It’s a day like any other in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Yiddish-painted school buses go to-and-fro, and women tighten the tichels around their heads; every man is silhouetted by a pair of perfectly curled sideburns, and the local grocer has a two-for-one deal on blintzes. Tel-Aviv notwithstanding, the Big Apple is home to our planet’s largest Hasidic Jewish population. Yet, for being so quintessentially New York, Borough Park remains somewhat impenetrable to those outside its twenty-something block radius. “They just keep to themselves,” a woman tells us at a nearby bodega, “Listen, I been here for years. I see ’em every day, walking around all silent. How can you know a thing about ’em?”
Well, just ask Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, who’s the community’s magical little anomaly: a mensch who’s not only been inviting secular folks into his townhouse for over a decade, but letting them explore his personal taxidermy zoo, crowned “Torah Animal World.” As in, if it was on Noah’s Ark, it is now in Rabbi Shaul’s attic…
“We don’t normally do this, but because you’re already there we’ll let you in,” explains a Hasidic operator when we dial the Torah Animal World landline, as noted on the plaque outside (hint: book your rendez-vous in advance). The rabbi isn’t home and we came sans appointment– but a few moments later, the doors swing open. “You want animals?” says the groundskeeper, a woman named Linda who’s backdropped by an extensive, sparkly sacred library, “I’ll take you to animals.”
We walk up a narrow staircase, and into a room lined with dozens upon dozens of homemade DVDs with names like, Animals of the Talmud Vol. 10, or, Non-Kosher Birds of the Torah. Finally, Linda leads us into the main room, whose floor is so haphazardly strewn with pelts, hooves, and horns, it looks like the whole of Sahara desert curled up and died there.
The walls jump out at you with various wonky animal faces– be it a piranha with googly eyes, or a shelf of dusty tiger cubs. If you’re into taxidermy, it’s a goldmine. If you’re not, well, now you’ve got no choice not to be.
Despite the seemingly random collection, every animal in here can be accounted for by the rabbi. You can make like Moses and hang with some sheep, or come face-to-face with the presence of a bear (described in the book of Kings, and Samuel). Plus the novelty of picking up a zebra leg like a telephone.
Linda pops in one of the rabbi’s movies, and swiftly leaves. The next 40-minutes is essentially a lighting-speed lesson, led by the rabbi, in what is and isn’t kosher. An antelope? kosher! Sharks? Not kosher. Salmon? kosher! Why? That’s where things get tricky. If you don’t speak Yiddish, good luck decrypting something like, “[People believe] the Nesher to be the eagle! But according to the Tosfos and many miforshim this is not so! Come see what is identified as the real Nesher!” But it doesn’t matter. You’ll still be wrapping your head around the fact that you’re in a Hasidic attic next to a $35,000 giraffe.
“We didn’t kill any animals,” the rabbi joked to Union Mag in 2015, specifically to address the elephant in the room, as it were, “these animals either all come from estate sales [or] old collections. Our goal is that children who are learning, and even adults, can come here and experience what animals [mentioned in the Torah] are really like. It gives a whole new dimension to learning and that’s our goal.”
To be honest, the majority of the animals have seen better days. Many are missing patches of fur, or a paw. Regardless, says the rabbi, “and [unlike] even the American Museum of Natural History, [we] allow you to come up and touch an animal.” As in, you can stick your head in the mouth of a hippo, hug that giraffe, or casually pick up a lion cub.
“I believe that if you touch history, history touches you,” the Rabbi told Huffpost in 2014, “I could spend 12 hours with you on biblical and Talmudic references to animals.” But alas, we only have time for that 40-minute DVD, and then it’s time to skedaddle back into the outside world.
If you’re like us, you’ll leave the museum curious to know more about the Jewish community that’s been in Borough Park since 1904, and for that, we suggest making a movie night out of 2017’s Menashe. The film’s lead is a Hasidic New York grocer (also named Menashe) who had never acted in his life, and it serves up an authentic slice of the community through the touching story of his character, a widower, and his son (i.e. I’m not crying, you’re crying). And spoiler alert: there’s mention of Torah animals.
Visit Torah Animal World Sun-Thur from 9am-9pm by appointment only (call 877-752-6285), and check out its sister museum, the “Living Torah Museum, which contains treasures and artefacts from thousands of years ago.” More information on the official website.