People living in the northern Negev city of Arad don’t have to look at a calendar to know when the Hebrew month of Tishrei has arrived: a quick glance at the sidewalks will do just as well.
Early windfall dates tell the tale that it’s time for the annual landscaping event that brings so much joy to residents of the city — trimming the 150 date palms that march along the streets and boulevards of Israel’s historically first planned community.
There are actually four different varieties of date palms planted in the city, three of them edible.
The fronds are expertly trimmed each year in such a way as to be perfect for use as “schach” – the rooftop covering on the temporary shelter constructed for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot which is being celebrated around the world by Jews this week.
In Arad, the fronds are sold by the municipality in bunches of ten for NIS 50 (Approximately US $ 14). Two bunches are usually enough to cover a medium sukkah. But you have to call to make that purchase early and delivery is only available for 24-48 hours. Once that window is past, pickup must be made at the municipal storage site before the holiday begins.
But residents “in the know” don’t wait just for the fronds: when they see the crews out trimming, they make sure to stop and ask for a few bunches of the red or large yellow dates they are cutting along with the rest.
Most of the crews have enough sense to take those home, but if you’re really polite and make friends with one of them, you can usually get a few bunches to take home too.
Fortunately a former chef from the Waldorf Astoria who once lived in Arad, Dennis Lathrop, knew precisely what to do with these little gems. He explained years ago in a conversation with this writer how to ripen them in the sun outside on the balcony (protected from the birds under cloth or heavy plastic for those who may try this), removing the ripened fruit daily.
There are few experiences to match that of eating a date that has been picked in front of your eyes, ripened outside your window, opened and found perfectly clean, all within less than a week.
The red dates of Arad have a spicy taste all their own that bear little resemblance to those bought in a store; they are sweet but not cloying or heavy like medjool. The large yellow dates are somewhat lighter in taste and more sugary in texture and they, too, are very different.
The fruit reflects the nature of the residents: diverse, creative and the majority sweet. The city this week has a full slate of activities set for the intermediate days of Sukkot, including a daily “open house” event featuring jam sessions and music performances at private homes around Arad.
The community is one comprised of healers, naturalists and creative mavericks who came to this development town in the periphery partly because it is located in such an out-of-the-way spot, right on the northeast edge of the Negev, at the foothills of the Judean Desert, skirting the southern Hebron Hills on a ridge overlooking the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Fresh dates, palm fronds and desert winds make the perfect setting on autumn evenings to celebrate the survival of the Jewish People on our Journey to the Land along with the bounty that kept us alive once we got here.