Bananas: 5 Surprising Jewish Facts
In celebration of World Banana Day, discover the Jewish connection to this delicious fruit.
April is a busy month for Jews, as we prepare for the Jewish holiday of Passover. It’s easy to overlook another holiday on the calendar this season: World Banana Day held the third Wednesday of every April. This year, it’s April 17, 2019.
It’s worth taking a break from our Passover cooking and cleaning to contemplate what it takes to grow and market these delicious fruits. The modern banana industry has some surprising Jewish connections. Here are five Jewish facts about this delicious fruit.
A native plant to India, bananas started becoming popular in the Middle East and Europe during the Middle Ages as Arab traders brought this novel fruit to new markets further west. A tenth-century Arab traveler and geographer known as al-Muqadasi recorded eating bananas in Jerusalem, along with other fruits such as raisins, oranges and apples. Other accounts record Jews eating bananas elsewhere in the land of Israel during the Middle Ages. From about the 17th century on, there are records of farmers growing the crop in the region.
Medieval Jews embraced the exotic fruit, but had a key question – are bananas a fruit at all? This matters because Jews traditionally make one blessing thanking God for creating borei pri ha’etz, the fruits of the tree, and a different blessing thanking God for making borei pri ha’adamah, or the fruits of the grounds, over vegetables and herbs. Bananas grow in a palm-like plant and are actually a herb, producing up to hundreds of bananas from a single plant. Unlike fruit trees, banana trees don’t last long: about eight years.
In the 1500s in the Israeli city of Safed, Rabbi Joseph Karo explained that since bananas are not a fruit, the adamah blessing, not the blessing for fruit, should be said over bananas. Reflecting the fact that Arab traders were largely responsible for spreading bananas’ popularity, Rabbi Karo called them by their Arabic name, muzish.
“Sam the Banana Man”
Samuel Zmuri was a Jewish teenager from Kishinev in Russia when he bought a steerage ticket to New York City. Arriving in the US, he stowed away on a freight train to Selma, Alabama, where he worked various odd jobs – including unloading bananas from ships arriving from Central America, where banana production was fast becoming a major industry.
Samuel, who by then had changed his name to Zemurray, started buying up the overly-ripe bananas that would ordinarily be thrown away and selling them to grocers. Soon Zemurray was being called “Sam the Banana Man”. In 1903 he started his own company and two years later started running his own shipping line, bringing bananas to the US from Honduras. In 1906, he leased 5,000 acres of banana crops and became a major importer of bananas to the United States. He eventually became a controlling shareholder in United Fruit Company, then the world’s largest fruit company. Under his leadership, bananas’ popularity soared, becoming a staple in many American households.
Zemurray was a committed philanthropist. He sponsored 22,000 Latin American farmers to be independent producers selling to United Fruit, and endowed many universities and hospitals, including an agricultural college in Honduras and New Orlean’s first hospital for Black women.
Saving Holocaust Survivors
Samuel Zemurray was a passionate Zionist and a personal friend of Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the State of Israel. In the years after World War II, tens of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors longed to sail to the land of Israel and start new lives in the Jewish homeland. Britain, which ruled the area, enforced a strict policy of not allowing Jewish refugees to enter. Many Jews tried to enter the land of Israel illegally, only to be captured and imprisoned once more by the British in prison camps on the island of Cyprus, in Greece.
In 1947, the secret Jewish defense force the Haganah (the forerunner of today’s Israel Defense Force) approached Zemurray with a top secret plan: would he finance the purchase of a ship on which Jewish partisans could smuggle Holocaust survivors to the land of Israel? Zemurray agreed, using a front firm called the Weston Trading Company to disguise the deal.
The ship Zemurray bought was a 20-year-old steamer called the USS President Warfield. Attacked by a German submarine in 1942, it had been decommissioned; when Zemurray bought it, it was on its way to a junkyard. Instead, the Haganah brought the ship to the French port of Marseilles and loaded it with 4,553 passengers: Holocaust survivors desperate to enter the land of Israel. As the ship slowly made its way to the port of Haifa during the summer of 1947, the crew renamed the ship the Exodus and unfurled a large blue and white flag, declaring that the land of Israel was their final destination.
A host of British ships including destroyers accompanied the Exodus, and when they neared the coast of Israel, the British shot at the ship and sent a convoy of armed soldiers to board the ship and subdue its passengers and crew. In the fighting that broke out, three Holocaust survivors died and many were wounded. British ships towed the Exodus into the harbor, with plans to send the broken, desperate passengers back to France.
Instead, the passengers and crew of the Exodus staged a hunger strike. For 24 days, in the brutal Mediterranean sun, the world watched as thousands of Holocaust survivors – men, women and children – and members of the Haganah weakened from lack of food. Eventually, British soldiers forced the Exodus’ passengers back to Europe, where they were forced by soldiers wielding tear gas and clubs into new prisons: displaced person camps in Germany. A few months later, in August 1947, in part due to the stirring example of the single-minded determination of the Exodus’ passengers to reach the land of Israel, the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in a portion of the Biblical land of Israel. Few were aware of Samuel Zemurray’s role in this historic event. A modest, self-effacing man, he shunned the limelight. When he passed away in 1961, some friends were shocked to discover that Zemurray the banana magnate had been behind the historic Exodus journey years before.
Saving banana crops around the world
Jewish farmers began to grow bananas in Israel in the 1930s, first in the north near the Kinneret, (Sea of Galilee), and later throughout the country. Though they are a warm-weather crop, Israel’s burning hot summers can be too much for banana plants. Israeli farmers realized they could compensate by erecting canvas roofs to block bananas from the sun during the hottest summer months. They also conducted pioneering research in banana plant irrigation, fertilization and cross-breeding. Today, Israel produces about 45,000 tonnes of bananas each year, supplying about 20% of all bananas consumed in the West.
Growing bananas in Israel
Israeli banana growers saved banana crops world-wide a few years ago. The greatest threat to banana crops is a pathogen called nematodes, commonly known s roundworms. After years of losing banana harvests to this pest, Israeli scientists developed a banana plant that’s resistant to nematodes in the early 2000s. Now, Israeli-developed strains of hardier banana plants are grown around the world, producing hardy bananas and dramatically boosting yields.
Embraced by Jewish Chefs
Bananas have long been embraced by some Jewish communities. Jewish chefs in Persia and Afghanistan pass down traditional recipes for charoset, the sweet paste eaten at the Passover Seder, that incorporate bananas as key ingredients. In Yemen, Jews used to mash bananas with honey as a folk recipe for some illnesses.
Ashkenazi Jewish cooks began embracing bananas in the 20th century in North America and Europe, along with their non-Jewish counterparts, as bananas became more commercially available and popular. One 19th century Jewish cookbook aimed at recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe explained that the soft creamy inside, not the tough outer peel of a banana, was meant to be eaten.
Today, Israel is the world’s top market of fresh bananas per capita, eating a whopping 30 kilos each year per person. Though some South American and East Asian nations consume more bananas in the form of banana flours and drinks, “As far as eating a plain banana goes, Israel is definitely a world leader in consumption, particularly among children,” explains Yuval Levy, a banana expert at the Zemach agricultural research station in Israel.