Arts and Culture

Parade of Eden-seekers makes lively history

It was a family rumor that set Brook Wilensky-Lanford, 33, on the path that has led to her critically acclaimed new book, “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden” (Grove Press).

As Wilensky-Lanford, the daughter of AJP Assistant Editor Sheila Wilensky, explains in her book’s prologue, in 2004 she learned that a great-uncle had once concocted a plan with an aviator cousin to fly around searching for Eden. Though their scheme never got off the ground, Wilensky-Lanford was hooked: “Most of my father’s relatives were practicing scientists. If they thought they could find a biblical place on the rational Earth, the news was surprising, to say the least.”

Wilensky-Lanford discovered that there have been dozens of modern Eden-seekers, and her book chronicles some of the most fascinating, from the Boston University president who placed the garden at the North Pole to Tse Tsan Tai, a Hong Kong businessman and political revolutionary who thought that Eden could be found in the Mongolian desert.

And then there’s Friedrich Delitzsch, son of the famed German Hebrew scholar Franz Delitzsch, who’d converted to Lutheranism in his youth. Focusing on Mesopotamia, Delitzsch tried to divorce the “facts” of Babylonian history from the “myths” of the Bible, but later did such an about face that he proclaimed the Babylonians the true progenitors of the blond, blue-eyed Aryan race.

“Paradise Lust” is entertaining not only for the stories of the Eden-seekers and their diverse theories, but also for the tidbits of esoteric knowledge Wilensky-Lanford turns up along the way (Eskimos avoid scurvy by eating raw meat) and for her sly wit (describing a German Eden-seeker with thinning hair and a flourishing moustache, she notes that his patron, Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, was “a major proponent of the bald-and-mustachioed look”).

“Paradise Lust” is a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a Daily Beast must-read, and has garnered rave reviews from far and wide, including the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle and Macleans, the Canadian weekly news magazine. Wilensky-Lanford has been interviewed by the New York Times Book Review, News Talk Radio Ireland, and even Tucson’s “Too Jewish!” radio show with Rabbi Sam Cohon.

She’s been shocked and thrilled by all the hoopla, although she knew the book’s premise was good. “When I talked to friends about the idea,” she told the AJP, “people would get really fascinated. Everyone has ideas about the Garden of Eden, whether they’re religious or not. It kind of takes hold of people’s imaginations.”

She’s also been surprised by the Jewish community’s interest — she’ll be speaking at a New Jersey synagogue next month — considering that there’s not a Jewish tradition of looking for the Garden of Eden on earth.

One media highlight for Wilensky-Lanford was appearing on WBUR — Boston’s public radio station — for a live call-in show, “On Point,” which was syndicated to other NPR stations. “They had lots of people calling in to say, ‘I know where the Garden of Eden is.’ I was flabbergasted. I had one caller who had this very complicated plan to prove to me that the Garden of Eden was in the Bermuda Triangle.”

Although many of the theories are “wacky,” she says, there’s a positive motivation at the heart of it all. “People are generally looking for something to bring people together, the origin of all of us. The idea that we can get back into Eden is an optimistic idea.”

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