Effects of Harsh Winter in Italy Worry Producers of ‘Yanover’ Esrogim

Harsh Winter, Italy, Worry, Producers, Yanover, Esrogim
A portion of the esrog trees laid to waste by poor weather this year.

NEW YORK - With the Sukkos holiday still several months away, those involved in the procurement of “Yanover” esrogim are already predicting an especially slim market for the many Jews who seek out this unique species of Italian esrogim.

Rabbi Menachem Lazar, co-director of Chabad Piazza Bologna, Rome, who is involved in supervising the fields on which the esrogim grow, said that a few days of severe frost this past winter had destroyed a large number of trees.

“At first, the farmers told us that 90 percent had been wiped out. Now they think that it may be a little less, but that would still mean much less then we have ever had in a year,” he told Hamodia. “We won’t really know what the situation is until they are ready to be cut, but for sure there will be a lot less than usual and much lower quality.”

The term Yanover can be somewhat misleading to those without a historical background in the esrog trade. The word is Yiddish for the Italian port city of Genoa from which the esrogim were originally shipped to Jewish communities. In fact, the esrogim themselves are grown in the Calabria region on the southwestern cost of Italy.

Pure citron trees are particularly susceptible to weather conditions as their roots spread out widely and grow close to the surface of the ground. Too much heat or cold can easily ruin all but the heartiest of plants. The difficulty in managing the trees has led many farmers over the years to graft the trees with lime branches, making them much stronger — but unfit for the mitzvah of daled minim, which can be performed only with a pure esrog.

In recent decades, a large selection of esrogim grown in Eretz Yisrael have captured the lion’s share of the market. Kfar Chabad esrogim are actually produced from trees planted from branches taken from Calabria. Yet, particularly in the communities of Lubavitch and Satmar, tremendous favor is shown toward the original Yanover variety. Many Yidden of Hungarian descent also prefer them, as they were used by the Chasam Sofer, who gave them a strong approbation of authenticity.

Farming kosher Calabria esrogim is always a challenge, but this year, four days of sub-zero temperatures caused a freeze that killed many of the trees and retarded the growth of many others.

Yoel Levy, who travels to Calabria and Morocco every year to select esrogim for his daled minim business in Kiryas Joel, said that he is afraid the effects of the frost will leave many of his customers unhappy this year.

“When people come to buy esrogim who have been my customers for years, they don’t want to hear any excuses,” he told Hamodia. “I just want everybody to be happy. You should see the look on people’s faces when they walk out of the store with a nice esrog; it’s a bigger smile than when they get a new car. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle it this year. I’m hoping for a big brachah in the Moroccan esrogim that can make up for the Yanover.”

Such a phenomenon has not hit Calabria for over 50 years. It is likely not only to have an effect on this year’s crop, but will also diminish output for three to four years to come, as many trees were cut down, and it will take time for new ones to bear fruit.

Rabbi Lazar said he hoped that the shortage would not drive prices up and that the major sellers would keep a handle on the market — realizing that the situation is only short-term, and that once prices go up, they are unlikely to come down. However, Mr. Levy said that if the shortage is as severe as expected, price hikes are inevitable, due to “a simple matter of supply and demand.”

Farmers usually begin to harvest the esrogim in Calabria in mid-July, but the lagging growth will push that off until August. Only then, Rabbi Lazar said, will it be clear what the supply will truly look like. Both he and Mr. Levy fear the situation will drive many Yanover loyalists to seek alternatives, at least for this year.

In an effort to provide an adequate supply, Rabbi Lazar said that sellers will most likely end up taking esrogim of much lower quality than they are accustomed to. “We usually leave 60 to 70 percent of the esrogim on the tree, but this year we’ll have to take all of them; whatever is kosher will be on the market.