Menu JTA Search

Pomegranate authority’s labor lives on

Virtually all the pomegranates sold in the United States today are one variety, called “Wonderful” -- the familiar large, red fruit with semi-soft seeds. (Marilyn Cannon)

Virtually all the pomegranates sold in the United States today are one variety, called “Wonderful” — the familiar large, red fruit with semi-soft seeds. (Marilyn Cannon)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Gregory Moiseyevich Levin spent 40 years building his pomegranate paradise in the Kopet Dag mountains of rural Turkmenistan.

Levin, a Leningrad-trained agronomist who became chairman of the subtropical fruit project at the remote Garrigala Turkmen Experimental Agricultural Station, amassed the world’s largest collection of pomegranates – 1117 varieties from 27 countries.

The blue pomegranate. The black pomegranate. The pink-petaled pomegranate. The small-fruit pomegranate. The dwarf pomegranate. Collecting the exotic fruit frequently used on Rosh Hashanah was a labor of love and devotion for only a certain kind of research scientist.

Levin collected many varieties himself on dangerous yearly treks through the mountain gorges of Turkmenistan, a Central Asian region that is the birthplace of the pomegranate and one of the last places on earth where it still grows wild.

But the Soviet Union collapsed and state funding for research dried up, so Levin was forced to abandon his agricultural station in 2002 and immigrate to Israel. He lives there quietly with his wife in a small apartment in Petach Tikvah.

“It was unbearably painful to witness the collections perishing, dying,” he wrote in “Pomegranate Roads,” his memoir published last year by Floreant Press, a small California publishing house. “In the wake of the collapse, the Soviet Union and the agricultural institutes abandoned their scientists and researchers. We were assigned to the emergent sovereign states, left without any protection, without any possibility of continuing to work.”

Soon after Levin’s aliyah, the Turkmen government ordered his research station bulldozed to the ground.

Levin’s tale is not unfamiliar. He is one of many former Soviet scientists, artists, doctors and intellectuals who were ripped from their culture and their work who now live in Israel, their contributions forgotten, their world a close-knit circle of Russian-speaking colleagues.

One thing, however, sets Levin’s story apart. Before he left Turkmenistan, he sent cuttings of his precious pomegranates to scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba and the University of California, Davis. Those cuttings, planted and now flourishing, have become his living legacy.

“They’re all in our orchard,” said Jeff Moersfelder, greenhouse manager at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchard, which sits on University of California, Davis, land. Levin sent 90 varieties of pomegranates to Davis, most of them between 1999 and 2000.

Those pomegranates have a rich future, Moersfelder predicts.

Virtually all the pomegranates sold in the United States today are one variety, called “Wonderful” – the familiar large, red fruit with semi-soft seeds. Some of Levin’s varieties have soft, edible seeds that have great commercial potential.

“Big growers are certainly looking at Levin’s material,” Moersfelder said. “It will become a big part of what people are growing.”

Others have unusual flavors, while still others are being eyed for their hardiness or pharmaceutical uses.

Each fall, Moersfelder holds a private tasting of Levin’s pomegranates for researchers, growers and other industry insiders.

“The opportunity to taste all these different varieties is very exciting,” he said.

Along with “Pomegranate Roads: A Soviet Botanist’s Exile from Eden,” Levin wrote another book about his work – a highly technical botanical study published in 2006.

“Pomegranate Roads,” intelligent and highly readable, is filled with historical and literary references, pomegranate lore and inspiring adventures. From early tragedies, including his father’s death as a soldier in World War II, his childhood survival of the German siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and his refused admission to academic institutions because of his Jewish background, Levin’s life soared once he arrived at the Garrigala station.

His stories of following peasants through treacherous mountain passes in search of a single thicket of wild pomegranates are riveting. His description of Stalin’s destruction of Soviet science, its eventual rebuilding and final dismantling in the 1990s is heartbreaking.

The book was written for a lay audience at the request of Barbara Baer of Floreant Press, an editor and amateur fruit enthusiast who had been enthralled with Levin’s story since hearing him on public radio in 2001. Baer finally located Levin through the help of the Israeli Embassy in Washington and began an e-mail correspondence that continues to this day.

“Gregory has nothing but his reputation,” Baer said. “He is a true exile.”

Baer has become a hard-core pomegranate fan, traveling to fruit festivals and bookstores, reading from Levin’s book and offerings tastings of his pomegranates from Davis. She says popular interest in the fruit has skyrocketed among backyard growers and the scientific community.

At a conference in Turkey last year, where Baer delivered Levin’s keynote address because he was too ill to travel, she said Israeli researchers told her “the pomegranate is not a trend, it’s a tsunami.”

Israel leads the world “in everything pomegranate,” Baer said, from horticultural methods to pharmaceutical research.

The pomegranate supposedly has 613 seeds – the same number of commandments, or mitzvot – and thus is eaten on Rosh Hashanah as Jews at the New Year figuratively show their hope to fulfill the commandments.

Levin is glad his work is living on, although at 74 he makes only nominal contributions to it. For a few years he maintained a test site in Bet Shemesh, just outside Jerusalem, and published three articles on succulents. Promises of other collaborative efforts have come to naught, he said.

He and his wife live on a monthly pension of about $1,000, supplemented by contributions from his son, who lives nearby. They buy most of what they need, including the Russian-language weekly Vyesty, from two Russian-owned shops. Like most immigrants his age, Levin hasn’t managed to learn Hebrew.

Reached by phone, Levin said he and his wife are hunting for a new apartment, as their landlord just sold the one they were renting.

“This is the price of capitalism,” he joked. Living in Israel is “a rather expensive experience for a 100-percent Soviet person.”

JTA correspondent Igor Serebryany contributed to this story from Moscow.

NEXT STORY