Wednesday, July 24, 2013

With Moses in the Wilderness

Here in Africa, many African-Americans - sorry, I mean African-Africans - have interesting names. On yesterday's game drive, the driver, before setting off, launched into a long introduction. He spoke with the slow manner of speaking that some Africans use, in which they draw out each syllable in a painfully long amount of time. "Myyyyyy  naaaaame," he said slowly, "is Civilized. C - i - v - i - l - i - z - e - d.  I  am  your driiiiii-veeerrrrr for todaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay." 
"Hi, Mr. Civilized," I said, "My name is Impatient. Can we get going?"

On this morning's game drive, the driver was called Moses. He led us through the wilderness, starting before dawn. We didn't see as many species as yesterday, but we did have the rare thrill of being in the midst of a huge buffalo herd, seeing a herd of elephants, and watching a leopard and her cub roaming around. The cub kept on launching surprise attacks at the mother, which she tolerated as only a mother can. Here's a picture that I took of the cub:

We watched them for quite a while, then headed off to meet up with the other jeeps, in order to make a minyan for shacharis out in the savannah. Meanwhile, two people on my jeep were quite desperate to go to, er, attend to a call of nature. But Moses didn't want to stop, because he was in a rush to meet up with the other jeeps. "Moses!" I thundered, "Let my people go!"

Later, back at the ranch, I took the following photograph of an impala at the water-hole by the dining room, which brought a certain passuk to mind:

And finally, here's a video clip of the leopards:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Foxes in Ramat Bet Shemesh

The other night, at 12.30am, I heard a bizarre noise outside my house. This is what it was:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Penguin Baal Teshuvah

According to the sign, this penguin at the Toronto Zoo is apparently on his way to becoming observant. No wonder he's wearing black and white.

(Thanks to Eli Rachlin for sending in the picture.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Lion Hunter of Zion

(Cross-posted at The Times of Israel)

In his youth, King David proved his heroism by slaying a lion. He went on to put his life on the line for the Jewish People and become a hero for all Israel. Three thousand years later, another lion-hearted lion-slayer also put his life on the line for the Jewish People and became a hero for all Israel. He wasn’t even Jewish, but he was one of the greatest friends and supporters that the Jewish People ever had – and his experiences with lions assisted in numerous ways.

Colonel John Patterson was an Irish soldier and engineer assigned to Kenya by the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. His job was to supervise the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo river for a massive railroad project. Unfortunately, railroad workers were constantly being slaughtered by the most notorious man-eating lions in recorded history. Two maneless but huge lions, working together, were estimated to have killed and eaten well over a hundred people working on the railroad.
Night after night, Patterson sat in a tree, hoping to shoot the lions when they came to the bait that he set for them. But the lions demonstrated almost supernatural abilities, constantly breaking through thorn fences to take victims from elsewhere in the camp, and seemingly immune to the bullets that were fired at them.

Patterson was faced with the task of not only killing the lions, but also surviving the wrath of hundreds of workers, who were convinced that the lions were demons that were inflicting divine punishment for the railroad. At one point, Patterson was attacked by a group of over a hundred workers who had plotted to lynch him. Patterson punched out the first two people to approach him, and talked down the rest!

After many months, Patterson eventually shot both lions. He himself was nearly killed in the process on several occasions, such as when one lion that he had shot several times suddenly leaped up to attack him as he approached its body. He published a blood-curling account of the episode in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which became a best-seller, and earned him a close relationship with US President Roosevelt.

Upon returning to England, Patterson was a hailed as a hero. When World War One broke out, however, Patterson traveled to Egypt and took on a most unusual task: forming and leading a unit of Jewish soldiers, comprised of Jews who had been exiled from Palestine by the Turks. As a child, Patterson had been mesmerized by stories from the Bible. He viewed this task as being of tremendous, historic significance. The unit, called the Zion Mule Corps, was tasked with providing supplies to soldiers in the trenches in Gallipoli. Patterson persuaded the reluctant War Office to provide kosher food, as well as matzah for Passover, and he himself learned Hebrew and Yiddish in order to be able to communicate with his troops. The newly-trained Jewish soldiers served valiantly, but the campaign against the Turks in Gallipoli was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Zion Mule Corps was eventually disbanded.

In 1916 Patterson joined forces with Vladimir Jabotinsky to create a full-fledged Jewish Legion in the British Army, who would fight to liberate Palestine from the cruel reign of the Ottoman Empire and enable the Jewish People to create a home there. The War Minister, Lord Derby, succumbed to anti-Zionist agitators and attempted to prevent the Jewish Legion from receiving kosher food, from serving in Palestine, and from having “Jewish” in their name. Patterson promptly threatened to resign and risked a court-martial by protesting Derby’s decision as a disgrace. Derby backed down and Patterson’s Jewish Legion was successfully formed. During training, Patterson again threatened the War Office with his resignation if his men (many of whom were Orthodox) were not allowed to observe Shabbos, and again the army conceded. Meanwhile, Patterson brought Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook to address and inspire his troops.

