In Eve Merriam’s poem “Simile Willow and Ginkgo,” she writes, “The ginkgo forces its way through gray concrete/ Like a city child, it grows up in the street./ Thrust against the metal sky,/ Somehow it survives and even thrives,” lauding the tree’s persistence in an environment for which it’s not suited.
The same can be said for etrog trees growing in Philadelphia.
About a year ago, West Philadelphia resident and Reconstructing Judaism Assistant Director of Thriving Communities/Tikkun Olam Specialist Rabbi Micah Weiss planted about 75 etrog seeds. Over the year, nearly all germinated, producing little etrog saplings.
For Sukkot, Weiss has gifted some of the saplings to his coworkers and plans on selling 45 of them to raise money for his shul’s, Kol Tzedek’s, 18th year.
Along with the tree comes some guidance: Weiss has put together a “Pri Etz Hadar” WhatsApp group, where new etrog growers can share wisdom on how to cultivate trees known to thrive in the Mediterranean in a cold urban locale.
“Tactile things are a wonderful way to be intimately connected to your Judaism,” Weiss said.
In a world where it’s easy to have anything shipped to your door in 48 hours, finding a new Jewish ritual in your backyard can help flex a different Jewish muscle.
“It’s amazing that you can go on Amazon and order a tallit and a chanukiah and a tzitzit and a lulav and a lulav holder. We have instant access to mass-produced, cheap Judaica,” he said. “And there’s a disconnect … you don’t get to know the fabric and how to tie the knots and the symbolism of each of the knots.”
With the grassroots project spreading to households all over the West Philadelphia Reconstructionist community, Weiss hopes many can share in a Jewish practice that is both ancient and adapted to today’s climate and technologies.
“I didn’t grow up in a place where etrogs could grow, much less knowing what they were, so having one to tend to could help me connect personally with my ancestral land-based rituals, moreover in a neighborhood web of others doing the same,” one WhatsApp member said.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been a challenge. To be kosher for the harvest holiday, etrog trees must have unique genetic material; they can’t be clones of a parent plant. Kosher etrog trees cannot be grafted — planted from the existing limb of another etrog tree — and instead must come from a seed.
After Sukkot last year, Weiss frantically called on community members to donate their leftover etrogs, from where he harvested his many seeds.
Because of the Northeast’s colder autumn and winter temperature, the trees must be closely monitored in chillier seasons and brought inside before a frost. They require year-round sun and regular water. When Weiss wasn’t keeping his dozens of etrog trees on a folding table in his backyard, they sat on his enclosed porch, serving as a Zoom background for meetings (and a nifty conversation starter).
Weiss was inspired by Rabbi Vivie Mayer, a teacher of his who also raised etrog trees on the East Coast.
Mayer, however, had little guidance when she took on a similar project years ago.
“I brought the trees indoors before the first frost and back outdoors after the last frost. As those weeks approached, I paid special attention to the nighttime temperatures,” she said. “When I brought them outside, I put them near my bee balm and butterfly bushes, which attract pollinators. But clearly, I was managing the fertilization like a farmer, as we only got two fruits in 10 years from four trees!”
With the many variables that any agricultural process entails, there’s no guarantee that the saplings will one day flower and fruit, helping to fulfill the sukkot mitzvah and what Mayer calls “‘hiddur mitzvah’ — making a mitzvah lovely and cherished.”
However, Weiss, in the spirit of following the farming practices of his ancestors, wants to play by the rules. He’s entrenched in the complicated Jewish agricultural laws, trying his best to navigate and apply them to his makeshift etrog arboretum.
As is common in Jewish tradition, the very laws in question have already been debated and discussed.
Nati Passow, founder of the now-closed Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia and the director of operations and finance at Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, has worked in the past to help identify the beginning of a tree’s orla period, the three-year wait before a tree’s fruit can be harvested, as well as answer other questions.
Weiss’ etrog growing project is among a growing number of Jewish grassroots agricultural projects in the past two decades, Passow said. It’s an opportunity to learn from tradition and apply it to today’s world.
“It’s a pretty amazing way to draw from this tradition that emerged from a land far away and then make it more local and more personal,” he said.