In a Jewish Bestiary, lions, leviathans and bears — oh my!
Did you know frogs are scholars of Torah, the Leviathan was God’s favorite pet and gazelles were the carrier pigeons of ancient Judea?
From the time Adam named the animals, the Jewish imagination has been preoccupied with creatures of the sea and creeping things of the land, referring to them in proverbs and deploying them as metaphors for enemy hordes and Israel itself. But the tradition of the bestiary is overwhelmingly a Christian one — at least it was until Mark Podwal tried his hand at a book of beasts.
First published in 1984, and now reissued in a full-color edition, Podwal’s “A Jewish Bestiary” aims to create illustrations according to a “strict Jewish context.” That means disposing of some precedent — not only the obvious antisemitism of some Christian bestiaries, where Jews are likened to owls hidden in darkness, but even popular imagery borrowed from Gentile neighbors. The results are unfailingly intriguing.
The book, which contains 35 creatures from the wise, industrious ant to the Ziz, the impossibly large bird of legend, draws from a wide variety of sources both biblical and Talmudic in describing the qualities of these animals. Podwal teaches how the unicorn lent its hide to the tabernacle, how the gnat gnawed away at Titus’ brain and how the serpent was once bipedal — prior to that whole Tree of Knowledge imbroglio.
The pleasure of Podwal’s compendium lies as much, if not moreso, in the text as in the artwork. Taken together, they hint at an ecosystem where the phoenix’s screech wakes the cock, the Leviathan nearly devours the fish that swallows Jonah and where a sagely frog, seen by the prophet Yarhina’ah, transports a scorpion to a man marked for death. Those curious about a forthcoming Messianic feast may be interested to learn that the Ziz, Behemoth and Leviathan are all on the bill of fare. (The Ziz was of particular interest to me; described as the “ultimate delicacy,” Moses will cut it a la the Grinch and the roast beast and, like the Shmoos of “Li’l Abner,” the bird will taste a bit like everything.)
So wonderful is the bestiary’s lore that the images can be underwhelming. It’s a bit of a letdown to read of the Leviathan “which usually eats a whale daily” or the Behemoth, that “had to be prevented from multiplying” lest it devour the whole world, and see Podwal painting them as familiar — if supersized — animals. Given the fact that so much of a conventional bestiary’s joy lies in its mistakes and misconceptions — the second- or third-hand rendering of a creature the artist likely never saw — it’s a shame that Podwal did not indulge that same fantastical ignorance. The Behemoth may have been a hippo, but do we have to draw it that way? And why can’t we see the snake with legs?
That’s not to say that Podwal, now 76, renowned for his art in The New York Times and no stranger to Jewish subjects, doesn’t deliver inventive illustrations that gesture at the Jewish conception of familiar creatures.
The pious stork wears tefillin. The crab is dappled with Hebrew letters. A frog clutches a yad, or Torah pointer. Perhaps my favorite drawing, cunningly rendering a complex idea, is the picture of the swine.
Podwal notes how rabbinic writings “equate the ingestion of pork with the submission to foreign domination” and how Rome, whose legion based in Jerusalem had a boar as their standard, became a derisive symbol for the occupying Empire among Jews. That’s a lot of baggage for one animal. The pig’s image is further complicated, and weaponized, by Judensau, medieval statues placed outside of European churches, in which kippah-wearing Jews were depicted suckling at the teat of a sow.
Podwal resolves this complicated context in a single image: a statue of Romulus and Remus nursing from the she wolf, casting the shadow of a pig.
That one entry for one of the book’s most familiar animals has perhaps the least Jewish iconography. But in repurposing symbols of non- and anti-Jewish dominance, the page asserts a Jewish read of history and the animal kingdom — exactly what a Jewish bestiary should do.