Patterson clashed repeatedly with antisemitic officers in the British Army. Once, when a visiting brigadier called one of his soldiers “a dirty Jew,” Patterson demanded an apology, ordering his men to surround the brigadier with bayonets until he did so. The apology was produced, but Patterson was reprimanded by General Allenby. On another occasion, Patterson discovered that one of his Jewish soldiers had been sentenced to execution for sleeping at his post. Patterson circumvented the chain of authority and contacted Allenby directly in order to earn a reprieve. The reprieve came, but a notoriously antisemitic brigadier by the name of Louis Bols complained about Patterson’s interference to General Shea. Shea summoned Patterson and, rather than discipline him, revealed that his children were great fans of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. The Jewish Legion fought well, and Palestine was liberated from the Turks. But Patterson himself was the only British officer in World War One to receive no promotion at all – a result of his outspoken efforts on behalf of the Jewish People.

After the war, Patterson dedicated himself to assisting with the creation of a Jewish homeland. The achievements of the Jewish Legion gained sympathy for the cause, but there was much opposition from both Jews and non-Jews. One Jewish delegation, seeking to explore an alternate option of creating a Jewish homeland in Africa, was dissuaded after reading The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Meanwhile, against Patterson’s strenuous efforts, Bols was appointed Military Governor of Palestine, and filled the administration with antisemites who attempted to undermine the Balfour Declaration and empowered hostile elements in the Arab world.

When World War II broke out, Patterson, now an old man, fought to create another Jewish Legion. After great effort, the Jewish Infantry Brigade was approved. Aside from fighting the Germans, members of the Brigade succeeded in smuggling many concentration camp survivors into Palestine. Many other survivors had been cruelly turned away, and Patterson protested this to President Truman, capitalizing on his earlier relationship with Roosevelt. This contributed to Truman’s support for a Jewish homeland.

Patterson spent most of his later years actively campaigning for a Jewish homeland and against the British Mandate’s actions towards the Jews in Palestine. Tragically, he passed away a month before the State of Israel was created. The newly formed country would not have won the War of Independence without trained soldiers – and the soldiers were trained by veterans of Patterson’s Jewish Legion and Jewish Infantry Brigade. Colonel John Patterson had ensured the survival of the Jewish homeland. But his legacy lived on in another way, too. Close friends of his named their child after him, and the boy grew up to be yet another lion-hearted hero of Israel. His name was Yonatan Netanyahu.

Further reading:
John Patterson, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (free download)
John Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli (free download)
John Patterson, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign (free download)
Denis Brian, The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Adventures in Locust Hunting

Last week was not great for this zoo rabbi. One of my hyraxes, named Lorax, escaped, and despite the best efforts of my neighbors and myself to recapture it, our efforts proved fruitless. Then my fruit bat, Batsheva, escaped, and although I managed to recapture her two days later, her experiences left her in bad shape and she expired. And to top it all, I hadn't made it to the South to catch the locusts that had arrived in a plague from Egypt. The article about kosher locusts that I had written for The Times of Israel had been quoted by media outlets all over the world, but I hadn't actually gotten any! My students were begging me for a lecture on kosher locusts, and my chameleons, for whom locusts are a favorite food, were looking at me with accusing eyes (which, protruding from their heads, are particularly unsettling). And the Ministry of Agriculture reported that they had successfully fumigated all the locusts that had flown in from Egypt. Which was wonderful news for the farmers and the economy - let's not lose perspective here! - but not for my chameleons, my students and me.

Then, right before Shabbos, there was a report that a new swarm had flown in. And on Shabbos, a stranger came over to me, and introduced himself as Moishe from Australia. He said that he was part of a group of fans of this website, and he wanted to know where he could hunt for locusts. (He also excitedly told me about the huge "mozzie" that he had just seen; after some bewilderment, I figured out that this was Australian talk for a mosquito.)

And so, late last night, we planned our expedition. The latest reports indicated that a small swarm had settled in Nachal Lavan, near the Egyptian border. The Ministry of Agriculture were sending planes on Sunday morning to fumigate them. We would have to make an early start - partly because locusts can best be captured when they are dormant from the cold of night, and partly in order to get them before they were sprayed with pesticide!

At five o'clock this morning, Moishe and I hit the road. It's possible to drive incredibly fast at that hour, even while simultaneously scanning the road for hedgehogs and hyenas. There's also a new, wide bypass road that circumvents Be'er Sheva, speeding up the journey considerably. As we entered the Negev desert, a number of signs on the road warned of danger from camels crossing the road - their bodies are so high from the ground that if you hit one, it comes straight through the windshield. We didn't have that experience, which was fortunate for us, and also for the camels. The desert itself was vast and bare, with herds of oryx conspicuously failing to thunder across it. We made excellent time, but the sun had already come up, and it was going to be close. I didn't yet realize just how close it was going to be.

I found the rough road leading off the highway towards Nachal Lavan, and we began to travel down it. A large four-wheel drive vehicle was coming in the other direction, and we drove past it. In the rear-view mirror, I saw it turn around. I pulled over to the side as it drew up next to my car.

