Among the sea of bobbing black hats that filled Hamafitz, a Judaica store in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on Tuesday was the high, rumpled headgear of Shlomo Zuntz, a man in his 60’s with hangdog features and a wispy white beard. Mr. Zuntz pushed to the back of the store, looking for lulavs, the long, straight date-palm fronds used in celebration of Sukkot, the Jewish weeklong harvest festival, which begins Monday.
“Are the lulavim ready?” he asked Shimon Herz, the store’s tall, white-haired manager and the father of Mr. Zuntz’s daughter-in-law.
Mr. Herz shook his head. “You missed them,” he said. “They already opened the box.”
Mr. Zuntz drew a sharp breath; he had already visited the store several times that day. Mr. Herz patted his arm. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll put one aside for you. I’ll make sure you get one.”
The lulav is one of four plants that many Jews wave daily while reciting a prayer during Sukkot. Normally, the fronds are plentiful; most years, Mr. Herz throws them in free with purchases of the other Sukkot plants. But this year, the Egyptian government, which controls the area where most lulavs are harvested, has sharply reduced its exports, saying that harvesting the fronds harms the trees on which they grow.
The announcement sent small shock waves through Jewish neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Borough Park, where lulavs are sold in stands on many corners during the week before Sukkot, and Judaica stores are given over to the sale of Sukkot goods.
In response to the shortfall, the wholesale price of a lulav has rise sharply, to $10 or more; in previous years, the price was $2. Rather than giving them away, Mr. Herz is charging $15 apiece for the fronds this year.
Egypt has released 100,000 lulavs to the United States, at the urging of Jewish leaders and American government officials. But that is 400,000 fewer than it normally sends. Retailers have been trying to make up the shortfall with lulavs imported from Spain, but those are too few and too expensive to close the gap.
Lulav anxiety was palpable in Hamafitz, where the rush on the fronds had arrived earlier than usual; on Tuesday, the store throbbed late into the evening with voices chattering in Yiddish and English.
“Everybody’s talking about getting in immediately to buy, because if you don’t, you won’t have a lulav,” said Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer, who had just purchased his.
Nearby, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a military chaplain and the chairman of Brooklyn’s Community Board 9, was sighting down a lulav like a rifle, examining it for the requisite straightness. Dispirited, he gazed at the sparse piles of palm fronds that had been laid out on a table.
“This is a pile that has already been looked through,” he said. “Normally he’d have them here, there, upstairs, against the wall. I was upstairs just now, and there’s nothing.”