The late Irene Jacob, founder of Congregation Rodef Shalom’s Biblical Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, might have been a bit skeptical had her husband been able to share with her his plans for this year’s annual exhibit, “Paradise on Fifth Avenue: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.”
“With this particular theme, she would have said, ‘Walter, you’re crazy,’ ” said Walter Jacob, the congregation’s rabbi emeritus, as he stood on the “bank” of the miniature Jordan River that runs through the garden adjacent to the synagogue.
Jacob, 85, has been the chief steward of Rodef Shalom’s garden — one of only a handful of biblical gardens in the United States — since his wife passed away three years ago. It is up to him to plant and tend to more than 100 varieties of shrubs, flowers, herbs, vegetables and other plants flourishing in a space designed to evoke ancient Israel.
But it is also Jacob’s charge to come up with a new theme each year to showcase Near Eastern horticulture, or to help illustrate larger religious concepts, and to add plants to the garden’s mainstay collection appropriate for that particular exhibit.
This year, Jacob has taken on the formidable task of illustrating the concept of paradise as it is depicted in Christian and Islamic art and theology. Accordingly, he has designed two small gardens devoted to that mission within the confines of the larger garden.
There is a compelling reason, he explained, why he has not planted a garden to illustrate the Jewish concept of paradise: No such illustrations exist in Jewish art, and no detailed descriptions exist in Jewish writing.
“The three great religions have all talked about paradise,” Jacob said. “But what it is really like? There are three different answers.” Traditionally, the concept has been a “difficult” one for Jews, he said. “We just don’t know.”
While Christians and Muslims have a robust catalogue of art and writings describing paradise and the afterlife, the Jewish vision is less clear, leaving “it totally to the imagination,” he explained.
Both the Christian and the Islamic gardens Jacob has designed were inspired by paintings, small copies of which are on display as part of the exhibit. The Christian painting is the work of an unknown artist and dates to 1467, Jacob said, noting that while the artist could introduce plants from all four seasons in a single painting,
Jacob had to limit his project to those plants that bloom only in spring, summer and fall. Jacob researched and located plants that were used in the time of the Renaissance to make his garden authentic, although it is not intended to be a replica of the painting that accompanies it.
The Islamic paradise Jacob created is dry, as many such gardens were located in areas with a warmer climate, such as Turkey, Iran or the mountainous region of North Africa.
“They had enough water to grow something, but not enough to grow a lawn or rose bushes,” Jacob said.
Semitropical plants commonly were used in Islamic gardens, and Jacob added a few of those to his exhibit. The display also includes a walkway with colored tiles, evoking a sense of Islamic art and its focus on abstract and geometric patterns, which eveolved as a response to the religion’s proscription against the representation of sentient beings.
Jacob begins researching the synagogue garden’s annual exhibit about a year in advance, he said. He relies upon a substantial library of research resources located in his home, but also finds he must “chase down” specialized articles. The fruits of his research are seen not only in his garden exhibits, but also in comprehensive educational materials that he offers to visitors, including the numerous school groups, church excursions and bus tours that often stop to tour the garden.
“Sometimes it becomes quite crowded,” he said.
Irene Jacob founded the one-third-acre garden 28 years ago. It sports a varied landscape, including a cascading waterfall, a small desert and a bubbling stream, illustrating Israel’s diverse topographies. The plants are likewise chosen to correspond with the types that grow in the various regions.
Because about two-thirds of the plants are Mediterranean or tropical, they are uprooted and placed in a greenhouse during the winter months.
While many of the plants in the garden are those that grew in ancient Israel, some have earned their place for other reasons.
“Those are Goliaths,” said Jacob, pointing to a tomato plant in the garden. “It’s a plant with a biblical name.”
Jacob receives many letters and phone calls from people across the country, asking for tips on starting a biblical botanical garden, but most people, he said, are not willing to put in the work required to do it right.
“It takes a lot of work to design it in a way that’s not kitschy,” he said. “There are about a half-dozen gardens” in the United States “that call themselves biblical gardens, but they are mainly just statues surrounded by half-dead flowers.”
While Irene Jacob always had a deep love of gardening — she tended a rooftop garden when she lived in Tel Aviv, “hauling the soil up there” herself, he recalls — the rabbi’s love of nature grew over time, beginning in 1946 through 1949, when he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in northwest Montana, focusing on treating tree diseases and fighting fires.
He went on to become a nature counselor at a South Carolina Jewish camp, based on his experience in Montana, which he finds ironic.
“There were no plants in that camp in South Carolina akin to what I’d seen in Montana,” he chuckled. “It was funny to be hired based on that.”
The Jacobs enjoyed visiting 1,000 gardens throughout North America, he said, and in 1986, they co-authored Gardens of North America and Hawaii: A Traveler’s Guide.
The couple was married for 54 years and tended the biblical garden together without much outside help. Jacob now does the bulk of the work himself.
“Of course I miss her,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick is a senior writer for The Jewish Chronicle, where this piece originally appeared.