Recreating the scent that drove the men of ancient Jerusalem wild
Guy Erlich left his life as a left-wing activist to grown the plants of the Bible, including one used in ancient Israelite perfumes, on his West Bank farm.
By Roy (Chicky) Arad | May 3, 2014 | 10:30 AM
Guy Erlich on his Balm of Gilean farm in the West Bank, Photo by Emil Salman
It's hard to describe Guy Erlich’s fascination with medicinal herbs and perfumes from the Bible without using words like "desire" — or even "madness." Erlich, 43, gave up a steady job, sold his home in Jerusalem and used up his inheritance and savings to grow plants mentioned in the Bible, some of which had never been domesticated. On his Balm of Gilead farm on kibbutz Almog near the Palestinian city of Jericho, he developed an obsession with "Commiphora gileadensis," which many researchers identify as the plant the Bible calls persimmon.
The biblical persimmon, which grew in what is now Israel's Ein Gedi region and is unrelated to the orange fruit we know by the name today, was one of the most important medicinal herbs and sources of fragrance in the ancient world. It was a leading export of the kingdom of Judea, worth its weight in gold.
Seven years ago, Erlich attended a lecture at the Ein Feshkha nature reserve and archaeological site on the Dead Sea, where he heard about Commiphora gileadensis for the first time. The plant used to grow here, but has been absent for 1,500 years. “It was like being struck by lightning,” he said. “I decided I wanted to bring the persimmon back to the Dead Sea and restore its glory.”
Erlich began searching the world for seedlings and at the same time researching the secrets of ancient cosmetology. After many months, he discovered that several seedlings existed. “Four years before I got into this field, a German researcher had tried to grow persimmon,” Erlich said. “He smuggled a few seeds from western Saudi Arabia to London, and they ended up in the botanical garden in Jerusalem. But it was too cold there, the experiment failed, and the bush was divided among the researchers. I got the first seedling from doctor Elaine Solowey from kibbutz Ketura, whose student I became. Today, I already have 2,000 seedlings.”
After years of working in social justice, Elrich hoped Balm of Gilead farm, which overlooks the Dead Sea from the West Bank, would provide an income that would allow him to support his family. But the opposite happened. “Instead of making a living from the persimmon, I'm supporting it,” he ruefully admits. In an attempt to find assistance, Erlich contacted the Business Development Center, but nobody there believed that resurrecting biblical fragrances would be the next big thing in business. “The counselor I spoke with told me, ‘You’re a dreamer. You have big dreams. Agricultural development and industry cost a lot of money. Go with tourism.’ But my heart told me to bring back the fragrance of the persimmon.”
After the meeting, Erlich began thinking about developing a visitors’ center at the farm. “I thought maybe persimmon by itself wasn’t enough, so I brought in other plants. Of the 11 ingredients in the [Jewish Holy] Temple incense, I have five plants, and I will be getting two more. I have become an obsessive collector, and it appears that today, I have the biggest collection of biblical herbs in the Middle East.”
Erlich grows the biblical plants myrrh and frankincense, which have more established contemporary identities, in a greenhouse that was converted from a turkey run. There, he also grows hundreds more plants, including henna (Lawsonia alba), which is mentioned in the Song of Songs. He believe that Balm of Gilead farm is the largest farm in the world that grows the biblical persimmon. “I may also be the biggest grower of frankincense, which usually grows wild,” he says. “On the other hand, to say that you have the biggest farm for persimmon and frankincense is like saying you’re the world champion of solitaire.”
A leftist settler
Guy Erlich’s new life, as a farmer living and working on a settlement and trying to locate and cultivate plants that were used in the Temple incense, came as a bit of a surprise. Erlich, a graduate of Hebrew University Secondary School — known colloquially as Leyada — comes from the heart of the secular left wing. He wrote for the local Jerusalem newspaper Kol Ha’ir, shouted at demonstrations for the opening of businesses on Shabbat, was one of the people behind the non-Orthodox kosher certificate initiative, established the Wellspring for Democratic Education movement as an answer to Shas, served on the Jerusalem City Council as a member of Ornan Yekutieli’s secular party and met with the Palestinian justice minister to institute non-religious burials in the Palestinian Authority.
“Guy never fit into any box,” said Sharon Dolev of Meretz, who, together with him, submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice against the rabbinate and is not surprised by an update on his life. Erlich was never a farmer and says the plants he raised in his home died because he forgot to water them. “Fortunately, I have a computerized irrigation system,” he says.
Erlich does not know whether he is a member of the left wing anymore, and it seems that not even he is all that clear on how he ended up a settler. “Reality is complicated,” he says. “If there is a peace agreement, I will leave, or maybe I will be a citizen of Palestine. We joked that maybe we’d establish a Jebusite state. I moved to Almog because I love the desert and the people who live there. Yes, it’s a settlement, but I don’t live in a community that is sitting on the Palestinians’ neck. The future here isn't clear. I dragged people to the farm from Jericho who found they were interested in plants. Maybe in the end, we’ll be able to raise the persimmon together. Maybe I’m a leftist settler? I don’t know. Today, I believe less in the division between right and left, black and white, and I’m against boycotts. I've met right-wingers who were much more humane toward the Palestinians than leftists.”
