We walk in the citrus groves ; the soil is kept loose and soft among the trees, the leaves are glossy, the ground itself is fragrant To put forth such leaves, to be hung with oranges, to be a blessing one feels the temptation of this on such a morning, and I even feel a fibrous woodiness entering my arms as I consider it. You want to take root and stay forever in the most temperate and blue of temperate places All this was once dune land. Soil had to be carted in and mixed with the sand. Many years of digging and tending made these orchards. Relaxing, breathing freely, you feel what a wonderful place has been created here, a homeplace for body and soul
-Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back
On the first day you shall take the fruit of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
Hadar is generally translated as goodly or beautiful. Traditionally, of course, the biblical reference to the fruit of hadar trees is taken as the etrog, or citron. The fragrant etrog and the three other species constituting the lulav are the central symbols of Sukkot and judging from the carvings and mosaics found in ancient synagogues, they have also served as symbols of Judaism in general. The etrog, originally, apparently, from China, made its way to the middle east via Persia during the Hellenistic period (after the Bible, before the Rabbis). While rabbinic texts raise the possibility that one might consider using a quince or a pomegranate for Sukkot rejoicing, they reject it, as already by their time the etrog was taken for granted. Over time, the fruit of hadar trees came to refer to all varieties of citrus fruit; lemons, oranges, and grapefruit began to be cultivated in Israel in recent centuries and especially since the Rothschilds agronomists encouraged the planting of citrus orchards to produce an export commodity. Indeed, until about twenty years ago, citrus fruit seemed to symbolize the agricultural bounty of the modern state of Israel. The Jaffa orange was a kind of unofficial national symbol, and the citrus orchards along the coastal plain were one of the most memorable sights (and smells) that greeted the tourist upon landing. Finding Jaffa oranges in our local supermarkets always gave us American Jews warm, proud feelings.
However, the world has moved on and so has Israel. The acreage devoted to citrus orchards has been in decline for two decades, as the trees are removed to make room for shopping malls, housing developments, and more exotic, profitable fruits and vegetables. Water for irrigation, despite all our brilliant technology (drip irrigation is an Israeli invention), is becoming scarcer and more expensive; Spain, Italy, Morocco, and South Africa are powerful competitors on the world market; agricultural labor is expensive. With the globalization of economy and culture, Israels unique relationship to citrus fruit has faded. I remember when there were three bottled soft drinks in Israel: sweetened grapefruit juice, sweetened orange juice, and lemon-lime soda, all locally made. Today the soft drink cooler at any fast food stand is packed with dozens of choices, most them world brands. The model of the pioneer who would make the desert green and productive (see Saul Bellow above) has given way to the model of the high tech engineer or entrepreneur who will build Israels leadership in the world market for medical electronics, communications software, etc. Today agricultural products - including citrus fruit - make up only 3% of Israels total exports.
Sukkot is coming, and even for the high techies among us, our thoughts turn to the fruit of beautiful trees; the fragrance of the etrog and the pleasing feel of it in the hand bring us back to a pre-global, pre-modern, elemental connection to the land and its fruits.