On entering Oded Halahmy’s Pomegranate Gallery in New York City, the bright red fruit is all you see: some fresh, others dried, several plump bronze ones on top of huge religious sculptures. There are even some sewn on the caps Mr. Halahmy, 85, wears, along with the phrase “pomegranate is love.”
Before you can look at his work closely, the artist, obsessed with the memory of pomegranates from his native Baghdad, may sit you down in front of five aluminum-cast bowls decorated with, you guessed it, pomegranates. Each contains dried berries, cookies, nuts or arils, the seed pods inside the nutrient-dense fruit.
He may tell you how he has traced the fruit as the apple in the biblical Garden of Eden and has been inspired by ancient Mesopotamian bas-reliefs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with some depicting Nimrod holding a pomegranate branch. (Nimrod, according to biblical legend, was a great-grandson of Noah.)
For Mr. Halahmy and many others, pomegranates are also a major part of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which this year begins at sundown on Sept. 15 and ends Sept. 17.
“Pomegranates remind me of Mesopotamia, my ancestral home, whether I am in Jerusalem, Baghdad or New York,” Mr. Halahmy said. “My home is my heart inside my body.” (The son of a goldsmith, Mr. Halahmy left Baghdad for Jerusalem in 1951, then settled in New York in 1970, opening the gallery in 2003. He opened a second location, in Jaffa, Israel, in 1980.)
In one Middle Eastern and Sephardic ritual, pomegranates are among the fruits blessed during a Seder, and pomegranate seeds are eaten to usher in a year full of
“Rosh Hashana starts in Babylon with pomegranates,” he said.
In Iraq, to break the Yom Kippur fast, his mother would split the pomegranates and extract their juice: Once strained through a kind of cheesecloth, it could be drunk or cooked down into molasses. Mr. Halahmy included these memories and customs in a self-published cookbook called “Iraqi Cooking: Exile Is Home,” which calls for pomegranates in stews, soups and sorbets.
He also shared a recipe, adapted from his book, for a tangy, colorful pomegranate red snapper perfect for Rosh Hashana or any time of year. The fish is brushed with a sauce made with pomegranate molasses, sesame seed oil, amba or mustard, and sumac. It is served sprinkled with pomegranates and parsley, for a beautifully presented dish.
“We are first eating with the eyes,” he said.
Unable to find a similar recipe in other Iraqi cookbooks, I asked Nawal Nasrallah, a translator and expert on ancient foods and the region’s foodways. She recognized the dish, but in a different form.
“Dishes varied from family to family in Iraq with different amounts of seasonings,” she said, “but the Jews used sesame seed oil. My family used tamarind paste, instead of pomegranate, and other families prefer dibs, date syrup.”
One thing that stayed the same: the pomegranates.
“Pomegranates symbolize love and love leads to fertility,” Mr. Halahmy said. “As the Beatles sang, All we need is love. ”