Shulem Ekstein, left, and his brother Schmiel, looked for just the right fronds on young palm trees at a farm in Indio, Calif., late last month.
INDIO, Calif. — From a certain vantage point on Arthur Futterman’s date farm, Shulem Ekstein can see palm trees in every direction. Mr. Ekstein has been to many of these farms, waiting at the gate in his black three-piece suit, his prayer shawl poking out from underneath his vest.
For each of the last seven years, Mr. Ekstein has traveled from Kiryas Joel, a tightly knit Orthodox enclave northwest of New York City, to ask the farmers in the California desert if he could please buy the inner palm fronds of their trees. Thousands of Jews, he will explain, will soon be looking to use those sort of fronds as a religious ritual object to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.
“I explain to them it doesn’t hurt the trees, it helps them,” said Mr. Ekstein, 27, his voice thick with a Yiddish accent, as he reached through a tree to clip one out. “It just takes a minute or less to cut them, not complicated.”
During the holiday, which begins next Wednesday evening and lasts for a week, religious Jews are required to hold the frond — called a lulav in Hebrew — along with a willow and myrtle branches and a citron fruit each day while reciting a prayer.
The palms are most abundant in the Middle East — the vast majority of the roughly 500,000 used in the United States are imported from Israel and Egypt. But this year, Egypt has apparently held back from exporting the fronds, sending a wave of panic about a potential lulav shortage through the small circle of businessmen who distribute and sell them in the United States.
“We rely way too much on other countries,” said Levi Zagelbaum, who distributes them from Brooklyn all over the country. “We shouldn’t allow this to happen again. But people have to understand that was our cheapest source.”
The lulav industry, such as it is, relies primarily on longstanding connections, with the largest suppliers closely guarding their source of the palm fronds. Mr. Zagelbaum said consumers would have to pay $10 more this year for the palm fronds, which are typically sold with the other symbolic plants for anywhere from $50 to $300.
Mr. Ekstein does not worry about any of that. Thanks to the farmers here, he has his own small but steady supply of American-grown palm fronds. A member of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic sect, which believes the state of Israel should be created only by God, Mr. Ekstein does not buy religious items from Israel. The fronds from Egypt, he said, are inferior to the varieties he can procure here. In his community, nobody will blanch at paying $70 or $80 for the palm frond alone.
“We want the strongest, the most beautiful, the straightest,” he said. “Everyone wants the nicest ones, but most people have no idea where theirs came from. We know.”
At this time of year, in neighborhoods with a heavy concentration of religious Jews, it is not uncommon to see scores of tables full of fronds, with people crowding around to closely examine them. According to Jewish law, the tallest leaf has to be completely intact, not split down the middle.
To spend an afternoon with Mr. Ekstein and his brother Schmiel is to learn about the finer points of the varieties of fronds. There are the medjool palms, which are prized for the juicy fruit they create but have the weakest fronds, Mr. Ekstein said. “You give a little shake and it falls apart,” he scoffed, pointing to the tip of the frond.
Then there is the khadrawi, which is somewhat stronger. But the real prize, the palm that brings him across the country each year, is the dayri.
“This one the kid could push and hit the roof with it and it would still be O.K.,” he said, speaking like a proud farmer as he examined a specimen.
The fervent fascination and adoration of the fronds is part of what makes the date farmers here so willing to deal with Mr. Ekstein and the handful of other Jews who show up in the middle of harvest season, as the temperatures climb into the triple digits.
“They come with respect,” said Mr. Futterman, who has run his farm here for nearly 20 years. “It honors the fruit that we work so hard on.” He and his wife, Gale, agreed a few years ago to let the Eksteins place a few of their own dayri trees on the property. When they arrive to cut the fronds, the Futtermans open their living room as a sort of shipping headquarters, carefully wrapping them so that they can be shipped without breaking.
“It’s another job, but I look forward to it every year,” said Gale Futterman. “Why do I love it so much? Because I love the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I love his people.”
Mr. Futterman considers himself an evangelical Christian and “completed Jew,” and believes in Jesus. When the Ekstein brothers learned this on their most recent trip, there was a quick discussion. “It’s a good story,” Mr. Futterman said, before the group “agreed to disagree.”
The discussion ended as quickly as it began — Mr. Futterman politely obliged when the brothers asked him to turn off the religious music playing on his home stereo.
Last year, the Eksteins decided that if they really wanted a larger supply of fronds each year, they ought to buy their own farm. So they purchased a plot of land in Yuma, on the western edge of Arizona. The plants were too young to be harvested this year, but Shulem Ekstein hopes that next Sukkot, they will have nearly 1,000 fronds from their own farm.
“If God’s willing then we can do it,” Schmiel Ekstein said. “If not, then we can’t. It all depends on two weeks in the year. You can lose everything then.”