| On Site |

Focused on Fronds    

Eli Cobin’s name isn't only synonymous with the camera lens. As summer fades into Succos, he becomes “Cobin of Cobin Lulavim”

Photos: Eli Cobin, Personal archives

Say the name “Eli Cobin” and any insider on the Israeli media or simchah circuit will nod in recognition, envisioning a gangly man with a ready smile and camera, famed for his artistic portraits and vibrant action shots. But for two months of the year, Cobin’s name is not synonymous with the camera lens. As summer fades into Succos, he becomes “Cobin of Cobin Lulavim.”

Cobin Lulavim, founded by Eli’s father, Reb Shabsai Cobin, was the first distributor to sell the Deri lulav to the masses. Today, the Deri lulav — a beautiful, strong, green, and mehudar specimen — is the prime choice of virtually every Ashkenazi in Israel. “But back in the day,” Eli says, “only rabbanim had mehudar lulavim.”

Eli rattles off some lulav facts like he’s done it a thousand times before. Which he has. “The Rema rules (Orach Chaim 645:3) that l’chatchilah it’s best to have a tightly closed lulav — the tiyomes (the center leaf) shouldn’t be even slightly open — but there were few lulavim available in Europe, and it was almost impossible to find a truly mehudar lulav. Faced with little choice, people tried at most to buy a lulav that was straight and not open enough to make it passul; a tightly closed tiyomes was a luxury they couldn’t dream of.”

When the Brisker Rav arrived in Yerushalayim, word spread of his insistence on using only a tightly-closed lulav. That’s why people call a closed, green, not-sunburned specimen a “Brisker lulav.” It would be more accurately termed a Rema lulav, but it was the Brisker Rav who made it the standard.

In order to ensure the middle leaf is truly closed of its own accord and not simply held together by the outer layer, the Brisker Rav used to inspect lulavim by peeling off the kora, the brown bark-like substance that grows around the lulav. The exacting standard set by the Brisker Rav led to considerable turmoil: People began looking for closed green lulavim without any signs of sunburn, and not covered by any brown kora.

(They likely didn’t realize that the kora is there for a reason — to ensure the lulav gets the moisture it needs. Removing it too early can damage the lulav.)

“There are nine date species that grow naturally in Israel,” Eli explains. “Chiyani, Barhi, Chadro’i, Chalou’i, Deri, Zehidi, Dekel Nur, Medjool, and Imri. Back when my father started out, there were only about 4,000 Deri date palms in all of Eretz Yisrael and since each tree yields about three to four lulavim, that makes about 12-16,000 lulavim. Certainly not enough for the needs of all of the Torah-observant community.”

It was a classic case of high demand and inadequate supply. Everyone wanted a Brisker lulav, but there simply weren’t enough on the market.

Then Shabsai Cobin came on the scene.

“Abba was an American baal teshuvah who moved to Eretz Yisrael and never looked back,” Eli says. “He loved this country with everything he had, and he was determined to benefit from all it had to offer. Back in the 1980s, Abba started searching for a Brisker lulav. He searched for the perfect lulav in all the different kibbutzim in the north and eventually arrived at the religious Kibbutz Tirat Zvi in the Beit She’an Valley, only 500 meters from the Jordanian border.”

Beit She’an is in a fiercely hot area not far from the Kinneret. Drive along the highway and you’ll quickly realize that it’s prime palm territory — rows upon rows of palm trees extend from the roadside deep into the farms and kibbutzim that dot the region.

“Abba examined the different palm trees growing there and ascertained that no other species comes close to the Deri lulav in hiddur. It was a real beauty and very strong. There were some other species whose tiyomos were closed, but they ended in a pinpoint — which meant there was a real risk these narrow tips were fragile and might break, resulting in a halachically disqualifying condition called ‘nifsak rosho.’ ”

Reb Shabsai bought 300 lulavim at five shekel a piece, and traveled in an old, battered car to the famed Lederman shul in Bnei Brak. He first started selling his merchandise for the bargain price of 20-30 shekels (five to seven dollars) apiece. People could not believe their eyes — the quality was astounding.

Reb Shabsai decided to set up shop in Jerusalem and rented a store in Meah Shearim. But he still made stops in Bnei Brak every year — his first place of business and perhaps his most beloved.

Thrown into the Business

During lulav season, a teenaged Eli helped his father sell the lulavim in Zupnik, right near the daled minim shuk. But lulavim weren’t really his thing; he was just helping out, because he’d caught the photography bug and was pursuing serious photography studies in Tel Aviv’s Gavra Academy.

