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!