Many of those observing the holiday of Sukkot procure their etrog sight unseen, ordering the citron from their congregation as part of a set along with a lulav and taking little note of its provenance — not that there is anything wrong with that.
But there are also those Jews who, in search of the perfect etrog, go the extra mile.
For Rabbi Yisroel Altein, spiritual leader of Chabad of Squirrel Hill, and the three generations of familial rabbis who came before him, that extra mile is actually more like 5,000 miles — all the way to Calabria, Italy.
For 91 years, Altein’s family has not only been getting their etrogs from Calabria, but also has been instrumental in ensuring that those citrons are indeed kosher and importing them to sell to others around the world who prefer the Italian-grown fruit to those grown in Israel or elsewhere.
The Alteins’ etrog story began in 1927, when Yisroel Altein’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, first immigrated to New York from Russia. Prior to Sukkot, he went to one of his friends to buy a Calabrian etrog, and was dismayed to find the only ones available were from Israel. (The Calabrian variety of etrog is particularly prized in Chabad-Lubavitch circles, preferred over other strains of the fruit.)
“You couldn’t get one from Italy in the United States,” Altein recounted. “So, my great-grandfather told his friend, ‘Next year, I’ll have one for me and one for you.’”
Jacobson was true to his word. He contacted a rabbi serving the Lubavitch community in Poland, who began shipping them from Italy to the United States at Jacobson’s request. A contact in Calabria continued to ship them to America in the years that followed.
In the 1950s, the kashrut of the Calabrian etrog became uncertain, as there was a question of whether the farmers there were grafting different species of trees together. So Jacobson, at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, went to Calabria along with a second witness to ensure that the etrogs were indeed kosher.
By the 1960s and 1970s, other rabbis from Italy joined Jacobson in checking the etrogs and seeing to their distribution, including Altein’s grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Altein.
While Mordechai Altein has not been traveling to Calabria since the 1990s, his son, Rabbi Leibel Altein, has taken over the family business of seeing to the production and exporting of Italian etrogs, and his grandson, Yisroel Altein is now helping as well.
Last month, Yisroel Altein went to Calabria for the first time to check out the enterprise, as he is now overseeing sales and “making sure that customers have what they need.”
Seeing the etrog orchards firsthand was “very fascinating,” Altein said. “I grew up with my etrog coming in a box. Seeing an actual orchard and seeing how to get the good etrogim — some stay on the trees because they are not beautiful — was very interesting.”
While the Calabrian etrog looks a lot like an Israeli etrog — the Israeli etrog’s color is a more vibrant shade of yellow — members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community have long preferred to recite the blessing of the Four Species on ones grown in Calabria. The late Schneerson, in fact, insisted that followers of the movement continue the tradition, which purportedly began during the Jews’ wandering in the desert following their exodus from Egypt.
“According to the Alter Rebbe,” said Altein, referring to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, “when Moshe was in the desert and needed an etrog, God sent messengers on a cloud to get them from Calabria.”
Calabria, Altein explained, is the “choicest of land,” according to the Torah, and the Talmud suggests that God bequeathed that land to Isaac’s firstborn son, Esau, designated as the inheritor of earth’s richness in the Book of Genesis.
The Alteins’ etrog export business is relatively small, said the Pittsburgh rabbi, although it “may be the oldest.” They export about 2,500 etrogs each year from Calabria to businesses with retail customers throughout the world, including in Europe, Canada and Argentina.
The Calabrian etrogs are pricier than those grown in Israel; “a decent etrog” from Italy will start this year at about $120, according to Altein. In contrast, a lulav and etrog set containing an etrog from Israel can be purchased from Amazon for $30.
Last year, because of crop-damaging Italian frosts, the Calabrian etrogs were going for as high as $500 apiece.
For most Jews, though, reciting the blessing over an Israeli etrog is fine, Altein stressed.
“It is obviously clear that an etrog from Israel is 100 percent kosher,” he said. “This is a custom in Chabad to have one from Calabria, but even in Chabad communities, some use etrogrim from Israel. And there are some Calabrian etrogrim that actually were planted in Israel.”
Whether choosing a citron from Israel or from Italy, though, there are many Jews who are notoriously picky when it comes to selecting an etrog, Altein noted.
“One person wants larger, one person wants cleaner,” said Altein. “Trying to satisfy an etrog customer is not an easy task.” PJC