Saturday, August 29, 2009

It’s officially pomegranate season in Israel – you can always tell, because the local buses are plastered with brightly colored decals picturing a juicy bursting pomegranate – rimon, in Hebrew – coupled with the words, Shana Tova! ‘Happy New Year’, because this year, the Jewish new year is celebrated on September 18.

Jewish New Year aside, pomegranates always make me think of John F. Kennedy.

It’s a cliché that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of the shooting in Dallas.

I’m no different – I’d just driven home from University of North Dakota law school, for lunch break, listening to Paul Harvey and his ‘The Rest of the Story” as I drove. He didn’t mention it, of course – those programs were recorded. But as I walked into my apartment, my phone was ringing. It was one of my classmates: “Don’t bother coming back for class this afternoon. The President’s been shot. Everything is cancelled.”

I actually had a television in those days, so of course I turned it on. As you all remember, in the first hours, there wasn’t much news, just the same stories and photos played over and over. I could see we were in for a lot of news reporting, so I took a break and ran out to the grocery store to buy my favorite TV-watching snack: pomegranates.

I’d spent the better part of the year before living in Mexico City, and had discovered pomegranates there. Unbelievable, now that I think about it, but the Grand Forks grocery stores, even in those days, carried pomegranates. If you think about it, pomegranates are the ideal TV watching snack – after all, you can’t do much of anything else when you’re eating a pomegranate.

I even had a pomegranate-eating tee shirt. Pomegranate juice stains permanently, so I dedicated one shirt to the cause. My blotchy red-stained tee shirt was the perfect outfit for that ghastly week.

I don’t know how many pomegranates I went through during that one week, but I do remember going back to the store time and time again. Eventually, of course, public fascination with the whole event began to fade, school started again, and regular programming returned to the three TV channels we had. By that time, I’d had enough pomegranates to last the rest of my life. Almost.

Earlier this year I wrote about how much fun it’s been to have my own pomegranate tree. What started out as blossoms like this ……

… eventually ripened into an awful lot of fruit. Unfortunately, some kind of boring insects loved them too, so there weren’t too many pieces of fruit that were perfect. Just about right, actually.

I used one to count the seeds, something I try on a regular basis. Why? Because in Judaism, pomegranates figure hugely, in many different ways. One of them suggests that the pomegranate contains exactly 613 seeds, which is equal to the total number of Mitzvot, commandments, in the Torah.

I blush to admit that among the dozen or so pomegranates I’ve split apart to count the seeds, I’ve never found one that actually had requisite 613. I’m sure I probably miscounted. Or some were too small to count and I missed them. Or something like that.

There are lots of other pomegranate analogies, too:

"As the slice of the pomegranate so is your forehead". Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish used to say, "Among your people, even the most ordinary people are filled full by the commandments, as a pomegranate.”

“Small children who study Torah sit in rows before their teachers are like the seeds of a pomegranate."

Then, too, the pomegranate, bursting with juicy seeds, has been regarded as a symbol of fertility for thousands of years.

If you look at the calyx of the pomegranate, you can see it’s shaped like a crown. Look at any crown symbol, and you can see how the pomegranate has been adopted as the original "design" for the proper crown.

Grenada, a South American island, was named after the Spanish and French word for 'pomegranate'.

The word ‘grenade’ – a hand held explosive – also come from pomegranates, because of its shape and size, and also because the seeds resemble a grenade’s fragments.

Garnets, the jewels, are so named because of their color.

Israel isn’t just the land of milk and honey, either. In Deuteronomy 8, it says, “For the Lord G-d shall lead you into the good land, a land of flowing water... The land of wheat and barley, the vine and fig and pomegranate, a land of the olive tree and honey."

Because of a Divine directive in Exodus 28, pomegranates were woven onto the borders of the High Priest’s robes.

In King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the capitals of two columns in the Temple’s facade were decorated with pomegranates.

Pomegranates are so important that on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a special prayer is said: "May it be Your will O Lord our G-d and the G-d of Our Fathers, that our good deeds will increase like the seeds of the pomegranate.”

It’s not just Judaism, either: Ancient Egyptians were buried with pomegranates. The Babylonians believed chewing the seeds before battle made them invincible. The Koran mentions pomegranates three times -- twice as examples of the good things G-d creates, once as a fruit found in the Garden of Paradise.

Maybe after writing all this, I’ll be able to associate pomegranates with something other than John F. Kennedy. That would be more than fine.

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