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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

TOUCH: Brooklyn's hands-on biblical taxidermy museum

“Oh my god!” exclaims a visitor in a yarmulke, stepping into the first room of what is arguably the world’s largest hands-on biblical taxidermy museum. Strolling through the sleepy, largely Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, one might be surprised to stumble across Torah Animal World, a water-stained row house emblazoned with banners and even a toll-free number (the museum is open by appointment only).


Arrayed before today’s visitor is a menagerie of taxidermied specimens of every animal mentioned in the Old Testament (leviathans, behemoths, and Nephilim notwithstanding), all free for the petting. Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, the museum’s creator and curator, shuffles across the room toward a bisected giraffe erected in the corner (the ceiling wasn’t tall enough), kicking aside a pile of bones and a baby lamb. And that’s all OK; the specimens here get a lot of wear and tear because Rabbi Deutsch firmly believes that touching brings learning to life.


As the rabbi and his guest meander through the room, yanking horns and stroking pelts, a TV plays an introductory video. In a bizarre mashup of Hebrew, Brooklynese, and the BBC, the video features Rabbi Deutsch explaining which horns are suitable for ceremonial purposes and what makes an animal kosher (FYI: kosher animals chew cud and have split hooves), intercut with images of the creatures in the wild, set to a pulsing electric guitar soundtrack, followed by spliced-in footage from British nature documentaries of dueling ibexes and buffaloes fending off lions. As the video plays, Rabbi Deutsch picks up a long, twisted horn from the floor and raises it to his lips, his pate beading with sweat as the sound bellows through the room.


Besides its unique niche in the New York City museum world (the Village Voice voted it “Best Museum” in 2015), what sets Torah Animal World apart from the city’s other displays of creatures alive and dead is evidenced by two little boys cuddling up to a lioness, cradling her cubs in their arms. At the American Museum of Natural History, the lion is behind glass; at the Bronx Zoo, it’s behind an electric fence. Here, you can put your hand in its mouth.


“If you touch history, history touches you,” Rabbi Deutsch is fond of saying. Portly and balding, with a frizzy beard and wire spectacles, Rabbi Deutch is nothing short of passionate about his multisensory approach to education, and he obviously delights in children’s curiosity and fearlessness. Growing up with dyslexia, he realized the power of hands-on learning, and eventually decided to open what he initially called a “biblical zoo,” purchasing his first specimens from hunters about a quarter century ago. (No animals are killed on behalf of the museum.) He continues to expand the museum through donations and by selling old specimens to fund new ones. In addition to the complete collection of biblical animals, the museum has animals that are not mentioned in the bible but that are just cool to see up close. Rabbi Deutsch opened Torah Animal World in Brooklyn in 2008; there is an outpost in upstate New York as well. The museum serves tens of thousands of visitors each year, many of them school groups.



Experiencing these animals up close helps visitors understand their natures, which can provide a fresh perspective and deeper reading of the bible. You can stroke the soft fur on the lioness’s underbelly, cuddle with the baby sheep, fondle the ridges of an ibex horn, touch an elephant bird egg (the biggest egg in the world), stare down goats (who are arranged in a pseudo barn, complete with hay), touch the tips of the wolf’s teeth, wrap your arms around the neck of a bisected giraffe or wrap a king cobra around your own neck, and get up close and personal to a face-off between a deer and a leopard, who has been captured mid-swipe as he lunges for the deer’s groin.


Because of the museum’s hands-on mission, some of the animals are bedraggled, hastily mended, and repurposed. Ears and paws have been reattached with a glue gun; horns serve as impromptu light bulb holders; electrical cords are draped over antlers. Rabbi Deutsch is indifferent to the mess: what’s important is accessibility.


It doesn’t matter if you trip over a stray hoof or want to try blowing into a shofar. Here, the lion really can lie down with the lamb—and you can lie down with them both. Rabbi Deutch wants you to know which fur is soft and which is coarse, which teeth are sharp and which are dull, which ears are stiff and which are floppy, which manes are flowing and which are stiff.


On the second floor of the same townhouse is Rabbi Deutsch’s other project, the Living Torah Museum, which houses biblical artifacts, many of them thousands of years old, in wall niches. Astoundingly, the same “touch-me” philosophy prevails. Here, Rabbi Deutsch will personally cuff you with a Roman slave collar, plop a gladiator helmet or Cleopatra-era gold crown on your head, and let you pound gold with a two-thousand-year-old hammer.


But despite the appeal of these relics, I found the life force of this phantasmagoria in the animals. This is undoubtedly the only place in New York City where visitors young and old, with or without yarmulkes, can plop down on the floor next to an amputated giraffe foot and cradle a baby lamb while a wolf tail brushes them on the ear, and behind a pile of bones, a gazelle—and a zealous rabbi with a sense of childlike wonder—looks on. After all, a taxidermied elephant rhino is due to arrive in Borough Park in three weeks, and you never know what other beasts might line up to board this ark.


Torah Animal World is open by appointment only. It is located at 1601 41st Street in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Call 877-752-6286 and leave a message to arrange a visit.