Then he found himself abruptly thrust into the family business — much younger than he’d ever dreamed.

“Just after my wedding, the night of my seventh sheva brachos, Abba had left This World,” Eli says. “He waited until Cheshvan, after lulav season was over, and after he’d walked me to the chuppah.”

When Succos approached the following year, the Cobin boys stepped up — they knew that eager buyers were waiting for the trusted Cobin lulavim.

“That first year, my brothers and I were in slight shock as we sold the lulavim, mainly because people kept coming up to us, pulling us aside, and saying, ‘Your father would always give me my lulav for free’ or ‘Your father always gave a $200 donation to my yeshivah when I’d buy from him.’ That was Abba.”

It’s a major milestone to surpass one’s parent, be it in age or stage. With Eli, it’s in sales. Shabsai Cobin sold 3,000 lulavim a year. His children sell many times that. “For two months a year, I’m a lulav expert,” he says.

For the Cobins, lulav season starts as soon as the warm weather kicks in. You can technically reserve a lulav in Tammuz. “But the lulavim that ripen closer to Succos are the nicer ones,” Eli admits. “We hold on to the best pieces until just before Succos. That’s when I choose mine, right after Yom Kippur. And that’s when I go to the rabbanim. I bring along a photographer and videographer. I speak with them and receive brachos.

“I wait for it all year,” he says. “They recognize me already. During Covid, Rav Gershon Edelstein was very careful to avoid close contact with other people — he wouldn’t sit close to anyone — but when he saw me he called out, ‘Here’s Cobin! Shalom, Cobin!’”

In fact, Rav Gershon called Eli “the biggest lulav maven in the world.” The photographer repeats this with a pride not evident when discussing even his most famous photos.

“I give shiurim to dayanim on lulavim,” he says. “I’ve sat with Rav Elyashiv, Rav Gershon and Rav Yaakov Edelstein, Rav Steinman, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Tovia Weiss, Rav Scheinberg, Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, and yblch”t Rav Dov Landau, Rav Yaakov Hillel, Rav Shimon Galai, the Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe, Rav Ades, Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, and more.

“You have to see how they react when I come in with my lulavim — such excitement, such intensity, such incredible focus on every small detail. It’s incredible to see these gedolim come to life over the mitzvah of daled minim.”

What You Do for the Rav

“It takes four hours to properly explain the intricacies of lulavim,” Eli says. “Rav Elyashiv really understood — he was a maven. His gabbai told me, ‘You know something, Cobin? Everyone else, when they come to the Rav, they always want something from him. But when you come, you’re giving him what he wants: a conversation on his level on a topic he enjoys.’”

One evening right at the onset of daled minim season, Eli was summoned to Rav Elyashiv’s house. “I wasn’t prepared,” he remembers. “I didn’t have the lulavim I wanted. But I went, because the gadol called me. I brought along two lulavim that weren’t top quality.”

Eli smiles as he envisions the scene. “Rav Elyashiv didn’t want to embarrass me. He looked at the lulavim — clearly he noticed they weren’t the best caliber — and then he took off his glasses and said, ‘I don’t see so well at night, maybe come back in the morning.’ I couldn’t come until eight the next evening, but this time, I’d prepared my best pieces. Rav Elyashiv looked at them and said, ‘Wow!’”

Eli laughs. “Suddenly, eyesight wasn’t an issue.”

Rav Elyashiv wanted to pay the lulav supplier, but Eli waved him off. “No kesef, kevod HaRav, I’d rather a brachah.”

Then Rav Elyashiv asked how much the lulav would cost in the shuk; and Eli told him the truth: 230 shekels. “Okay,” Rav Elyashiv said, “but first I want to give you a brachah. Do you have a wife, children? Sons, daughters?”

Eli asked for a brachah that his children go b’derech haTorah. Rav Elyashiv bentshed him and then handed him 250 shekels. The 50 shekel bill was ripped. “Do you accept a ripped bill for payment?” he asked.

Eli nodded.

“But a lulav that’s ripped like this, you would sell?” Rav Elyashiv gently teased.

During Rav Elyashiv’s final years, he wore glasses that magnified everything; he really couldn’t see well. “But the last year of his life,” Eli remembers wistfully, “he called me twice after buying the lulav to exclaim over it. It was so exciting, so stimulating for him, the entire exchange. He went to look at it twice, and each time, he called me.”

