It’s that time of year again, when the southern Israeli city of Arad pulls out the cherry picker and makes the rounds of the palm trees.
There are more than 150 of them in this small Negev town (palm trees, not cherry pickers) and nearly all bear fruit each fall, just in time for Sukkot. Veteran residents in Arad know that the Hebrew month of Tishrei brings four different kinds of fresh dates and palm branch cuttings for the sukkot that dot the city.
Jews from every walk of life gather around the crews as they move from one palm to the next as they begin pruning in preparation for the winter months.
The fruit is free if you can catch the town crews while they work. The sweet fruit that Maimonides praised for its efficacy as a digestive aid (take two after your meal once a day) grows in huge bunches.
Palm branches, on the other hand, are for sale. It is best to wait until the crews have trimmed them for you before grabbing, because there are huge, sharp spikes at the base of the stem. The spikes carry a mild poison which causes swelling and irritation if you get stuck.
For 60 NIS (about $15.00 US) in Arad you can buy 10 palm branches, each approximately six feet long and three feet wide, enough to cover a modest sukkah. The crews carefully tie the bundled branches together for your convenience.
Of course, if you happen to know Suleiman Anami, it helps. Then you can get your schach for free. Suleiman, a Bedouin who lives in a small nearby village, is the Gardening Manager for the Parks and Landscaping Department in Arad. His - and actually, that of other people in his department - is the story of successful co-existence.
In 1989, as young 17 year old he found a job working with the landscaping department, doing general maintenance. He worked hard, was loyal and never slacked off. “If you take a job, you do it right,” he told me. “I love my work.” One wife and seven children later (including a pair of two-year old twins), Suleiman has now worked his way up to manager.
“Arad is one of the most beautiful cities in Israel,” he said with obvious pride. “I supervise 200 dunams of land here, all of it planted with flowers, shrubs and trees that can take your breath away, just from the color alone.” It took more than 350 hours to plan and plant the landscaping around the municipal swimming pool. Suleiman carries special certification in botanical fumigation as well. He said it takes an entire month to make one full maintenance round of Arad. That round keeps four of his workers and an irrigation specialist very busy.
The tall date palms, of course, are his special pride and joy, marching along each main road. “I remember when we planted them,” he said. “We had to sink them three or feet into the ground.”
It was Suleiman who told David Avraham to find an especially beautiful bunch of palm branches for us, and who also made sure we also got several huge bunches of fresh red and yellow dates to take home for the holiday.
David’s story is another jewel in the mosaic that is Arad, a special one in the Jewish world. He runs the cherry picker. David is another long-time worker for the department, the only person allowed to rise to the top of the 15-foot palms to trim the branches and gather the dates a difficult skill which he excels at.
A 20-year veteran of the department, David is proud of his responsibility to the city residents, but even prouder of his Ethiopian Jewish heritage. He remembers the 2 ½ year trek by foot across the Sudan as he and his wife made their way toward the site where they would finally be airlifted to the Promised Land.
David is now 58 years old, but he recounted the story of that 1983 journey as if it were yesterday. “We came from the village of Tikraii, near Adyavo,” he said. “Funny, how that village bore the name which in Hebrew means ‘he will yet come’…… I wonder if the village founders ever realized it.” He was already 36 years old when he made that journey, and he came straight to Arad when he got off the plane. A scant two years later, he took the job he has had ever since. “Come to our sukkah,” he invited. “I will tell you my story.”
“Put those dates in the freezer for about a week,” Suleiman advised, “and you will have the sweetest fruit G-d can provide”. David nodded sagely in agreement. “The red ones are the most flavorful,” he added. They are also the heaviest, with an average bunch of fresh red dates weighing in at about 20 lb or more. A natural weight training program, free of charge.
For Aradian date lovers, of course, they are worth their weight in gold.