of a poorer quality.
Among the hardest-hit are local farmers, including families who have been growing the majestic fruits for generations.
“Many of the farmers live solely on the citron. There are whole families who work on the production,” says Luigi Salsini, editor of the Italian-language CalNews and a longtime observer of the citron industry, which plays an important historic and economic role in Calabria. “Citrons harvested for Sukkot is the primary income for many families.”
While there are at least 12 varieties of citron that are kosher for Sukkot use, including numerous strains from Israel, it is a centuries-old Chabad-Lubavitch custom to make the blessing on one grown specifically in Calabria. (The Calabria etrog is often called a Yanover etrog—“Yanova” being the Yiddish exonym for Genoa, from which the fruits were shipped by Jewish merchants for centuries). In the last 70 years, the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—insisted that his Chassidim continue the millennia-old tradition, and at his direction, Lubavitchers have traveled there since the 1950s to oversee the harvest.
This deep history means that frost or no frost, for Lubavitcher Chassidim all around the world, there is no second choice after a Calabria etrog. And while the impact of this year’s crisis is already being felt acutely by farmers and distributors, it is the future that worries observers most.
“Farmers have lost so much this year, they can just sell their land to developers,” says Lazar’s son, Rabbi Menachem Lazar, director of ChabadPiazza Bologna in Rome, who has been joining his father in the citron fields since he was a child. “They’re asking themselves, is it worth it?”
An Ancient Fruit
Leviticus 23:40 states: “You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the hadar tree,” followed by descriptions of the three other species required to complete “the Four Kinds,” or species, used for Sukkot. Since the times of Moses, a teaching has been handed down from generation to generation that the fruit is a citron, attested to by the unique path of the tree’s travels through the ages.
The founder of the Chabad movement—Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi(1745-1812)—taught that when G‑d told Moses that the Jews should take an etrog, He sent messengers on clouds to gather them in Calabria. Thus, even as Napoleon wreaked havoc on Europe during his wars of conquest, Rabbi Schneur Zalman sent a messenger to retrieve for him a Calabria citron (the town today known as Santa Maria del Cedro) from Italy to make a blessing upon. Since that time, each Chabad Rebbe has done everything within his power to obtain one for Sukkot.
When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, a Lubavitcher Chassidnamed Avraham Erlanger, living in Lucerne, Switzerland, received a telegram from the fifth Rebbe—Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch—asking that he arrange a Calabria etrog for the Rebbe. Against huge odds, Erlanger managed to obtain a number of Calabria etrogim, which he sent with a messenger to Stockholm. There, the package was relayed to a second messenger, who traveled with the citrons all the way to the White Russian village of Lubavitch, arriving just in time for the holiday.
The Issue of Grafting
To be deemed kosher, an etrog cannot be grown on a tree that has been grafted, which presents many difficulties for the citron farmer. In itself, the citron tree is weak, yet when grafted with the rootstock of another citrus tree, it is able to survive a tougher environment and produce genetically indistinguishable etrogim. As beautiful as they may be, these fruits are not kosher and cannot be used for the holiday.
Until World War II, the vast amounts of Calabria etrogim were shipped throughout Europe via merchants in Genoa. The brothers Gustavo and Max Kreh were particularly well-known, and Rabbi Sholom Dovber’s son and successor—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—received his etrog from the Kreh brothers, who purchased the already-harvested Calabria etrogim in bulk and searched through them for fruit appropriate for use. Following the war, as etrogim grown in Israel gained in popularity, questions surfaced as to whether Calabria farmers were indeed beginning to graft their trees, and people sent there to inspect the situation returned with grim news.
The Rebbe stated that from that point forward, the etrog harvest would require rabbinic supervision, and he mandated that two supervisors be on hand at all times. Thus, in 1955, Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson—a Russian-born Lubavitcher Chassid who had been importing Calabria citrons to the United States since the late 1920s—traveled to Italy to oversee the cutting of each individual etrog. After working with a rotating cast of supervisors, he was joined by the elder Lazar in 1964.
“When Rabbi Jacobson started coming here was when Jews began to pay per esrog and not per kilo,” says Lazar. A teacher during the year, Lazar ran Camp Gan Israel in the summer. Once the session was over, he had a few extra weeks and went down to Calabria to accompany Jacobson. At the time, the majority of citrons were being grown on small family farms—places with 20, sometimes even 10 trees. Walking the fields with Jacobson, Lazar learned what to look for.
“An esrog tree’s roots grow horizontally, and so the roots quickly become dry and warm,” he explains. “But roots have to be wet and cold. The farmers used to gather sand from the river and place it around the roots, but then they realized that if they graft the trees, they can create trees whose roots grow down and are therefore stronger.”
The market became far more lucrative for the farmers when Jewish merchants began paying per etrog. Over the years, small farms have mostly disappeared, making way for larger industrial operations of a few hundred trees. Although quality citrons deemed kosher are sold at a good price by farmers, the work is laborious, and it is precisely the ungrafted trees that have suffered the most during this year’s frost.
Jacobson’s business was taken over by his grandchildren, the Altein family, with whom Lazar continues to work more than 50 years later, and from whom the Rebbe would purchase an etrog each year. Over the decades, they have been joined by many more etrog-dealers, including ones from outside the Chabad movement, such as Satmar Chassidim.
Yet for Satmar and other Chassidim, Calabria remains one of many places they could get their etrog from, and during a bad harvest, such as this year, they can go elsewhere. For Lubavitchers, no such choice exists. Calabria is the only place.
Beauty and Mystery
The Calabria citron—sometimes referred to as a Diamante citron—is a heavy fruit, difficult to cultivate, with more peel than actual fruit, but its beauty and mystery has led to its active cultivation over thousands of years. Yet it was undoubtedly the Jewish demand for etrogim that led to its being planted throughout the world, and Calabria’s fruit has survived partially due to this millennia-old market.
“I believe the citron would have been perpetuated until after the Second World War because of the candying industry,” explains Helena Attlee, a garden expert who has written numerous books on the subject, among them The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruits. “But then the confectionary industry became so much more sophisticated, I think if not for the Lubavitchers, it’s likely the farmers would have stopped cultivating them.”
Attlee, whose book was a BBC Radio 4 “Book of the Week,” points to the fate of the Chinotto citrus fruit in northern Liguria, which did not enjoy a similar religious demand and thus became nearly extinct (although it has recently been resuscitated on a small scale).
“The Jewish market has been such a fantastic market for the farmers in Calabria, but it is not easy,” adds Attlee, who describes the yearly harvest in evocative prose in her book. “It requires them to understand what’s needed, and to respect it. Mutual respect needed to be built up, and that was done over the last 40 years.”
Development has boomed in the coastal region, and over the years, many farms have been sold to make way for the thriving tourist industry. These days some 500,000 kilos of citrons are harvested, down from 7 million in the 1960s and ˋ70s.
Reflecting on the current situation, Salsini says farmers have told him they desperately do not want to abandon the work, but that destruction has been widespread.
“Everything is very grave,” he acknowledges.
Efrayim Keller first traveled to Calabria 32 years ago, joining his father, an etrog merchant, as a 14-year-old boy. When his father passed away, he took over the business. Although he agrees it is the worst harvest he has ever witnessed, he remains optimistic.
“These esrogim still exist because G‑d wants us to use them for Sukkot,” he states. “There’s no other natural explanation.”