Eli’s Lulav Tips

This is the 20th year that Eli Cobin is picking, sorting, and selling lulavim. Here are his top tips for choosing and storing a truly mehudar specimen:

Fresh is Best. Everyone wants a fresh lulav — there’s nothing worse than a lulav that turns moldy on Chol Hamoed — but how can you tell if those palm fronds have been in storage for months? People think you can check the bottom of the stalk to see if it’s been freshly cut, but they don’t realize that lulav sellers often recut the stalks before bringing them to the market. Instead, Eli advises running your fingers up and down the leaves to check for the white powdery substance that is a natural form of protection that Hashem grants the palms. The more powder, the fresher the lulav. In fact, Eli attests that his black pants are often white by the end of a workday, from all the powder he deals with.

Too Green? The common perception is that the greener the color, the fresher the lulav. Actually, Eli says, a deep, dark green is not a good sign — the color deepens as the lulav gets older. Look instead for a fresh light green hue.

Open or Closed? Though the plastic-wrapped lulavim might seem more secure, Eli recommends choosing an unwrapped specimen. This way, you see what you’re getting, and you avoid the risk of buying a lulav with mold hidden between the leaves.

Just in Case. The vacuum lulav cases may cost more, but Eli says they’re a worthwhile investment. They keep the lulav much fresher than the cheaper zipper versions. Last year, Eli says his vacuum case even kept his aravos fresh the entire week!

Go Low. Where do you store your lulav after purchase? If you’re like the many people who put that precious stalk on top of the sefarim shrank, considering it safe up there, think again. Heat rises, and the shelf-life of your lulav may get shortened by its stay near the ceiling. Instead, Eli says, lay the lulav low — preferably in a sheltered, cool spot on the floor.

Revealed and Hidden

Rav Dovid Soloveitchik would also purchase his lulav from Eli through his talmid, Rav Eiseman, every year. One year, Eli brought lulav after lulav and the Rav wasn’t happy. “Yesh yoter tovim — there are better lulavim out there,” Rav Dovid kept insisting.

Eli wasn’t happy with his own lulav, either. It was kosher, it was mehudar, but it wasn’t perfect. At four a.m. on Erev Yom Tov, he left Yerushalayim and drove north to the Beit She’an Valley because if the lulav wouldn’t  come to him, he would go to the lulav.

He summoned a Thai worker and promised the man a bonus for every lulav he picked more than a meter high. They combed the fields and the worker brought Eli two absolutely magnificent lulavim. Eli jumped in the car, sped back to Yerushalayim, and was standing outside Rav Dovid’s house by 12 p.m. In true Soloveitchik fashion, Rav Dovid opened the door, and said sharply, “What do you want from me?”

“I brought the Rav a lulav,” said Eli. He realized Rav Dovid probably had no idea who he was, but there was no time for explanations.

“I already made my igud, my rings, it’s all bound,” said Rav Dovid.

Eli held out the lulav. “Look at it,” he insisted.

Rav Dovid examined the lulav — and he was enamored.

For the duration of Yom Tov, Rav Dovid told everyone that he’d merited gilui Eliyahu in order to obtain his lulav.

Eliyahu Cobin, that is.

Eli also met some of the hidden tzaddikim of Yerushalayim over the years. “There was this distinguished chassidic man who chose his lulavim from me every year,” he says. “I didn’t know much about him — just that his name was Rav Goldman.”

But with time they developed a close relationship, and Eli discovered that his customer was in fact a son of the Zvhiler Rebbe. “So one night, while we discussed lulavim, I casually asked him who would be succeeding his father as Rebbe. He smiled, but didn’t answer. And then, when the Rebbe was niftar, my friend Rav Shlomo Goldman became the new Zvhiler Rebbe.”

As Rebbe, he no longer came down to choose his own lulavim, but he sent his young son, somewhere around Eli’s age, to choose for him.

“And he invited me to the tish, which I attended,” Eli says. “It was incredible.”

Just lasy year, the newly appointed Zvhiler Rebbe was suddenly niftar as well. “And so now my chaver, Rav Goldman’s son, is the next Zvhiler Rebbe. And I was somehow zocheh to have known the last three Rebbes, and to have chosen lulavim for them.”

Into the Inner Chamber

Lulav season overtakes Eli’s life for the summer and pre-Yom Tov season, but then it’s back to photography. In fact, the trust he built via the lulavim spilled over into his photography business.

