Walter Jacob’s newest book about Rodef Shalom’s Biblical Botanical Garden, “More Than Just Plants,” “comes rather belatedly,” admits Jacob, the congregation’s rabbi emeritus and senior scholar and longtime steward of the garden.
Although the Biblical Botanical Garden, established 30 years ago, inspired Jacob and his late wife Irene Jacob — who passed away in 2012 — to write several guidebooks about the garden they founded, this book is different, he said.
“It’s not a guide to the garden,” he said. “It’s a guide to the idea of the garden.”
Throughout its run, the one-third acre garden “has been well-supported by the congregation, with continuous attendance by the broader community,” Jacob said. “But I thought one of the things that was necessary was to explain more broadly the purpose of a biblical botanical garden, or a biblical garden altogether. So, that’s what this book tries to do: first of all, to put it in a historical setting of ancient Israel, but at the same time, to put it in a modern setting. What does the modern State of Israel look like from a horticultural point of view? It’s certainly totally different from 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.”
“More Than Just Plants” reads as part history tome, part horticulture manuscript and part mindfulness manual.
“For a lot of people, the garden is a place for meditation,” Jacob noted. “And that’s important and often neglected. Lots of people don’t want a tour, they don’t want to look at labels. They just want to sit there and think.”
The Biblical Botanical Garden displays more than 100 temperate and tropical plants and seeks to replicate the land of Israel in both shape and topography. It has a cascading waterfall, a desert, a bubbling stream and the “Jordan River.” Biblical plants are featured as well as those not native to Israel, such as local plants with biblical names like “Moses in the Basket.”
Jacob has been wholly involved in most every aspect of the garden, from weeding, to giving the occasional tour.
“It’s worked out quite well for most of our visitors,” he said. “If you give them a chance and talk to them a little bit, you begin to interest them in a totally different world.
“Loads of visitors come from out of town, and some make this one of their primary destinations,” he continued. “I try to greet them if they’ve come all that way.”
His new book, he said, was intended to help celebrate the garden’s anniversary.
“We needed something to commemorate 30 years,” he said. “After all, 30 years of picking weeds is a long time.”
This year, a new associate director, Helena Nichols, was added to the garden staff to give a hand to Jacob, who frequently travels to Germany where he teaches at the Abraham Geiger College, the first rabbinical seminary in the heart of Europe since the Holocaust. Jacob co-founded the Geiger College in 1998.
Before Nichols came on board, “every morning, before the garden was open — and even when it wasn’t open on weekends — I was there to make sure it looks nice, first of all, and to make sure the water system which you are counting on really works. So, I was here almost every morning before 7:30 and 8.”
While the garden has “developed as a place for outdoor services,” and for concerts, it is a priority for Jacob — and now Nichols — to “make sure the basic function of the garden is not overlooked,” he said, adding that is one of the reasons why weddings are not permitted in the garden. Wedding guests tend to be “uncontrollable,” and plants could be at risk of being trampled.
Jacob, 87, is still a prolific writer. So far, he was written 43 books and is in the process of publishing a new one called “The Modern Child and Jewish Law.”
“I keep writing books, and so did Irenie,” he smiled. “It’s a disease. And there’s no recovery.”
The intended audience for “More Than Just Plants” — which is published by Rodef Shalom Press — is local, he said.
“That’s why I didn’t go with this book, or any of the other books, with a major publisher,” he said. Jacob wanted to keep the cost low so that the many visitors from garden clubs would not find the price an obstacle to purchasing the book.
At $15, “More Than Just Plants” is available at Rodef Shalom, as well as through Amazon and other online booksellers.
From its inception, the garden has not been part of the congregational budget, and for years, the Jacobs covered much of the costs associated with it themselves, supplemented by occasional donations. Now, an endowment fund has been established to insure the garden continues to grow well into the future. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at