At J'lem Zoo, Kids Ask: 'Can He Eat Me in One Bite?'

Both parking lots at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo were filled, and in addition to those who came by car there were visitors who came in vans, their hoods emblazoned with slogans such as "May G-d bless you and protect you." There were also taxis from a Jerusalem cab company named "Gideon Torah Observers." Yes, a majority of visitors to the zoo at Malha belong to large ultra-Orthodox families.

"Nu, gentlemen, let's go," one bearded man urged his family, who got out of a large van blinking at the sunlight as though emerging from a mechanized Noah's Ark after the 40-day deluge. "Rivki, Rivki, c'mon Sarah'le," called the bearded one's wife. Countless baby carriages were opened and babies placed inside them, their faces protected from the sun by a cloth diaper.

The explanation we were given for this collective waste of time was that this is the period known as Bein Hazmanim, a relatively joyful bit of time between the days of mourning for the Temple's destruction and the repentence days of the Jewish month of Elul. During this period the devout are allowed, among other things, to fool around with animals.

The most commonly heard language along the zoo's paths was Yiddish. Thus we learned, according to the explanations one curious father gave his son on the shore of the swan pool, that the long-necked swan pedaling along placidly is in Yiddish katchke'le. And that the turtle wading in what little water there was is a zhabeh.

The boy calls to his father to see "noch a zhabeh" (another turtle) and the father enthusiastically points to the distance and announces: "drei katchkes dort," which translates into the sacred tongue as "Three swans there". Never mind that katchkes are not swans, and that a zhabeh is a frog, not a turtle. You can't expect someone who spends his life immersed in Talmudic studies to be an expert in zoology.

In front of the cages, the fathers frequently seemed more fascinated than their children. Some leaned on the railings, sunk in deep meditation. At the sight of a monkey swinging from a branch, did it occur to them that the animals locked in their cages are 10 times freer than they, who are squeezed tight by their black caftans and the burden of a large family? See the papa bear who has decided to take a dip in the water basin in his cage. He doesn't have to say any prayer. Kaboom, splash, and he's in.

Suddenly the black-and-white phalanx of Yiddish-speakers is overtaken by a group of brown-skinned children sporting orange tank tops. The kids are Ethiopian immigrants from an absorption center in Be'er Sheva. Almost all have been in Israel no more than 18 months (according to their guide), but they speak a totally-native Hebrew. "Can he devour me in one bite?" one black-eyed boy fearfully asks the guide in front of the lion cage.

It was a veritable human jungle at the Biblical zoo. Here was a plus-size American woman in a pink suit licking a diet popsicle and declaring aloud, "This is delicious." And in front of the elephant cage, a family of French Jews points to the elephantine turds floating on the water. The French word is the same in Hebrew, only the emphasis is on a different syllable.

And who is not familiar with the species of mobile-phone-talking beast that loudly reports to whomever it may concern that "we just saw giraffes."