“I’m invited to photograph every rabbinic gathering, because the gedolim know me from my lulavim,” Cobin says. “All the gedolim once got together for a giant kennes for Chinuch Atzmai. And they did not allow a single person inside to take photographs other than me. In the past, photographers took photos and then photoshopped them in all kinds of misleading ways. But the rabbanim trusted me — they knew I wouldn’t play around with the photos, and so I was allowed in.”

Eli also landed a steady job working as a photographer for Kupat Ha’ir. In the course of his work he became close to Rav Aharon Leib Steinman. “I used to spend more time in Rav Steinman’s house than my own, taking photos for the Kupah.”

He would spend hours on end standing in the gadol hador’s house, camera in hand. “I never tired of it,” Eli says. “There was always something happening, a grandchild coming to learn, chaburahs, chavrusas, people asking for advice or direction. It was the simplest apartment but you could sense a certain majesty there — real leadership. It was an unbelievable experience.”

Of all the photos Eli has taken over the years, there’s one that makes him emotional. It’s a scene from a tish: a stunning crowd of chassidim, a mass of black, and then amidst the bleachers, there’s a small stage with the one flash of color — Eli Cobin is perched on the stage, camera in hand, aiming his lens out at the crowds.

“I grew up in Tzfat, and I attended the Gerrer cheder,” he says. “Today, I’m the official court photographer of the Gerrer chassidus. When I was little, I went to see the Rebbe light Chanukah candles. I perched on the bleachers, small, out of place. Today, though, when they want a photographer they can trust — someone who appreciates rabbanim, who values tzaddikim, who celebrates the beauty of the chareidi world — they know who to call. That special platform you see in the picture? They built it for me.”

Into the Lion’s Den

Eli’s transition to magazine work didn’t come easily. “The first time I went to Mishpacha with my photos, I had to make sure the door didn’t hit me on my way out,” the staff photographer says.

“I actually started out by taking photos for a local newspaper for free. Then one day, I got my big break. Rav Batzri was going to be extracting a dybbuk, and I was there with my camera. I got the shot and posted it, and the next thing I knew, Eliezer Shulman from Mishpacha magazine was calling me up, asking if they could use the photo. I told him it was all his… if I could have a steady job as a staff photographer. And the rest, I guess, is history.”

His face lights up. “After that I went around Asia with Aharon Granot, the adventurous reporter and world traveler. On a trip to Argentina, we visited an actual caged lion. So I paid the caretaker 300 pesos to let me into the cage. Because I needed a closeup shot.”

Oh. Of course.

“I actually stroked the lion,” the photographer grins. “He was beautiful. And the photos are magnificent. But that wasn’t the most dangerous thing we did. We visited Tunisia during the Arab Spring. We walked straight into a riot, surrounded by Arabs literally foaming at the mouth. Our videographer was grabbed and hauled in for questioning — he was gone for over half an hour before he emerged. But hey, we got the shots.

“Tunisia has a beautiful, authentic Jewish kehillah where they speak in the language of Gemara and the rav blows a shofar to announce that Shabbos is coming. It’s an incredible place. And the Arab Spring photos really catapulted me to fame.”

The tall photographer with the young face is used to action; his hands punctuate the air while he speaks, and his hoodie sweatshirt and casual pants tell the story of a life on the move. But he wants to reiterate that he sees siyata d’Shmaya in everything he does.

“Listen to this,” he says with urgency. “Before Dubai and Israel were on good terms — back when it was still risky for an Israeli to visit — I was working on a piece in Abu Dhabi. And I left my camera lens in a taxi. It was worth 60,000 shekel, and I was alone in a foreign, unfriendly country. But I gathered my courage, went inside, and told the hotel manager what had happened. And within 40 minutes, the lens was back in my hand. It made no logical sense, yet there it was.”

My Red Lines

Eli’s people skills and go-with-the-flow nature complement his finely honed knowledge of composition, lighting, and aperture. The fact that’s he usually the tallest person in the room doesn’t hurt either.

These days he runs a busy business as a simchah and event photographer.

“And the Kosel,” Eli says. “I’m always at the Kosel.”

 “I’m not an emotional person,” he admits, “but there’s something about the Kosel… something draws me there. I’m the official photographer of Moreshet HaKotel, and I photograph a lot of events there: bar mitzvahs and simchahs, but also political happenings involving governmental and other high ranking officials.

“It’s different there,” says Eli. “I’m different there.”

(Eli Cobin was the photographer for the Kosel supplement Mishpacha produced for Pesach 2022, and happily spent every day for three weeks straight at the Wall in order to document the unique sights and scenes.)

