Anne George witnesses an unusual transaction

The beginning of a school year at an international school in Jerusalem is a bit untidy. Putting aside the general problem of returning to a very different student population than that of the previous year (many families from the international aid and UN services only stayed a year in Jerusalem) the Jewish High Holidays were usually celebrated very early on, a whole week off school, sometimes only a week after we had started the term, with Sukkot (Feast of Booths), a two-day holiday, following hard on their heels.

I was pondering the strange way in which this potential educational disaster actually materialized into a very positive induction period for most of our new students as I walked home down The Street of the Prophets a few days before the start of Sukkot. The modern Jewish homes on the left-hand side all flaunted their sukkahs. One family had used their vine trellis as the framework for their ‘booth’, adding folded screens to make walls and palm fronds to supplement the leafy vines on the roof. Another had made use of a balcony to provide the basis of the booth, then added a roof of woven mats. It was easy to spot what I considered to be a most incongruous item: every sukkah had palm fronds, leafy branches and etrogs, all made of plastic, hanging from the rafters as decorations.

So, what is an etrog? I knew already, as Auntie had pointed out to me her etrog tree, neatly fitting itself into the first bend of the alleyway leading to the courtyard. It was, she had said proudly, the only etrog tree in the Old City and it even bore fruit. I was less than impressed, however, when I came to taste the inside of this large, knobbly, yellow fruit. In fact I did not attempt to try it straight from the tree, only a chutney made by thrifty Auntie, who could never bear any foodstuff to go to waste. Even made a fraction more interesting with sugar and spices, etrog is basically a prototype anaemic lemon with a faintly citrus flavour.

When I had turned off the road into the alleyway and reached the etrog tree I found that Auntie was entertaining a visitor. A very tall, imposing Hasidic Jew wearing the usual heavy black tail-suit, no tie and an enormous circular flat hat trimmed with auburn fur was standing facing Auntie, diminutive in her red-flowered housecoat. I was fascinated by the contrast and shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation, helped by the fact that, English being their only common language, albeit rather sketchily and eked out by the odd Hebrew word, I could understand most of what was said.

I found out later from Auntie that this particular Hasid had made a visit to the courtyard every September for quite a long time, and his reason was to purchase an etrog. It seemed that, for him at least, the thought of having this particular etrog as part of his ‘four species’ which observant Jews wave during the special prayers at Sukkot was irresistible: it was local, grown in the Old City even, and, the ultimate blessing, he could pick it from the tree himself. The only hitch was that Auntie refused to take any money for it. Year after year he pleaded with her, but she was adamant: it was a gift with no strings attached. It was clear that he didn’t like to be beholden to her, but he wanted the etrog more. With an interesting blend of reluctance and triumph in his expression he reached up and plucked his etrog. He muttered a word of thanks and left immediately.

Auntie’s face showed pure triumph as she settled herself at the plastic table. She had won again, and she generously thanked me for teaching her even more English vocabulary, allowing her to express herself that much more forcefully. As I poured out two generous helpings of rich, ruby-red Galil wine I suggested that we should immediately raise our glasses to honour both an abundant harvest and a successful transaction.

Ann George is a member of FinF National Council.