October 17, 2018

To animal kingdom come

“I miss Billy Bob,” Los Angeles native Tali Samson Slifkin said as she looked at a glass cage housing a bright-green iguana with a wrinkled, gleaming chin. “He’s really, really old.”

The YULA high school alumnus recalled how Billy Bob used to perch on the windowsill of the home in Beit Shemesh, Israel, she built with her husband, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, also known as the “Zoo Rabbi,” one of the foremost experts on biblical zoology. 

But, as Tali’s huge smile indicates, she doesn’t miss Billy Bob that much. The Feb. 23 opening of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh was a special family affair, in part because, for the first time, the Slifkins’ home is now for humans only. 

“Our house doubled in size. It was incredible,” Tali said as she looked around at the live birds, reptiles and rodents, as well as taxidermied wildlife that fill some 360 square yards. Her father, the Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Lee Samson, is one of the museum’s major benefactors, along with Shlomo and Tamar Rechnitz of Hancock Park and Steven Schloss of Beverly Hills.

Billy Bob is part of the reptile section, which includes geckos, chameleons, rats and hamsters — all examples of animals the Bible may be referring to in Leviticus when it describes the eight sheratzim that transmit impurity when they’re dead. 

This is the first museum of its kind in Israel, the culmination of Natan’s fascination with biblical animals since childhood. His collection started when he married Tali 14 years ago — the petting zoo in their backyard became a popular Shabbat outing for families in their largely Anglo neighborhood.

“We had hyraxes in our garden,” Tali recalled. The taxidermied wolf and hyena on display were the “stuffed animals” in their children’s bedroom. For Natan, the museum’s rented space in what used to be a furniture warehouse in an industrial area is still not enough. He’s now looking to build a permanent campus. 

The shofars that used to decorate the Slifkin living room now get their own wall in the museum, allowing the occasion for Natan and his team of guides to discuss with visitors what makes a shofar kosher — or not, handing the horns out to visitors to feel and touch. Years of conducting tours at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, which is only tangentially biblical, as well as at the Los Angeles zoo during annual family trips to Southern California have made him realize that zoo tours typically are too remote, unfocused and unpredictable.

“In the zoo, a lion could be sleeping, and you may not be able to see it,” Natan said in an interview. “Everything at the museum is related to Tanakh.” Here, at the guide’s discretion, even children get to hold the lizards, hamsters, fluffy bunnies — and pythons. The taxidermied lion, Simba, serves as the tour’s centerpiece, introduced with the biblical story of Samson’s encounter with lions just a few miles from where the museum now stands.

“One of the goals of the museum is to put people back in touch with biblical Israel,” said the bespectacled rabbi in his British accent, as he defrosted a frozen mouse in a cup for lizard food. His yeshivish appearance belies his Crocodile Dundee streak. The museum’s video monitor flashes pictures of him holding wild cats and riding elephants — although elephants are not native to Israel and hence only an elephant tusk, mentioned as an import by King Solomon — is on display. 

“Every culture has its animals,” he said. “For the Native American, it was the buffalo, for the Australians, it was the kangaroo. For Israel, it was the lion, bear, leopard and crocodile.”

Most of the mammals native to the land no longer can be found in the Israeli wild, with a few exceptions: wolves, hyenas, gazelles and exactly four leopards. The Galilee’s last bear was seen in 1917. Roman hunting and deforestation, Natan said, are largely to blame.

“You look at Tanakh and you see many animal references. That’s what they drew upon when they wanted to convey ideas.” During a tour, he points out instances when exegeses would misidentify animals of the Torah based on their familiarity with European wildlife. For example, the shual (jackal) became a fox, and the zvi (gazelle) became a deer.

Natan hopes his museum also will serve as a form of “animal therapy” to foster Jewish unity. His town of Beit Shemesh has made headlines more for religious conflicts, such as when former Los Angeles resident Hadassa Margolese led a protest against ultra-Orthodox harassment of the less observant residents. Natan’s books reconciling modern science with Judaism have been banned in ultra-Orthodox circles. At the museum, he won’t display nonkosher wild boars that would deter ultra-Orthodox Jews from coming.

But there is one person whom the Slifkins will particularly miss passing through the museum’s doors. In the summer of 2013, Tali’s mother and Los Angeles community philanthropist, Anne Samson, died in a tragic car accident in L.A. Natan’s forthcoming series, “The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom,” will be named the “Samson Edition” in her memory. 

“She used to shlep skulls in her suitcase,” Tali said, pointing to a display of animal skulls on hand to demonstrate the cud-chewing mechanism of kosher animals. “She would have been very proud of him.”


 

Rabbi Natan Slifkin will launch his book tour at Beth Jacob Congregation the week of March 30. For more information: www.Biblicalnaturalhistory.org