The Etrog Grove: A True Love Story and Hoshannah Rabbah Teaching

The bus lines to get to Safed, Israel before Shabbat were impossible. There I was a tiny (five feet one half inch) brown haired, green-eyed, non-Hebrew speaking seventeen year-old Jewish girl, waiting in line at the central bus station in Jerusalem. If you could even call it a line - it more resembled a crowd at a rugby match.

Why Safed? In my spiritual imagination it was where wild-eyed mystics roam the streets and with a glance fill your soul with endless revelation....where artists become inspired by simply viewing the ornamented Sephardic temples and gleaming hammered metal Torah scroll cases.....where domed roofs would carry my prayers higher and deeper....

It was my third week of trying to get onto the bus to Safed! The first time the ticket seller told me "all sold out" (two hours before the last scheduled departure). The second time a woman jabbed me in the guts with her cane and took the final inch of squeezable aisle space on the last bus.

This time I got there four hours early and carried my own pointy umbrella. It felt very odd to be seeking spirituality while armed to do battle. The problem with the third week was that the last bus never came.

The fourth week was to be my final Shabbat before returning to America. The quest had become an obsession. My funds were totally gone except for bus fare and ten dollars. Taking finals at Hebrew University and delivering my belongings for shipping back to the states had run late into the day, it was only one hour to the last bus. This was going to require a miracle.

Hungry. The wafting scent of cinnamon overwhelmed my senses. Like a cartoon ghost my soul drifted on the path of its scent until I reached the source, a bakery on King David Street. In the window were sitting dozens of steaming sheets of just-out-of-the oven sticky buns. I wasted only one precious second watching them with longing. Then inspiration struck.

Back in 1972 ten dollars could buy a lot of sticky buns. Emerging from the bakery, my towering backpack of all residual travel possessions humped up behind me, umbrella over one arm, and my trophy held aloft like the Statue of Liberty turned professional waitress. The trophy? A huge white bakery box lined with a full sheet of sixty four sticky buns.

Approaching the bus terminal, I carefully lowered the box, opened the lid, raised it aloft and walked over to a dapperly dressed gentleman. "Excuse me sir, do you speak English?"

He replied "Yes," in a strong British accent.

"Do you also speak Hebrew?" I inquired.

"Keyn (yes)," he responded.

"Could you please tell me how to say ‘‘free samples’’ in Hebrew?"

He suggested something like: "Doogma Chofshi."

Tipping the box, I offered him an "Ooga doogma chofshi sticky" - i.e., a free sticky

cake sample.

I then paraded up to the bus line for Safed, and yours truly breezed along the line, smiling brightly and passing out free samples right up to and including the bus driver, who pulled in just as I got to the front of the line. So I was able to acquire the first seat on the last bus to S’fat that final Shabbat in Israel.

Great. Except traffic was awful, and it was getting darker and darker as we ascended into the hills. I was supposed to stay at a youth hostel for the night, pre-arranged through the university. "Please let me off at the Youth Hostel," I tell the driver. He shrugs and lets me off the bus a few yards down the road.

No moon. Flashlight packed and already en route to the States. Lots of stars. A Rosh Chodesh night. I see a building up a driveway, no lights are on, perhaps because it is now Shabbat? No such luck. No one is in, the building looks like a left over from the British mandate period. I have a few matches for my Shabbat candles and strike one to read the sign which proves to be in English: Hostel for Wayward Men.

Luckily I was still in my hippy stage, sleeping bag dangling from the back pack, can be easily unrolled. I try each of the entrances until one proves to be ajar. It being dark, me being tired, lost and rational, I light and bless my Shabbat candles, eat the last sticky bun, roll out my sleeping bag and fall fast asleep.

Morning arrives with major sound effects. An incredibly loud "moo" startles me awake and I lurch from sleep and roll smack into......the hoof of a cow? Udderly ridiculous you say? Try looking up from where I was sleeping!

The room I’d chosen proved to have no back wall, it could have been a movie set. Trees in the shape of a grove could be seen from my lowly vantage point. I gingerly slid out from under Bessie (Batya?) cow.

Wandering out through the non-existent rear wall in pure amazement at the odd circumstances, I discover it was indeed a grove, of etrog trees. How magical that was to me, a Westerner. The area was replete with many more cows and what looked to be a swarthy shepherd. Whoa. Make that a stunning, gorgeous shepherd. Oh, make that a Moroccan male around my own age. Too bad I had sticky bun on fingers and face and had just spent the night on the floor.

The rest of the story is more conventional. We made a sweet connection, his family had me over for lunch. It was the first time I’’d experienced people eating in that regional style, out of one pot with their fingers. They had never met a woman who could and insisted upon making kiddush herself to honor Shabbat.

OK, so it felt like love at first sight. He showed me Safed (that’s a whole other story), and a few weeks later I had lingered in Israel and together we celebrated the ending days of Sukkot with his family. They taught me about tikkun leil Hoshana Rabba, where you stay up all of the seventh night of Sukkot, studying in the sukkah and in the morning wear a white karate-like robe to synagogue, which turns out to be part of the shroud in which a Jewish person in some parts of the spectrum of Judaism is married and buried.

"Why do this in the midst of such a joyous holiday?" I asked them, showing my obvious youthful discomfort with introducing symbolism of death. I was amazed to learn their tradition that while the high holiday metaphor of the book of life for them did have it close on Yom Kippur, it took the experience of Sukkot to really seal it, by sealing into your soul renewed joy at the full flavor of life.

