David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Last banana

Like Pharaoh, humanity can learn from its mistakes and work to bring the world back from the brink of extinction. We might even save the bananas (Beshalach)
Banana. (CC BY-SA, Filo gèn'/ Wikimedia Commons)
Banana. (CC BY-SA, Filo gèn'/ Wikimedia Commons)

Growing up in New Zealand, there were only four flavors of ice cream. Your choices were chocolate, vanilla, strawberry or banana. The thing about the first three is that they tasted more or less like the flavor they were. But banana ice cream tasted much stronger and much sweeter than the actual bananas we ate. You may have noticed that too with banana milkshake powder or banana candies — they taste much more like a banana than a real banana.

I used to think that was just a quirk of how they made the flavor, but it turns out that banana flavor is the flavor of the bananas that everyone used to eat until not that long ago, but which we can’t buy in our local supermarket any more.

The Gros Michel (Big Mike) bananas were grown on massive plantations in Central America. From 1870 until the late 1950s they were the dominant type of banana exported to Europe and North America. Their thick skin made it easy to ship without bruising the sweet fruit inside. When they invented the banana split, it was for the Big Mike. When comedians slipped on banana skins, that was because its skin was much more slippery than the banana skins of today (have you ever met someone recently who actually slipped on a banana skin?).

So what happened?

Gros Michel Bananas in various stages of ripening. (CC BY-SA, Zwifree/ Wkimedia Commons)

Do you remember that song from the 1920s (of course you do), “Yes, We Have No Bananas”? It was written by two Jews — Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, and ranked as number 1 for five weeks in 1923. But it also may have hinted at the disappearance of bananas.

You will have noticed that most edible bananas (including the Gros Michel and our modern bananas) have no seeds. That is because they are propagated asexually from offshoots – essentially every banana is a clone. The problem with clones is that they are more susceptible to disease, because once one banana falls sick, all the others — which have the same genetic makeup — go down with it.

In the 1950s, a fungus known as Panama disease wiped out almost all of the banana plants. Between 1930 and 1960, 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of banana plantations in Honduras were wiped out along with 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) in Suriname and 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) in Costa Rica. By the early 1960s, there were just not enough bananas left to export.

Growers and exporters had to find a new banana that would not be destroyed by the fungus.

They settled on a type of banana that had been cultivated in the greenhouse of Chatsworth House, owned by William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. Cavendish’s head gardener, Sir Joseph Paxton, grew them from a shipment the duke had received from Mauritius in 1834.

William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858). (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Paxton named his bananas after the duke, and today, Cavendish bananas are what we all eat. When they were first introduced, importers were concerned that their comparatively bland taste would be off-putting. But they needn’t have worried. In 2022, Cavendish bananas were the most purchased fruit in the United States and one of the most purchased products overall in supermarkets.

For over 60 years, people have been eating Cavendish bananas, and the only memory we have of the taste of the Gros Michel is in artificial flavorings (and even then, we’ve forgotten why they taste like that).

The bad news (sorry) is that, even as you read this, Cavendish bananas around the world are at risk of a new strain of Panama disease called TR4. Although scientists are working on genetically engineering bananas to make them resistant to TR4, currently there are no realistic replacements. So who knows what kind of bananas we will be eating in a few years. Or whether we’ll be eating them at all. The next banana you have may not be the last one you’ll ever eat. But it may not be long before we see the last banana go on display in a museum somewhere.

There is a word applied to the last of a species, “endling.” It is such a sad and final word. There have been many famous endlings in the past century. Martha the Passenger Pigeon, who died in a Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, Benjamin the Thylacine, who died in a Hobart Zoo in 1936, and more recently, Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, died on June 24, 2012, and his body is now on display in the Galapagos National Park.

When I began this blog with bananas, perhaps you guessed the connection was going to be that both bananas and Pharaoh wore pajamas. But instead, I want to discuss the rabbinic teaching that Pharaoh was himself an endling, the sole survivor of his nation.

In last week’s Torah portion, we read about the final plague, the killing of the first born. In the first half of this week’s portion, Beshalach, we learn that after the Israelites left slavery, Pharaoh had second thoughts and chased after them with his army. Miraculously, the Red Sea split, allowing the Israelites to walk through on dry land, then returning to its former aquatic state, drowning the entire Egyptian army.

Two second-century rabbis discussed in the Midrash (Mechilta Shemot 14: Beshalach) what happened to Pharaoh when the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea.

The water returned and covered the chariots: Including Pharoah, says Rabbi Yehuda… Rabbi Nechemia says, apart from Pharaoh.

Rabbi Yehuda understood the simple meaning of the text, that Pharaoh was drowned along with his army. However, Rabbi Nechemia understood that although the army perished, Pharaoh miraculously survived. Although Egypt continued after the death of the firstborn and the army, it was not the same nation it had been before. We hear no more of the Egyptians until much later in the Bible, when they are led by a different Pharaoh.

What happened to Moses’s Pharaoh? Ba’al HaTurim (Shemot 14:31) cites Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer (43) which says that he became the king of Nineveh, and in the time of Jonah, it was he who led his nation to repent and be saved. When Jonah announced that Nineveh was to be overturned, Pharaoh remembered what had happened in Egypt and at the Red Sea, “And the people of Nineveh believed in God,” (Jonah 3:5).

The rabbis believed in second chances. They taught that even the most wicked people can learn and change.

This is also true for animals and plants that are nearly extinct. If we care enough, perhaps we can save them. In 1989, Douglas Adams made a radio series entitled “Last Chance to See” in which he traveled the world and visited eight species that were on the verge of extinction. Twenty years later, Stephen Fry made a follow-up television series, in which he returned to see what had happened to those animals. Two of the species were likely extinct. But some of the others had begun to make a recovery.

Maybe there is hope for the banana.

This is a powerful message for us. It is not too late for us to save the world from the brink of extinction. And it is not too late for us to learn from our mistakes, and like Pharaoh, repent for our earlier sins.

My next class on WebYeshiva in the series entitled “20th Century Responsa” will be on February 7th. I will discuss the dispute about how much secular knowledge a communal rabbi should have. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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