An oft-quoted Medrash classifies the diversity of the Lulav set into taste and smell. An Etrog has both taste and smell, a date palm has taste but no smell, myrtles are fragrant but have no taste, and the willow has neither taste nor smell. Taste represents Torah study, while fragrance represents Mitzvot. Some Jews excel at both, some at either, and some at none. Yet, a Lulav set is incomplete without the willow. Even if you have the finest Etrog in the world – you can’t make the Lulav blessing on Sukkot unless you have all of the Four Kinds, including the willow.

Some of us may – mistakenly – dismiss or overlook “willow Jews” after all, we’re more focused on the beautiful Etrog. But if you take a closer look, often willow-Jews will surprise you with their Jewish attachment, even if it may be hidden from view.

Professor Herman Prins Salomon shared with us the Curacao story years ago, and this Sukkot shared with us an experience in Rome. These two stories demonstrate the hidden beauty of under-estimated and under-appreciated willow Jews:


Herman was visiting Curacao, an island in the Netherland Antilles off the coast of South America. It is home to the oldest existing synagogue in the Americas. It so happened that in the hotel where he stayed, there was a Francophone (people who appreciate French language and culture) conference all weekend that culminated in a concert given by a French lady singer on Saturday Night. Herman was just coming back in from synagogue on Saturday Night at the end of the program. The President of the Curacao francophone society was presenting the singer with a bouquet of flowers in appreciation for her visit and performance. He addressed her in french poetic verse that was so exquisite that the singer exclaimed, “You speak like a native Frenchman!”

“No Madam,” the francophone president replied, “I am an Israelite, born here in Curacao!”

It is so remarkable that this man expressed himself with such a strong sense of Jewish identity. His life otherwise did not indicate this level of attachment, but this is how he saw himself, and this is how he wanted other to see him.


Another year Herman was visiting Rome. He was aboard a tourist bus which takes travelers to visit many of the cities historic sites. As soon as the tourists alighted the bus, they were besieged by people hawking their wares, especially marketed to tourists. At one site a man was selling provocative postcards featuring immodestly dressed women and the like. Herman declined and tried to move on but the guy was quite persistent.

Then, out of the blue, the postcard seller asked Herman: “Ebreu – are you Jewish?”When Herman nodded in the affirmative, the man asked, “How do you sing Yah-Shma-Evyoneka?” This is a classic Sephardic poem by Yehudah HaLevi before the Yom-Kippur Mincha service. Herman sang him the tune as he knew it. This man sang it back a little differently, different by a single note. Then the man asked, “How about El Norah Alilah, how do you sing that?” This is another classic poem, sung by Sephardic communities before Yom-Kippur’s closing Neilah service. Again, Herman sang it the way he knew, and this man had a slightly different take.

A willow Jew indeed. He may be selling provocative postcards, but he knew he High Holiday hymns and cherished them. We need all Jews as part of our collective Lulav set. No Jew left behind, no Jew under-appreciated and under-valued.

Finding the hidden spark in what appears to be a willow-Jew is uncovering the Pintele-Yid, the core soul-essence within every Jew. The Rebbe repeatedly inspired us to seek that Pintele-Yid, to cherish it and see our fellow Jews in that lens.