But as easygoing and spontaneous as Eli can be, he has firm boundaries as well.

“I don’t take photos on Chol Hamoed,” he avers. “Not even a snapshot on a family trip. I used to do it, but Hashem sent me three messages to stop. It took three tries, but then I learned.”

The first message came after Eli was hired to follow around Brazilian millionaire Guma Aguiar. “For three days, I accompanied him on his trip to Eretz Yisrael, documenting every moment. And then, the man went missing that same year, never to be found again. And I was never paid for my work or my time.”

The second was when he was hired for a hachnassas sefer Torah, and it just didn’t work out.

“The third message from Hashem,” says Eli, “was when a yeshivah convinced me to take photos at their hachnassas sefer Torah event. I told them no, I don’t work on Chol Hamoed. But they said it would be a mitzvah, so I agreed to do it for no pay. Well, my camera lens fell and broke — it was a huge loss for me. After that, I was done. I got the message loud and clear.

“And I don’t work on Wednesdays, either,” he says. “That’s when I go to a shiur from my rav, Rav Shlomo Zalman Druck. I can’t miss it. That’s my cheilek of Torah, the time I set aside. Rav Druck promised me that I will have parnassah to fill in the gaps, if I make the commitment: Wednesday is my yom kodesh. No missing shiur, no matter if I’m offered work for the first time all week.”

Rav Druck also guided Eli to volunteer for Darchei Miriam, an organization that transports children undergoing treatment back and forth from the hospital.

“It’s sad work,” says Eli. His ever-present smile disappears momentarily. “But more people should do it. These kids have such hard times, such long days. I tell them to write down whatever food they want, whatever they’re in the mood for. Sushi, burgers, pasta. And then I ask their parents. I get them entrecote steak, pastrami hot dogs, whatever they ask for. One father told me I’m doing lifesaving work, and surrounded by doctors, that was a heavy statement. I also bring food for the nurses. They have such a sad job, they can use a pick-me-up in the form of sushi and milkshakes whenever possible.”

Does his parnassah suffer from his ironclad commitment to the Wednesday shiur?

He smiles. “Listen to this: When the Ukraine war began, one of the rabbanim of Odessa moved out, along with his community, to Romania. He called me and asked if I could come photograph his child’s sheva brachos on a Wednesday — he would pay airfare plus my fee. I told him I don’t work on Wednesdays, I have a shiur. He said for a reason like that, he’s happier if I don’t come.

“Then last year, I found tickets to Romania for a crazy cheap price: 4,000 shekel in total for eight people, round trip. I bought them on a whim but then regretted it. I’d still need to pay for accommodations, transportation, activities, kosher food for my family. It would be too expensive, and so the tickets just sat unused.

“Then I received another phone call from that rav in Romania. His son’s bar mitzvah was approaching, and he wanted to fly me in to take photographs before and after Shabbos. I told him I actually already had tickets, but I’d be with my whole family. He said, ‘Bring them all!’

“I said I would need three rooms to accommodate us all, and he said, no problem. I said we’d need to stay in the hotel Thursday and Motzaei Shabbos as well, and he said, of course. I said my family would need Shabbos meals, and he was 100 percent on board. He sent my children along on the trips he’d arranged for the simchah participants, tours and attractions. He packed us up food for when we left the hotel, and he had flown in Shloime Gertner to sing zemiros on Shabbos, a musical experience my children still speak about. And he paid my regular fee as well.

“So do I see the gaps in my parnassah filled? Do I see siyata d’Shmaya in my life? Every day.”

No Lost Opportunities

The biggest gap in Eli’s photography career — much more significant than his Wednesday shiur or Chol Hamoed hiatus — is the yearly period from midsummer until Erev Succos. During lulav season, he puts his camera away and turns down every photo shoot. But he never sees that forced gap as the source of lost opportunities. It’s a privilege that only brings blessing — and a link to the legacy of his father.

The son-in-law of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Yehoshua Tzivyon, once met Eli. “When your father came with a box of 300 lulavim to Bnei Brak it was like bread after Pesach,” he said. “That’s how hungry we were for his merchandise!’”

Reb Shabsai Cobin’s son may have found his livelihood and reputation in a very different field, but come Succos, when the gedolim and yarei Shamayim of Eretz Yisrael wave his lulavim aloft, his greatest source of pride is the fact that he’s his father’s son.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)

Oops! We could not locate your form.