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August 22, 2014 | 26th Av 5774

Bananas

Galilee Diary #355, September 16, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

Plants whose branches remain after the fruit is picked, and produce fruit again in another year, are trees, and the blessing on their fruit is “borei pri ha’eitz” (…who creates the fruit of the tree); if the entire plant dies, down to the roots, after the fruit is picked, like bananas, then it is not a tree, and the blessing is “borei pri ha’adama” (…who creates the fruit of the earth)

-Midrash Sechel Tov, Shemot 10 (12th century Italy)

At Sukkot we pay a lot of attention, of course, to the seven species (Deuteronomy 8:8) that symbolize the produce of Eretz Yisrael (wheat, barley, dates, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates), and the four species with which we celebrate the holiday (citron, palm, myrtle, willow). And it is right around Sukkot that the first barely edible sour green clementinas appear in the market, harbingers of the citrus season – just as the peaches and nectarines and plums get increasingly tasteless and expensive. Meanwhile, quietly, without anyone making a fuss, the bananas are back. In Israel, bananas are a local crop, and they are definitely seasonal. We don’t see them all summer. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this year, they made their annual comeback to the market, a cause of some rejoicing in our house.

It’s interesting that we seem to take bananas for granted. After all, it is not intuitively obvious that they would constitute a major crop here. They are not mentioned in the Bible; it seems that they made their way west from India and China in the Hellenistic period or later (it is said that Alexander the Great brought them back). They don’t appear in the rabbinic literature until the middle ages, where they are referred to as “muz.” The Latin name for bananas is musa. The Arabic word is muz. The National Academy of the Hebrew Language, which sets the standards for proper Hebrew, decreed that they should be called muz in modern Hebrew. Alas, that decree has gone unheeded (like many others; e.g., telephone was supposed to be “sach-rachok” which means “converse at a distance,” but Israelis insist on using telefon). In modern Hebrew, a banana is a banana (plural: bananot).

Driving north from the airport, the dark green citrus orchards confirm your image of Israel (except where they have been uprooted to make room for shopping malls), and the fragrance, if you come at the right season, becomes imprinted in your memory as a defining sensory perception of the country. But then, as you continue north to the coastal strip along the Carmel ridge – and past Haifa up towards the Lebanese border, you find yourself passing surprising, vast banana plantations, with their rows of vaguely weird, tropical-looking plants, each carrying a giant purple flower – or later in the season, a large blue plastic bag protecting the bunch of fruit as it develops. Somehow they seem out of place in our semi-arid country – and yet, they do very well, thank you, along the northern coastal plain and in the Jordan valley. The variety grown here yields fruits that are significantly smaller than what is standard in North American supermarkets (but that is true of almost every fruit grown here). In the world map of banana producers, Israel doesn’t even show up as a blip. We export almost none. We also import none, which is why we have them only in season; but when we do, we have a lot, and they are an important staple of everyone’s winter fruit consumption along with citrus.

Banana plants may be bigger than many fruit trees – but they are not trees. They are all leaves, from the ground up, with no woody trunk. Since this is not intuitively obvious to the casual observer, as long as Jews have eaten bananas they have wondered about the proper blessing to recite over them (see above).

Apparently, there was a medieval tradition that the banana was the fruit that Eve and Adam ate – and that it was from banana leaves that they fashioned their cover-ups (actually more satisfactory than fig leaves). Therefore when the Rambam mentions muz, he clarifies for the reader that this is the fruit known as poma paradisus. His opinion is, by the way, that bananas are definitely not a healthy food. The Rambam was a physician and a scholar of great genius, but he was wrong about bananas.

So Israel is, as many have suggested, a banana republic – but only in the winter.

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