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Sukkot is shedding fronds

Times Staff Writer

A palm frond famine is upon us.

The city of Los Angeles has decided to stop its practice of supplying Jewish families with palm fronds for the annual harvest holiday of Sukkot.

In upstate New York, some families place dried cornstalks on the roofs of the backyard huts where they eat and sleep to celebrate the holiday.

In New England, some prefer sweet-smelling evergreen boughs atop the simple hut or booth, known as a sukkah.

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But this is Los Angeles, where the palm tree reigns. For at least 20 years, a family or synagogue building its sukkah has turned to the city’s tree trimmers for luxuriously long green fronds from Canary Island palms.

No more.

City Department of Public Works officials say that after this year, they will no longer supply fronds for the eight-day Sukkot holiday that ends Thursday. Christians, too, will experience the famine, because they too will have to do without city fronds during the Easter season.

Part of the reason, officials said, is a fungus plague.

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A department spokeswoman, Jackie David, initially blamed a fungus called fusarium wilt, which is attacking many of the city’s prize Canary Island palms.

She added in an e-mail a day later: “This is partly due to funding constraints. We are in the process of reevaluating many programs in order to use our resources most efficiently while still continuing to meet the needs of the public.”

No city arborists were available to discuss details of the fungus, David said. She said she did not have information about how many city palms had fusarium wilt and if the problem was growing more serious.

“The city is concerned about aging trees and the transmission of fusarium,” David wrote.

Rabbis and congregants alike expressed surprise and some sorrow at news of the city’s decision.

“It’s a shame. They’ve been such a help for the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. He called the traditional arrangement a “double mitzvah,” because Jews received the fronds and the city recycled its tree-trimming refuse.

“This will make things a little more difficult for people here during Sukkot,” Camras said Sunday afternoon at a Sunday in the Sukkah celebration at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

Some were not surprised. The city has been increasingly stingy with its palm fronds in recent years, limiting the number it gave to individual synagogues, which have looked for other sources for palm fronds.

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The holiday of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, is one of three annual Jewish pilgrimage festivals. It springs from biblical verses in which Jews are instructed to commemorate the shelters they built in the desert after leaving Egypt and before finding the Promised Land.

“It represents the temporary houses we lived in as we wandered through the desert,” said Rabbi Richard Kellner, a rabbi at Temple Isaiah. “Also, we’re reminded of the temporary nature of the sukkah, the temporary aspects of life, that life isn’t permanent.”

Many families build huts on their lawns and eat meals there, and many sleep under the palm-covered roofs.

“The reason we use palm fronds is so that we can see the stars. That’s one of the requirements of building a sukkah,” Kellner said.

But fusarium wilt has developed in the Canary Island date palm, long a favorite for Sukkot celebrations. The fungus enters a tree’s vascular tissue, made of bundled-up straw-like tubes, and produces threads that clog the tubes, said Jim Adaskaveg, a professor of plant pathology and an expert in tree diseases at UC Riverside.

Soon, fronds at the top of the tree begin to die.

“It’s known as a lethal disease. There’s no cure, once you have it,” Adaskaveg said. He said he had not heard of the city’s decision not to distribute fronds but said it did not surprise him.

“If you cut an infected frond, you can spread it with cutting tools,” he said. “They have to clean their equipment very well with sanitizing agents.”

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City maintenance crews in Long Beach traditionally give palm fronds to a local synagogue, and fusarium wilt did not cause a problem this year.

“I gave specific instructions for arborists to look for specific trees that were green and healthy,” said Arthur Cox, superintendent of street maintenance at the city’s public works department.

He said he also told them “to make sure that we go the extra step and make sure we clean our tools between trimmings.”

But palm fronds may be scarce next year in Long Beach as well as in Los Angeles. The 2008 schedule calls for tree-trimming in the spring instead of autumn, said Cox, who plans to help local rabbis find alternative supplies.

Los Angeles has been reining in its frond giveaway for years. As early as 1990, the city imposed a 100-frond limit per vehicle because of the growing crowds seeking fronds for Sukkot.

That year, the city expected to give away 17,000 fronds. This year, the count was down to 6,000, distributed to about 180 synagogues and 50 to 100 individuals, David wrote in an e-mail.

Demand has grown for the fronds offered for $2.75 apiece at Century City Flower Market, which now sells about 15,000 a year, said owner Annette Yonemitsu.

“I know we have a lot of new clients this year,” she said. Her fronds come from date palms in the California desert that were brought from Israel, she said.

Other synagogues sought extra fronds this year from public works departments in Glendale and Calabasas.

Some Jewish families already have supplies close to home, trimming fronds from their own trees or accepting them from neighbors.

Some synagogues are looking ahead.

Not a single palm frond was to be found on roofs Sunday at the Woodland Hills festival organized by the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance and the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force. Instead, organizers covered the religious structures with see-through bamboo mats and decorated the edges with green corn stalks. They said they chose bamboo to have a reusable resource, not because of the city cutbacks.

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino said he understood if the city was stopping its service because of the fungus.

“If it comes at the cost of destroying the environment, then we would not be in conflict,” Hoffman said Sunday. “I’m proud that we have a city that’s willing to take environmental consciousness an extra step.

“And if it’s a budget issue, the test will be in a few years,” he said, if the trees are revived and “if the city once again returns to sharing with the Jewish community.”

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com


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