The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Jewish Observer

A Jewish Bestiary: A Book of Fabulous Creatures Drawn from Hebraic Legend and Lore, by Mark Podwal. Penn State University Press, 2021. 

In 1992, just before moving down to Murfreesboro to begin my tenure at MTSU, I happen to peruse a used bookstore and came upon Mark Podwal’s A Jewish Bestiary. I bought it to give my stepfather, along with the tallis I’d already purchased, for his conversion to Judaism. The prayer shawl was shipped from Israel, rather costly and beautiful. The 1984 Podwal book, by contrast, was small, humble, and slightly yellowed, but also beautiful. Larry accepted both gifts with gratitude, and when he died in 2017 (may his memory be a blessing), I found he’d kept both the shawl (for he’d become a lay rabbi in a small Pennsylvania town) as well as the small hardback volume. I donated the tallis to the synagogue, but I took the book home. 

I had nearly forgotten this little tidbit of a book until recently, while reorganizing a bookshelf at home. I realized as I looked it over that I had never fully read it. I did, then and there, and my thoughts about it shifted considerably, from a cute keepsake to a surprisingly informative Jewish lore zoology. Moreover, I took in the heady blurbs on the back cover for the first time, by Cynthia Ozick and Elie Wiesel. Wiesel declares, “There are few books today that I would recommend with as much enthusiasm.” Ozick, meanwhile, waxes poetic, lauding the book’s combination of “incandescent wit [and] joyous originality” and praising author/artist Mark Podwal heartily: “His is the genius of metaphor through line.” 

This encouraged me to pause my exploration to look up Podwal. Though he may be best known for his early drawings on The New York Times Op-Ed page, he has published many books, won numerous awards, and has had his art collected in nearly seventy institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yad Vashem to Jewish museums in Prague, Berlin, Vienna, and Stockholm. 

With this new information gathered, I was ready to read. I soon found the book worthwhile for its Preface alone. From the Hebrew Bible and Talmudic and Midrashic literature, Jews have learned a variety of moral lessons featuring animals, both real and imaginary. There is the serpent from the Garden of Eden, Balaam’s talking ass, the Golden Calf, the lion of Judah, the Leviathan, Jonah’s great fish, and even the ziz. To help contextualize the collection, Podwal goes on to explore the history of Jewish animal representation, from the earliest printed Jewish book (1491’s Meshal Ha-Kadmoni, “The Ancient Parable”) through medieval compendiums of animal tales and Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Most engaging to me is the discussion of similarities between Christian and Jewish bestiaries, which often included similar moral and religious instruction. 

Each animal Podwal explores – historical, fantastical, or a combination of the two – receives several paragraphs of explication, including its place in Judaic texts. We meet, for example, the ant, “among the tiniest on earth, yet […] the wisest of the wise,” as described in the Book of Proverbs, then the ram sacrificed by Abraham in Isaac’s place, and also the largest land animal and only one of its kind, the Behemoth, from the Book of Job. We next learn that the Ostrich, called Hasidah in Hebrew (from hasid, or pious one), was named for its merciful compassion, according to the Talmud. We learn that its compassion is limited to its own kind, however, rendering it unclean.    

Accompanying each discussion is a line drawing of the beast as imagined by Podwal, combining recognizable animal traits and symbolic details and contexts, such as the Ostrich shrouded in a tallis, the ocean-dewlling Leviathan as an enormous tail beside a tiny boat, and the treacherous fox with an entire challah in its mouth.  

Perhaps the most creative entry is reserved for the final pages, featuring the mythical ziz, an enormous bird named only in the Book of Psalms. This protector of humanity against storms has wings so broad that, when unfurled, they turn day into night. Its name, we learn, comes from the Hebrew for “this and that” or zeh va-zeh in Hebrew. Why? Because its flesh has a taste difficult to describe: a bit like this, a bit like that. Ah, leave it to us Jews to think first of food. The ziz – though seen only once, reports the Talmud – is kosher. 

I definitely recommend spending some time with this delightful and insightful volume. And that is easier than I first thought, for a new 2021 edition is in print. This “tasty” bestiary is perfect for Hannukah gift giving! 

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