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Biblical Garden Blooms in Pittsburgh

This is a story of a woman who was inspired by the Hebrew bible to create a garden. The woman is the wife of a rabbi and her garden is located on the grounds of her synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, far from the Bible's ancient setting. The garden echoes the spirit of the Holy Land and celebrates its diverse and exotic flora.

"I'd like to welcome you to the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden."

At the corner of a busy city street, hidden by high walls, a piece of the Old Testament blooms in Pittsburgh. There is a cedar tree and date palms and a Mulberry bush, that in season drops bright purple berries on the cement walkway that meanders through the garden.

The grounds are lush with flowers, vines and herbs. There is an artificial waterfall and a patch of desert. Located adjacent to the temple, the garden transports visitors back in time to the landscape of ancient Israel.

"Now the Garden is in the shape of Israel."

There is the Jordan River.

"Our little river here is four feet wide. And the Jordan in Israel meanders down to the Dead Sea. We have a sea here, not dead!"

The "Dead Sea" is a small pond with water lilies and lotus blossoms.

"The shape of Israel and the different climates mean that there are many plants that can grow in that area."

That's the idea, says Irene Jacob, the wife of Rabbi Walter Jacob. She turned this patch of earth into the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden fifteen years ago and is responsible for what gets planted. "We have Mediterranean plants. And besides the 100 plants that are mentioned in the Bible, we also (have since we are only open in the summer from the first of June through mid-September) my husband and I decided that to add color we would have [to add] plants with biblical names. So, for example, we have Job's Tears, native of India, Moses in the Basket and Joseph's Coat," she says.

Ms. Jacob notes that everything grows in harmony, the pomegranates with the olives, the papyrus with the flax and henna. "Every page of the Bible has mention of plants. People don't realize that. Some plants are mentioned just once, like cotton in the story of the Maccabees and some plants are mentioned over three hundred times like [grapes] for making wine. Sometimes [wine] was easier to get than water," she says.

The biblical garden also grows something that tastes sweet. "We are not quite sure if they had refined sugar in ancient times, but they may have had canes where they [could] suck out the sugar. And, I get those plants from the United States Department of Agriculture. Every year I call them up and he knows that I am the 'crazy' lady in Pittsburgh who wants to grow sugar."

The barley and wheat are germinated from seeds. Other more hard-to-grow tropical plants and trees are displayed in containers under the soil and covered with mulch. When the garden closes they spend the winter in the greenhouse at the temple cemetery.

Each year the Biblical Botanical Garden promotes a special exhibit covering such fertile ground as "Dining with the Ancients," "Cooking with Beer," "The Healing Past," and "The Art of Dyeing", focusing on the plants used to color fabrics.

Irene Jacobs says she hopes that visitors leave knowing they have much in common, ecologically, with their Biblical ancestors. "And we like them to learn about this garden to come here and relax and enjoy. People have told me that in this very turbulent moment, especially in Israel, that it is lovely to come here and relax," she says.

That is exactly what one couple from the Pittsburgh suburbs decided to do on a recent warm Spring day.

Woman: "I have known that this garden was here. I assumed that it was much smaller. I would not have dreamed of the variety of plants that are growing here. To see cotton growing in Pittsburgh was a very unusual experience."
Man:"Seeing some things that we have in our own garden ties you to it. But seeing the things that you do not have and would like to have and hearing why they are here and that satisfied us. It is just glorious. We will be back again."

This season the Biblical Botanical Garden connects visitors with their biblical roots and with each other in the special exhibit, "A taste of Oil: 5,000 Years of Oil from Plants."