Erlich says he was offered an excellent job in a coexistence organization on condition that he “come back home.” He refused. “It was my dream job, with a salary I’ve never had in my life, and I had a dilemma. I understand their demand, but I'm in a different place. It’s obvious to me that I live in a settlement, but I don’t live on the ruins of any Arab community, and I’m not hurting anyone.”
The farm has two groups of followers, both of them unusual. Officials of the Temple Institute have their hearts set on the incense ingredients that Erlich and his colleagues are raising, which will help them reconstruct the Temple rites for when the Third Temple is built. “When [Rabbi] Yisrael Ariel, the head of the Temple Institute, was here, I said that if the Temple came down from heaven, I would be happy to supply incense for it. But I’m not in favor of building the Temple. He told me that I didn’t know what my purpose was and that I was crazy. It was funny to hear that from him.”
The other group discovered frankincense, which is used in Muslim ceremonies. Erlich says that the ambassador of a large Muslim country that has no relations with Israel visited Israel in honor of Peres’ birthday. The Foreign Ministry took him to the farm in Almog because frankincense has gone extinct in his country from overuse, and all the efforts to domesticate it there failed.
After the meeting, it was agreed that farmers from a third country would come to Erlich’s farm to learn the secrets of domesticating and cultivating frankincense to save it in the ambassador’s country.
The perfume of kings and queens
Erlich opens the refrigerator and takes out several kinds of skin cream that he made from the recipe of a third-century physician together with a bottle of perfume made from persimmon. He reverently puts a few drops of the perfume on my hat. I have high expectations. After all, this was the Chanel No. 5 of the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra, the oil that anointed the kings of Judea. The Talmud says the scent of persimmon is so enticing that it was among the reasons the Temple was destroyed: The women of Jerusalem would dab it near their heels, and when a young woman “saw a group of young men, she would stamp her foot, and the scent would diffuse in the air.” Professor Zohar Amar claims the Romans besieged Masada because the Jewish rebels there used to raid the persimmon fields in Ein Gedi, which were an important source of revenue for Rome’s economy.
The scent is fairly disappointing next to these enticing historical theories. The scent, at first reminiscent of turpentine, turns slowly into a more pleasant eucalyptus-mint scent. “Would I say this is the best perfume in the world? No, I wouldn’t,” Erlich admits. “Scent is a matter of fashion, and we must remember that this was a time of strong odors. The Temple was one big barbecue, and the persimmon’s purpose was to lighten the smell. This was the perfume of kings and wealthy people.”
Erlich is not settling for turning the biblical persimmon into a perfume or cosmetic product. He is convinced that the ancient physicians, who spoke of the plant as a panacea, will be vindicated.
Two years ago, a study by Israeli microbiologist Rivka Ofir confirmed some of his feelings. Ofir used an enzyme found in a persimmon taken from Erlich's greenhouse to kill 90 percent of cancer cells in an experiment. “My partners told me not to tell anyone about it because it sounds like megalomania, but it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and approve a medication, and we raised not even $3 million for this tiny project. But all that’s needed is for even 10 percent of the research and testimonies from the ancient world to be true, and we have something to tell. The problem is that the large pharmaceutical corporations don’t like medications that come from plants, because they're hard to patent.”
Erlich is married to Efrat, a kindergarten teacher. They have three children. He starts his day at 5:15 A.M. in the plant nursery and finishes at 6 P.M. He says his children are not enthusiastic about the plants and would rather be surfing the Internet. Erlich is not wild about the familiar orange persimmon (“the fruit that causes constipation,” as he calls it), which is sometimes confused with the biblical persimmon that he grows. Recently, he received a plot of about 100 dunams (25 acres) of land from the Agriculture Ministry for an orchard at the entrance to Almog — much more than the 3.5 dunams (less than one acre) he has now. But he's having difficulty obtaining the necessary budget of several hundred thousand shekels to water the marly soil. At least his neighbors think better of him. “At first, they thought I was a strange person, but now that they’ve seen me stay with it for a few years, they want to help me.”
Erlich speaks of purpose. “I have a cultural mission. Just like Chinese medicine, there is also a tradition of Jewish medicine that goes back many years, and the persimmon is the jewel in its crown.”
Things have started looking up, business-wise, for Erlich. He says a large American company that makes essential oils invested money in trials and sent a distillery, which stands gleaming at the center of the farm. Erlich sends back small bottles of essential oils in hopes of signing a contract with the company, but admits to sleepless nights. “Uncertainty is not good for the soul,” he says. “I’m not an experienced businessman. If I could make a living from this, it would be wonderful. I love the plants, and I would be happy to work with them.”