I look out my window this rainy Sunday morning and find odd comfort in the sight of several morose sukkahs. Like mine, they stand forlorn, their once-verdant s’gach (thatch) soaking in City of Seattle lawn-waste recycling bins; their walls — formerly proud bearers of laminated pre-school sukkah art — shuckling in the breeze, offering a prayer for a speedy redemption into a dry garage sometime before next Pesach.
But this is no time to take guilty comfort in learning that my own sukkah — in which my family and friends rejoiced during the dry evenings and sunlit days of this past yontiff — is not the only one on the block treated like a guest who’s outworn his welcome. No, something darker and more troubling is on this columnist’s mind!
As those of us who weathered the Great Lulav Crisis of 5766 now know, sinister unsuspected forces control, by a hidden hand, some of the most essential aspects of the rejoicing that we bring to our celebration of the autumnal Festival of Tabernacles.
Globalization — the transformation of formerly local politics and economics into an interconnected and interdependent world system — has come to Judaism.
I’ve learned from my colleagues in the Jackson School that globalization is, well…global. With national borders increasingly permeable, markets are more often sensitive to international pressures than to purely local events. That’s why the flow of goods, services, knowledge, and money often circumvents the apparently solid facades of political or regional alliances and animosities. In a global system, political rhetoric of both friendship and conflict can serve to deflect attention from fundamental economic facts on the ground.
It took the exorbitant price of a kosher palm frond, the lulav, to awaken world Jewry to the stunning fact that even the performance of a humble mitzvah is conditioned by the inexorable forces of globalization. What happened this year, we wondered, as the price of a lulav began to rise faster than a gallon of gas after Katrina?
It’s not exactly clear. But according to reliable sources, our supply of cheap lulavim — one of the four species of oasis-plants waved by Jews since Biblical times as part of our petition for the winter rains — has depended for decades upon secret import and price-setting agreements between Israeli entrepreneurs and a succession of Egyptian governments. This year, it seems, the rules of the hidden game were violated by an over-reaching importer, identified as one Avi Balali of Kiryat Gat.
Buying up three-fifths of the entire Egyptian harvest of 500,000, Balali allegedly convinced the Egyptian government to ban further lulav harvesting as an “environmental danger.” With his monopoly of the international market secure, Balali was free to charge Israeli and foreign distributors sky-high prices. They, of course, passed the costs on to consumers.
Lulavim that sold last year for two bucks in Israel — and even less in Brooklyn, London, or Antwerp — would now cost $20 before Sukkot and be cheaper than fertilizer by Simchat Torah, the following week. After Sukkot, about the only thing you can do with a used lulav is burn it as hametz next Passover!
As best I can tell, the business relationship that set the stage for Mr. Balali extends back to the reign of none other than the revolutionary Ba’athist, Gamal Abd-ul Nasser, one of the most anti-Semitic leaders of a modern state between the death of Hitler and the arrest of Saddam. Maybe I’m sensitive, but this seems to me something like offering the contract for circumcision knives to F. Krupp, AG, makers of fine steel!
Similar perversities cascade from the mind. Many Jews to this day abhor Wagner and refuse to buy German cars. Would they knowingly serve the God of Israel by waving a lulav produced by a nation whose state media still airs repeats of a 12-part docudrama about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
Or look at it, if you like, from the viewpoint of the so-called “Arab street.” Can it be that the Arab League’s decades-long boycott of major corporate traders with “the Zionist entity” was merely white noise masking the willingness of Egyptians to make a few extra pennies on otherwise useless palm fronds? Apparently, the Egyptians have been closet ecumenists all along!
Now, at least, the lid is off the pot. We all know where lulavim came from for all these bitter years. So what’ll happen come Sukkot 5767? Will the Egyptian government overcome its newfound environmental sensitivity and retract its ban on lulav exports in the interests of becoming a “partner in peace”?
More importantly, will the Great Lulav Crisis of 5766 open up possibilities for actualizing a rather more ambitious vision of a globalized humanity, the one envisioned by our own prophet, Isaiah: “Lo yisa goy el goy herev, lo yilmedu od milhamah” (“Let no nation take up the sword against another, let them no longer study war!”)?
Somehow, I’m not optimistic. The one positive result of all this, I dare say, is the enrichment of the Yiddish contribution to American English. In an unforgettable turn of phrase, an Israeli reporter is quoted by a prominent Israeli news service as pointing out that “Balali is holding the American and Israeli lulav markets by the koisheklakh!”
But before you e-mail the editor of JTNews in outrage at the profanity he has introduced into the Voice of Jewish Washington, calm down. Despite the vulgar English parallel, koisheklakh are not what you might think. The term innocently denotes those woven Y-shaped thingies that keep your willows and myrtles standing proud and tall next to your lulav (unless, of course, you’re Lubavitch, in which case you don’t use koisheklakh). Who knew what to call them before Mr. Balali made his killing in palm-frond futures?
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.