Text Context for October: Animals
Friday, October 2, 2009

Text ContextOne day in the fall of 1939, llamas, camels, ostriches, antelopes and foxes scrambled down the alleyways and cobblestone streets of Warsaw’s Old Town. These animals were fleeing, after Nazi bombs devastated the Warsaw Zoo.

As Diane Ackerman tells the story in her remarkable book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski put the broken cages and burnt-out buildings to use again, risking their own lives, as they hid more than 300 Jews in the animal habitats and in their villa, along with animals.

Some referred to their effort as Noah’s Ark. For Antonina, human beings and animals all deserved respect, love and compassion. Our contributors this month also look at animals sympathetically, as part of God’s creation; they search out animals in unusual places and place them in a Jewish context.

Stuart Schoffman explores Jews’ relationships to dogs, and at the same time chronicles his own shift from fear in Brooklyn to fondness of his canine companion in Jerusalem.

Marc Michael Epstein puzzles over the meaning of animal imagery in illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, while Meylekh Viswanath looks at traditional views of caring for animals, and questions the notion of eating animals.

From her home in Minnesota where she wakes up to the sound of geese, Beth Kissileff describes how biblical animals inspire new understanding.

We introduce a new graphic feature this month, with Isaac Peterson’s illustrated journal of visiting Animal World in Boro Park. In surveying related scholarly literature, Jerome A. Chanes pulls Bugs Bunny into the conversation. The graceful horse on our cover is the work of Charles Carmel, a woodcarver born in Russia, who immigrated to New York in 1883. In Eastern Europe, craftsmen like Carmel would make intricately-carved wooden arks for synagogues, and other ornamental, symbolic objects, like lions holding the Decalogue.

In the United States, Carmel and others found work making decorative wooden animals for carousels. Their work was part of a book and recent exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel.” My own grandfather was a wood craftsman in Poland, and when he came to New York, he made showcases, not carousel horses. However, he also worked on the wooden carvings on arks in several Lower East Side shuls. The striking carousel lion on page 8, by Marcus Charles Illions, will be on exhibit beginning on October 20th at the Folk Art Museum’s Lincoln Square Branch, 2 Lincoln Square (Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th streets). The horse paintings on this page are the work of Melinda Camber Porter, a talented and prolific painter, poet, novelist, journalist and playwright who passed away one year ago, much too soon. Like Antonina the zo_okeeper’s wife, she loved people and animals, and understood their healing power. May her memory be a blessing.

Incidentally, we just learned of the PETS (Pets and Elder Team Support) Project, a program of the Jewish Association for the Aged, a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation of New York. The program pairs volunteers with older adults who need help caring for a pet. Studies have shown that older adults who have pets as companions have lower blood pressure and struggle less with depression. Keep in touch with us at editor.textcontext@gmail.com