That particular Hoshana Rabba, is mostly a sweet blur. In the morning I was pointed in the direction of the women’s section of a nearby ancient Sephardic synagogue. Below I could discern through the slats of the lattice men parading in circles, praying hoshanot.

The hosanna is a prayer for help, to be saved and one chants hosannas bearing your lulav aloft, while seven circles are made in a great procession. After services we met up with the men and witnessed a set of seven circles in the sukkah behind the synagogue. In years to come I would learn the mystical symbolism for these sevens (see page ), then my eyes were only for the mystery of the ritual and the beauty of my new boyfriend.

We wrote passionate letters across continents for a while. I developed a college boy friend, my Moroccan love married a distant relative. We lost touch (what a euphemism!) I went back to find him and his family once, the orchards are now covered over with housing units, no one knew of them.

What do you think of when you pick up an etrog? I crave cinnamon buns, recall the joy of having a "crush" as a young woman and have no hesitation to utter heart-felt hoshannot, hoping for more of this good life.

The bus lines to get to Safed before Shabbat were impossible. There I was a tiny (five feet one half inch), brown haired, green-eyed, non-Hebrew speaking seventeen year-old Jewish girl, waiting in line at the central bus station in Jerusalem. If you could even call it a line - it more resembled a crowd at a rugby match.

Why Safet? In my spiritual imagination it was where mystics roam the streets and with a glance fill your soul with endless revelation....where artists become inspired by simply viewing the ornamented Sephardic temples and Torah scroll cases.....where domed roofs would carry my prayers further and deeper....

It was my third week trying to get on that bus. The first time the ticket seller told me "all sold out" (two hours before the last scheduled departure). The second time someone jabbed me in the guts with her cane and took the last inch of aisle space on the last bus. This time I got there four hours early and carried my own pointy umbrella. Felt very odd to be seeking spirituality while armed to do battle. The problem with the third week was that the last bus never came.

The fourth week was to be my last Shabbat before returning to America. The quest had become an obsession. My funds were totally gone except for bus fare and ten dollars. Taking finals at Hebrew University and preparing my belongings for shipping back to the states had taken unexpectedly long, it was only one hour to the last bus. This was going to require a miracle.

Hungry. The wafting scent of cinnamon overwhelmed my senses. Like a cartoon ghost my soul drifted on the path of its scent until I reached the source, a German-Jewish bakery on King David Street. In the window were sitting steaming sheets of just-out-of-the oven sticky buns. I wasted precious second watching them with longing. Then inspiration struck.

Back in 1972 ten dollars could buy a lot of sticky buns. Emerging from the bakery, my huge backpack humped up behind me, umbrella over one arm, and held aloft like a professional waitress, a huge white bakery box of sticky buns.

Approaching the bus terminal, I carefully lowered the box, opened the lid, raised it aloft and walked over to a dapperly dressed gentlemen . "Excuse me, Sir, do you speak English?"

He replied "Yes," in a strong British accent. "Do you also speak Hebrew?" "Keyn."

"Could you please tell me how to say ‘free samples’ in Hebrew?" He suggested something like: "Doogma Chofshi." Tipping the box, I offered him an "Doogmat ooga chofshi sticky" - i.e., a free cake sample.

Paraded up to the bus line for S’fat, yours truly breezed right through, smiling brightly and passing out free samples right up to and including the bus driver, who pulled ins I got to the front of the line and so took the first seat on the last bus to S’fat.

Great. Except traffic was awful, it’s getting darker and darker as we ascend into the hills. I am supposed to stay at a youth hostel for the night, pre-arranged through the university. "Please let me off at the Youth Hostel," I tell the driver, too young to realize that he probably doesn’t know where it is. He shrugs and lets me off the bus a few yards down the road.

No moon. No stars. A Rosh Hodesh night. I see a building up the driveway, no lights are on, perhaps because it is now Shabbat? No such luck. No one is in, the building looks like a left over from the British mandate period. I have a few matches for my Shabbat candles and strike one to read the sign which proves to be in English: Hostel for Wayward Men.

Luckily I’m still in my hippy stage, sleeping bag on my back. I try each of the entrances until one proves to be ajar. It being dark, me being tired, lost and rational, I light my Shabbat candles, eat the last sticky bun, roll out my sleeping bag and fall fast asleep.

Morning comes with sound effects. An incredible loud "moo" startles me and I lurch from sleep smack into......the foot of a cow? Udderly ridiculous you say? Try looking up from where I was lying. The room I’d chosen proved to have no back wall, it could have been a movie set. Trees in the appearance of a grove could be seen from my vantage point. I gingerly slid out from under Bessie (Batya?) Cow.

Wandering out the back wall in amazement at the odd circumstances, I wander into the grove. The area is replete with many cows. Suddenly out of one tree, with--could they be lemons?  Jumps a gorgeous swarthy lad about my age. I jumped back in astonishment. He swirls a basket down from his shoulder, offering me a tray of...etrogim! Large, perfectly shaped, magnificent etrogim. He spoke to me in a heavily accented....Arabic. OY! What would my parents say about this situation...

The rest of the story ... ask for that when we meet one day. There was meeting his family, dining out of a common pot. He and his dad grabbing their talleisim after breakfast and eventually, our time at the synagogue of the Ari... Then a disconcerting surprise when he showed up at the U of Pa, knocking on the door to my dorm room bearing gifts..well, do ask, one day, for the rest of the story.

Love and blessings for an awesome Sukkot.