Sunday, December 23, 2012

The First Zoo Rabbi?

Posted: 22 Dec 2012 11:03 AM PST
Tel Aviv zoo's crocodiles and turtles (circa 1939)
Rabbi Mordechai Schornstein served as a rabbi in Copenhagen, Denmark, and moved to Palestine in 1935.  On his way to the Holy Land he stopped in Italy and purchased birds and small mammals to start a pet store in Tel Aviv. 

Griffon vulture

His collection grew, and in 1938 he opened a zoo in a residential area of Tel Aviv.  With the arrivals of lions, tigers and elephants the zoo was forced to moved and re-housed at a location not far from Tel Aviv's City Hall.

Hyena played with zookeeper
Urban growth, however, meant that Tel Avivians did not want a zoo in their midst.  Public awareness of animal care and zoo overcrowding forced another move in 1980, this time to a large Ramat Gan park nearby.  The 250-acre "Ramat Gan Safari" now contains some 1,600 animals.

Lion in the Tel Aviv zoo

The Library of Congress-American Colony Photographic Department captions lists the pictures as taken between 1936 and 1939.  The zoo's timeline, however, suggests that 1939 was a more likely date.

Monkey, held by a keeper

"Ibex, the wild goat of the Bible"

You can learn more about Rabbi Schornstein at

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Bird in the Hand

A resident of Ramat Bet Shemesh called me to say that a strange bird had entered their apartment and was unable to fly. They had been informed that I was the go-to person about such an event. When they told me that it had a curved beak, I promised to come right away.

It's a female kestrel, the most common type of falcon in Israel. It seems to have a broken wing, so I'm going to take her to the veterinary clinic at the Jerusalem Zoo. The Head of Animal Management at the Nature Authority told me that if it makes a full recovery, it will be released, but otherwise, I will be able to keep it. Today, it happily ate a hamster.

Soon, I will be publishing an article about medieval Jewish falconry.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Baby Monitor

I recently acquired a new specimen for my forthcoming "Jewish Museum of Natural History." In the Torah's list of sheratzim - small creatures that transmit ritual impurity when dead - one of the creatures is called koach. According to some scholars, this refers to the monitor lizard. Monitors grow to be very large - the desert monitor in Israel grows to around four feet, while in other parts of the world monitors can reach ten feet or more. Accordingly, koach, which means "power," is a worthy name.

The monitor that I acquired is a Savannah monitor. Fully grown, it can reach 4-5 feet in length, but the one that I purchased is just a baby, no more than six inches long. He's incredibly vicious - when I open the cage, he jumps up with an open mouth and tries to bite - but when I hold him for a while, he calms down, and hopefully he will become tamer in due course.

Anyway, the day after I got him, I saw the following e-mail posted to the local Bet Shemesh mailing list:
Subject: Baby Monitor
Date: Wed May 9, 2012 10:07 am
Hi i am looking to buy or borrow a baby monitor from somebody. If anybody has one available please respond to this email.
Thank You, Yossi 
 Wow, I thought, isn't that a strange coincidence? The day after I get a baby monitor, somebody else wants one! And why does he want one, anyway?

Then I realized that he wasn't looking for a baby monitor. He was looking for a baby monitor!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Jewish Museum Of Natural History

I am thrilled to announce that plans are moving ahead for the development of "The Jewish Museum Of Natural History." The mission is outlined below, and you can download a full prospectus at this link.


The Jewish Museum of Natural History will be a unique institution. Its primary goals are twofold: To enhance appreciation and understanding of Scripture, Talmud and Jewish tradition via the natural world, and to thereby also enhance appreciation and understanding of the natural world itself. Visitors will learn about Scriptural and Midrashic symbolism, Jewish law and history, and the natural history of the Land of Israel.

The museum will accomplish this mission via a combination of extraordinary live and inanimate exhibits, including taxidermy mounts and other intriguing biological artifacts. All exhibits, including live specimens, will be hands-on, since tactile experiences are the most powerful. Visits will be conducted exclusively via guided tours, in order to maximize the educational value. The Jewish Museum of Natural History will also serve as an invaluable educational resource, providing teacher training courses, extended lecture series, and trainee assistant curator programs for teens.

The nucleus of the collection has already been assembled and is licensed by the Nature Reserves Authority. Plans are currently underway for a temporary facility, under the auspices of a Foundation created for the museum and its associated publications. The long-term goal is to construct a building for the museum in the city of Bet Shemesh. Although housing a population of 80,000 which is projected to double in the next decade, and home to a large Anglo population which regularly receives visitors from abroad, Bet Shemesh lacks any kind of tourist attraction. The Jewish Museum of Natural History will fill that gap in a unique way.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Latest Bizarre Acquisition

Smile! His name is Watts, and if you can identify the species, you'll know why.

Monday, January 23, 2012

February Lecture Schedule

Here is a list of my forthcoming lectures that are open to the public:


Shabbos February 4th:
Beth Sholom, Cedarhurst
Friday-8PM: “One People, Two Worlds: Rationalists & Mystics”
Shabbos morning-11AM: “Battle for Beit Shemesh: The Evolution of Chareidim”
5PM: “The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought

Sunday February 5th:
12pm - "The Challenge of Dinosaurs" - at the YU Sefarim Sale.

2:30 pm - "The Evolution of Orthodoxy: From Chasam Sofer to the Battles of Bet Shemesh"
3:45 pm - "Beasts of Prey: Bears, Hawks and Other Predators in Jewish Thought"
Washington Heights Congregation, 815 West 179th Street
Entrance Donation: $10 for one lecture, $15 for both
Download flyer with details here 

Monday February 6th:

7pm - "How (not) to Become a Heretic: What Must a Jew Believe?"
Drisha Institute of Jewish Education
37 West 65th Street, 5th Floor, New York
Tuition: $18; June and July Immersion Program alumni no charge; $10 suggested donation for college students.


Wednesday February 8th:

7pm at Beth Tfiloh’s Epstein Chapel: “Were the Rabbis always Right.” Free admission.

Thursday February 9th:

8pm - "Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions" at Shomrei Emunah. Entrance donation $10. Download flyer here.

Shabbos February 11th: Suburban Orthodox


Sunday February 12th:
9am - The Challenge of Creation - at Beth Sholom
10.30am - Sacred Monsters - at Beth Sholom
2-5pm - The Torah Tour of the National Zoo. Download flyer with details here.
7:30pm - "The Evolution of Orthodoxy and the Making of Charedim" - Kesher Israel. No admission fee, but RSVP required - see


If anyone can give me a ride from Philadelphia to NY (preferably the 5 Towns) on the afternoon or evening of Monday Feb. 13th, please be in touch!