"Hi," I said brightly. "We're looking for locusts! Do you know where we can find them?"

The man in the other car, who was apparently from the Ministry of Agriculture, was not happy with me. "You have to leave this area right now," he said. "In two minutes, it's going to be fumigated." "Okay," I said in disappointment. And he drove off.

This was very upsetting. But meanwhile, Moishe from Australia had gotten out of the car, and he was peering into the bushes that were a short distance from us. "Crikey," he said, or some such Australian expression of astonishment, "This bush is full of locusts! Strewth! Blimey!" Or words to that effect.

Pesticides or not, I wasn't going to miss this opportunity. I grabbed a collecting box from the back of the car and made my way to the bush. There were locusts all over the branches!

At that point, two things happened simultaneously. I heard a voice thundering, "GET BACK IN THE CAR NOW!" It sounded like the Lord Himself speaking from the Heavens, but it was in fact the Ministry official, who had returned to check that I had left, and was shouting from a loudspeaker mounted on his truck. Then, at the same moment, there was a noise like a hundred thousand beating wings. I looked up, but instead of seeing a black cloud of locusts, I saw two planes swooping towards me, spraying pesticides as they approached.

It was like a scene from a movie. Moishe and I grabbed some locusts in our hands, and with fistfuls of bugs, we ran back to the car and slammed the doors closed. The Ministry Man was shouting something about my being fined, the planes swooped overhead, and I stepped on the gas and raced out of there. Being killed by pesticides would not be a great way to go. Can you imagine the headlines? "Zoo Rabbi Fumigated in Locust-Hunting Expedition. 'He Really Bugged Us,' Say Opponents."

Well, that was the end of our success for this morning. We drove around further, but we found nothing other than countless more locusts that had already been fumigated. They were lying on the ground, twitching, and I took a few dozen; I can't even feed them to my reptiles, but perhaps when they stop twitching, I can pin them to a card and sell them as souvenirs for the Jewish Museum of Natural History. We had managed to collect a total of seven live, unfumigated locusts in the approximately five seconds of time that we had, and I'm hoping to start a breeding colony. Here's to happy times all round!

Picture is for display purposes only. Do not eat fumigated locusts!

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Locusts Are Coming! Yum!

(Cross-posted at The Times of Israel.)

In the last few days, a devastating plague of locusts, numbering in the tens of millions, has been sweeping across Egypt. In Israel, the Ministry of Agriculture is on full alert. A special hotline has been set up, and the pesticides have been prepared. Hopefully, modern agricultural technology will help us avoid disasters such as that of 1915, when a plague of locusts in Israel led to much tragedy.

Meanwhile, I have my own early warning system - a friend on military duty near the Egyptian border has promised to call me if swarms arrive. I'd love to see it first-hand, and to catch a couple of hundred to feed to my reptile collection - and to eat myself.

It is commonly overlooked that not only does the Torah permit man to eat certain mammals, birds and fish, but it even permits him to eat certain insects - namely, several types of locusts. The identification of the kosher varieties was lost amongst European Jews, who were not exposed to locust swarms. But Jews from North Africa maintained a tradition regarding kosher locusts.

The expert on identifying kosher species today is my colleague Dr. Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh b'Mesoret Yisrael. He has identified the species for which there is the most widespread tradition amongst North African Jews as Schistocercia gregaria, the Egyptian desert locust. This is by far the most common species of locust, and it is the species currently swarming in Egypt.

According to many authorities in Jewish law, even Ashkenazi Jews can adopt the North African tradition. This is because it is different from a situation such as that which existed with the stork, where certain communities had a tradition that it was a kosher bird, while others had a tradition that it was a non-kosher bird. With locusts, there is no tradition in Ashkenaz against these types of locusts being kosher; Ashkenazim simply lack a tradition either way. Therefore, according to many authorities, such as the late Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, it is possible to rely upon the North African tradition regarding kosher varieties.

I have eaten locusts on several occasions. They do not require a special form of slaughter, and one usually kills them by dropping them into boiling water. They can be cooked in a variety of ways - lacking any particular culinary skills, I usually just fry them with oil and some spices. (My wife, however, insists that I do not use her kitchen utensils for the task; she is locust-intolerant.) It's not the taste that is distinctive, so much as the tactile experience of eating a bug - crunchy on the outside with a chewy center!

The rationale for certain locusts being kosher may be a practical matter - when your crops are wiped out by locusts, at least you're not left with nothing to eat! But in modern Western society, eating bugs simply grosses out most people. Many probably see the Torah's laws of kosher locusts as a relic from a primitive, barbaric era. Yet an article in the New Yorker magazine (August 2011) noted that in a world with a burgeoning population of billions, insects provide a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly source of protein, amongst other benefits: 
"From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small ‘foodprint’; being cold-blooded, they are about four time as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef–friendly grasshoppers have three times as much – and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure, and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions." 
Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead for adopting a more environmentally and animal-friendly approach? In fact, eating locusts doesn't even make you fleishig, so you could have a locust cheeseburger. I say, let's get back to our Biblical roots and tuck in. Bon app├ętit!