But at the intersection of Devonshire Street and Fifth Avenue, next to the historic Rodef Shalom Congregation, sits an unusual garden that caretaker Irene Jacob proudly proclaims as a small enclave of serenity amid the hustle and bustle of Pittsburgh’s university district. And like the plants her creation contains, Jacob considers the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden a hidden treasure just waiting to be discovered.
“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” says Jacob rather hyperbolically — biblical gardens exist in Arizona and California, and locally, in smaller form at Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn, at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown and at Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Centre as an “Israel Garden” — as she leads a tour of the grounds, which comprise less than half an acre.
Still, while the garden at Rodef Shalom — a 150-year-old Reform congregation on the National Register of Historic Places — is not the only one of its kind in the world, it might be one of the oldest. Jacob, a 77-year-old green-thumber who hails from England, says that she started the collection of biblical plants 20 years ago with her husband, Rodef Shalom’s emeritus rabbi, Walter Jacob.
“Some time ago, I traveled with my husband across North America and wrote a book about all the gardens we saw,” she explains. “We saw about 1,400 gardens.
“Some gardens had little beds of biblical plants, but nothing like this,” continues Jacob in an English accent that hasn’t lessened all that much, even after decades in the states, as she spreads her arm across the two-decades-old biblical garden. “So we decided to landscape this, and went to the congregation for financing.”
Today, the Rodef Shalom biblical garden boasts more than 100 temperate and tropical plants. Most are specifically mentioned in the Tanach or extra-canonical Jewish texts. Some are referenced in the New Testament, and still others are included not because of their biblical origin, but because of their religious names.
Take, for instance, the Angel’s Trumpet — an orange-hued, pitcher-shaped flower that blooms upside-down. This plant, native to South America, is part of an exhibition of similarly named species at the garden’s entrance, just past a wrought-iron gate.
“These have nothing to do with Israel,” says Jacob.
So why include it among the samples of acacia wood, etrogs, capers and olives, all referred to in the Torah in numerous places?
“This garden has been enormously successful among interfaith tour groups,” answers the expert. “People come here, walk around, have some lunch. We’re next to a synagogue, but a lot of our visitors are not Jewish.”
Jacob, a former professor of economic botany, who when talking about her husband doesn’t refrain from using his formal title — she calls him “Dr. Jacob” — has another motive for featuring some plants just because of their monikers.
“It’s very interesting to know the roots of the names of plants,” she explains. “People, especially explorers, wanted to be close to the Bible. Take the Solomon’s Seal — it was named this because the root looks like a seal.”
Despite the inclusion of such strictly nonbiblical herbs, shrubs and vines, Jacob emphasizes that the garden is very much Jewish.
A stream that symbolizes the Jordan River cuts diagonally across the garden and is fed — just like the real Jordan — by a waterfall. All of the seven-species for which Eretz Yisrael is praised by the Torah — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates — are also represented in the collection.
Even more, stresses Jacob, the garden’s purpose is to inform today’s modern Jews that a large part of their heritage is rooted in agriculture.
“Plants are everything — what you eat, what you wear, the furniture you use — it’s all plants,” she says. “We used to be farmers, but today we get everything from the supermarket.”
And yet, whole tractates of the Mishnah are dedicated to agricultural laws, from how to set up rows of crops so as not to transgress the prohibition of mixing different types of species to how to separate the yearly offerings for the Temple.
“I want to show people that life in current times is not all that different from what we experience now,” continues Jacob. “Jews especially, very often, are not plant-conscious, but we like to learn.”
And for her, no holiday is perhaps so agriculturally based as Sukkot, which began on Monday night. As part of the celebration, people wave a branch from the palm tree — the lulav — an etrog, and myrtle and willow branches during the recitation of the Hallel prayers.
“We grow our own esrogim here,” adds Jacob, pointing to the small green orbs of citrus that eventually grow into the yellow, oval-shaped, lemon-looking fruits. “Last year, for Sukkot, we had five from the garden.”
She also likes to point out that there are more than 100 different species of plants mentioned in the Bible, and has included the references in the signs identifying the garden’s inhabitants.
The first plant along the circular walk around the mini- Jordan is the ivy, whose verse comes from the book of II Maccabees, a work not included in the Tanach, but which records events taking place in Israel during the time of the Maccabees: “They were compelled to walk in the procession in honor of Dionysus, wearing wreaths of ivy,” reads the sign.
Jacob’s most treasured prize, though, is the garden’s small frankincense tree. When fully grown, the bark is used to make the pungent spice used in perfumes, but the specimen on display at Rodef Shalom measures only six inches.
“We’re the only garden to have the frankincense,” claims Jacob, who won’t reveal much about how the plant made it past border agents and into the United States. “Somebody who was in the Peace Corps called and asked if we would like it.
“I, of course, said yes.”
Jacob gives out a sigh, however, when asked about the upkeep of the garden. About two-thirds of the plants are tropical, but because Pittsburgh can get pretty cold in the late fall and winter, every year after Sept. 15, everything — from the fig tree to the papyrus — is uprooted and transferred to a greenhouse. Before May, Jacob and her husband bring everything back, essentially crafting the garden anew.
“I grew up in England and, in England, you garden,” says Jacob. “But this is so labor-intensive. Still, it’s peaceful. You step in here, and it’s a little island from the outside world.”