November 15, 2019

Pomegranates: Deep-seeded connections

When we think about special foods to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, apples and honey always seem to top the menu. But where among the new year’s daily specials do we place that seedy, sweet red ball of antioxidants — the pomegranate?

Although experience tells us that the fruit’s multitude of seeds can be as numerous as the stains it leaves on our clothing, Jewish tradition suggests something deeper. The rabbis saw the pomegranate as a symbol of abundance and its great number of seeds a reminder of the many mitzvot found in the Torah — 613. And Jewish folklore pegs the fruit as a symbol of fertility.

However, as Pom Wonderful has become an everyday part of many people’s modern health regimen, I suspect our original connection with the rimon (Hebrew for pomegranate) — which goes all the way to Exodus (28:33), where we find that images of pomegranates are to be woven into the hem of the High Priest’s robe — may have become watered down. 

To help bring our connection to the pomegranate back to that original state, my wife and I decided this spring to plant a pomegranate tree — a 4-foot-high bush, actually — in our backyard.

As it flowered, our expectations grew, blossoming into amazement when, after two months, about 15 tiny green pomegranates began to develop. Growing with the “crown” side down, the fruits reminded me of the little silver bells that often hang from the finials (often called “rimonim”) used to decorate Torah rollers. As summer heated up, true to form, the rapidly growing fruit held the promise for ringing in the new year.

Then came the attack. After finding four fruits on the ground, each with a bite taken out of it, we thought it was the work of the opossum that occasionally forages in our yard. After a few more met the same fate, our suspicions turned to a blue jay that had pecked similar holes in our tomatoes nearby. By the time we put a bird net over the bush, we had only three remaining.

With Rosh Hashanah less than two months away, I needed to find some reassurance that all this pom drama was worth it, so I called my friend Toby Wolfish, who lives in Calabasas and has a huge pomegranate tree growing in her yard.

Toby, who grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., — a long way from pomegranate territory — still remembers her excitement upon seeing them when she was child.

“They were a big deal at Rosh Hashanah. We were so happy to have one or two. It still is really special for me, even now on Rosh Hashanah,” she said. “We called them ‘Chinese apples.’ I never dreamt I would have one in my yard,” Toby added, quickly easing my doubts about whether my efforts were worth it.

When she and her late husband, Paul, moved into their Conejo Valley home 28 years ago, they found, to their joy, that a full-grown pomegranate tree came with it. Today, she cooks with the fruit, finding it goes well with lamb. This year she plans on making a vodka infused with the juice.

“[The seeds] are great over vanilla ice cream and soaked in vodka,” she said.

Last year, when the harvest count was 270, the tree was so bountiful that she was able to share its fruit with neighbors and her shul, and she still had enough to make jelly. She said she often uses them to decorate her sukkah, leaving me to imagine homegrown pomegranates hanging from my own temporary booth.

And yet, as of mid-August, I had only three. Each day, as the new year grows closer, I go out to inspect them, seeing how each has slowly grown into a gradually reddening handful.

Toby, who also watches her tree, observes that it serves as a timekeeper — from its barren state in winter, to when its leaves suddenly unfurl in spring before filling with orange-red blossoms as the days lengthen.

“Enjoy the beautiful fruit you will get in the coming years,” she said as our conversation ended, sending me a message better than any New Year’s card — one that held out the hope for growth and sweetness in the Rosh Hashanahs to come.

Edmon Rodman is a regular contributor and writes the Journal’s monthly Jewish history column.