Carl Pearlstein dies helped make Israel desert bloom

Carl Pearlstein loved roses, narcissuses and daffodils. And he loved Israel.

Often, the Hillsborough horticulturist brought his loves together, supporting Israel's flower industry by importing its products and sharing with counterparts there his know-how on growing bulbs and other flora.

Pearlstein died in the early hours of Tuesday morning at age 81. He had been ill for some time.

Still, he continued to work up until the end and his death came as a surprise to friends in the Jewish community. They said they will miss his deep sense of commitment and tell-it-like-it-is style.

"Carl was a mixture of a man possessed of gentle soul and character with a strength and courage of convictions," said Tad Taube, board president of the Koret Foundation in San Francisco and a friend of Pearlstein's.

Over the years, Pearlstein was involved in myriad Jewish organizations, including Koret, Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University, Hillel and the College of Judea and Samaria on the West Bank.

At the American Jewish Committee, where he was a board member for more than 15 years, he set up two funds — one assisting scholarship students at Half Moon Bay High School, the other supporting the dissemination of Israel-related information in the American press.

The Anti-Defamation League, meanwhile, last year established an award in honor of him and his wife, Virginia — the Pearlstein Civil Rights Award.

Pearlstein's Jewish involvement had early precedent. In a 1988 Bulletin interview, Pearlstein recalled that as a young child in New York, his pants were full of patches. When a neighbor chided his mother, Ida, for not taking proper care of her children, she answered, "I don't think I can do more than I'm doing. After all, we have a fourth child — the Jewish community."

Pearlstein took that philosophy to heart, first immersing himself in the local Jewish community in the early 1940s, when he moved here to do graduate work at U.C. Davis. Shortly thereafter, he met Eugene Block, editor of the Emanu-El, forerunner to the Bulletin.

Pearlstein told Block the Jewish community should be more aggressive in exposing anti-Semitism at the University of California. To prove his commitment, he took out an advertisement for $32, a large sum of money for him in those days, he once said.

Over the years, he went on to purchase numerous ads in the Bulletin expressing his views.

Many of the ads relayed his concern about what he saw as Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's duplicity. On Dec. 12, he took out a four-page ad reproducing an essay on Arab rejectionism that ran in Commentary magazine.

"He spent tens of thousands of dollars paying for ads in the Bulletin that reflected his philosophy on a whole host of issues," Taube said. "He was a vigorous fighter to have his point of view heard and understood."

Still, Pearlstein — who in addition to purchasing Bulletin ads, frequently wrote letters to the editor — remained open to other points of view, according to another friend.

"He was one with very strong opinions, but he was tolerant of other people's opinions," said Naomi Lauter, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "You could always have a real civil discussion with him."

In 1941, Pearlstein and his wife founded Nurserymen's Exchange, which has headquarters in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay and agricultural operations in Southern California and Florida. Years earlier, Pearlstein's mother had inspired her son with her flourishing fire-escape garden in New York.

"He was a very hands-on businessman who was involved in every phase of the business," said Bill Epstein, sales manager at Nurserymen's Exchange. "He was a doer, a person of action."

Indeed, when it came to Israel, words of support were not enough. He founded the North American-Israel Horticultural Foundation, which encourages the exchange of horticultural information between the United States and Israel.

Among other things, he provided Israeli flower experts with the opportunity to learn up-to-date techniques in growing poinsettias. And he started a fund at the Hebrew University's Department of Horticulture.

Several years ago, in fact, Hebrew University's faculty of agriculture presented Pearlstein with an honorary degree. They thanked him for "sharing our vision, helping us make the desert bloom."

Pearlstein is survived by his wife, daughters Gail Hollingsworth and Kitty Shiotani and son Jack Pearlstein. He is also survived by sister Mildred Sexton and seven grandchildren.

No memorial service is planned.

The family asks that contributions be sent to the charity of one's choice.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.