A feast of biblical proportions

Beit Shemesh banquet treats diners to ancient kosher delicacies – locusts, quail and manna from heaven.

DINERS PHOTOGRAPH the whole spit-roast deer served at the banquet yesterday (photo credit: MORDECHAI GORDON)
DINERS PHOTOGRAPH the whole spit-roast deer served at the banquet yesterday
(photo credit: MORDECHAI GORDON)
Locusts, it turns out, are gritty, crunchy, and not palatable at all, even when covered in a rich dark chocolate.
Despite lingering bits of locust anatomy in your correspondent’s teeth, a feast of flora and fauna at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh last week sumptuously delved into the diversity and variety of cuisine offered in the ancient Levant.
Foods that ancestors of the Jewish people may well have eaten were presented both in an earthy and robust manner befitting the times of our forefathers, and also updated into flavorful morsels of modern cuisine.
To describe the feast as manna from heaven might seem to be going a step too far, until the final dessert dish that is, when manna from heaven, reportedly, was put in front of the diners. This substance does indeed look like coriander seed, as described in the Bible, and tastes like honey, as per the biblical account.
The idea for the biblical banquet came from Rabbi Dr.
Natan Slifkin, the museum’s founder, who decided to stage the event as a way of drawing attention to the institution and its principle of teaching about Judaism’s interaction with the natural world in a dynamic and engaging way.
The dinner began with an array of appetizers, including the flat bread matza Lot reputedly served to his angelic guests in Sodom, accompanied by a mellow dip of hyssop, or ezov in Hebrew, branches of which were used by the Israelites to mark their lintels and door posts with the blood of the paschal lamb performed on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt.
A soup of red lentils such as may have been prepared by Jacob for his brother Esau to gulp down his gullet was warming and wholesome, while a consommé of dove and pigeon was lighter, yet with a satisfying richness at the end.
Whole roasted quails, which the Israelites gorged on in the desert after becoming fed up with the routine of divine manna from heaven, were rather bony and tasted somewhat inevitably like chicken.
Thankfully, though, they did not result in the fatal plague suffered by the Israelites after their desert poultry dinner.
The denouement of this biblical repast was surely fit for a king, such as King Solomon, who was known to have dined on venison at the royal table, as testified by the Book of Kings.
Gracing the biblical feast banquet was a whole spit-roast deer, from which were carved rich and gamey slices of venison for the diners, accompanied by rather dainty almond macarons topped with a velvety venison liver pate.
To complement the game was a hearty lamb stew, along with carved joints of roast goat, which brought a vibrant, freshness to the carnivorous romp, tasting as if it had only just sprung off a clean mountain ledge and onto the waiting plate.
And to cleanse and sweeten the palate after this profusion of meaty delights came a cornucopia of delectable desserts, including a light and fluffy semolina cake out of the Song of Songs, as well as fruits, nuts and pomegranate wine.
The aforementioned pestilential confection, which descended on Egypt as one of the 10 plagues in their more familiar non-chocolate covered form, did less to sweeten the palate, leaving various elements of exoskeleton clinging to the tongue and teeth.
The Torah permits specific species of locusts to be eaten, although deems all other insects non-kosher, and although not generally eaten by Ashkenazi Jews, North African and Yemenite communities have traditions identifying the biblically approved species.
And finally the manna, which despite its billing was declared to be possibly non-kosher. Slifkin explained that theories as to the possible natural basis of the miracle of the heavenly food consumed by the Israelites in the Sinai desert point to a product known as honeydew, or man in Arabic and taranjabin in Persian.
The reason for its currently unknown kosher status is that it is the product of a sap-eating insect which secretes honeydew, and since it is far from certain that this was in fact the same food mentioned in the Book of Exodus, its provenance from non-kosher insects might render the honeydew itself non-kosher.
It has been compared with honey, but it is possible that the production process of honeydew differs in a way that would differentiate it from bee’s honey, which is kosher even though bees themselves are not.
The diverse range of ingredients at the feast, and the sourcing of rare kosher meats such as quail, goat and venison in particular, were the product of months of preparation.
The quails were hatched and raised by the museum, while the goat and venison were specially acquired for the event, since they are generally unavailable on the kosher market, and together with the quail, were slaughtered privately.
Slifkin told The Jerusalem Post that the inspiration behind the museum and the feast was a desire to show that Judaism relates to all aspects of the world, including the natural world around us.
“Judaism has had a tense relationship with the natural sciences since the Enlightenment, and people have wanted to put up barriers between Judaism and science,” said Slifkin.
“We have an exhibit of the wonders of creation, where the main idea is to giving insight into the references made by the Torah to animals and the natural world, and the museum is designed to enhance our understanding of it,” he continued.
Another goal of the Biblical Museum of Natural History is to provide the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community with an educational institution that exposes them to a world they are frequently unaware of.
Slifkin illustrated this phenomenon by relating how a haredi boy looked in wonder at the museum’s stuffed lion and asked what it was.
This is, however, an atypical occurrence, said the rabbi, and may have been due to the fact that the boy in question was raised in the deepest, darkest heart of the Brooklyn urban jungle.
In order to preserve the attraction of the museum to the haredi community, the subjects of evolution and paleontology are not mentioned, since the concepts of evolution and the age of the Earth are seen by haredi rabbinic authorities as not in keeping with the biblical account of nature and creation.
Slifkin, who is a supporter of evolutionary theory, is understandably reticent to talk about the issue, and noted during his address at the feast that a less confrontational path is sometimes the more appropriate choice.
This knowledge comes from hard-earned experience, as some of Slifkin’s books were banned by haredi rabbis several years ago as being heretical for their stance on the issues of science and the positions adopted by the Talmudic sages on scientific matters.
Nevertheless, discussion of evolution and dinosaurs is strictly off-limits at the museum, while tours are even available in Yiddish to cater for the Yiddish-speaking haredi communities that, along with other haredi guests, have made up a sizable portion of the institution’s 20,000 visitors thus far.
“The idea is that it the museum is a focused, educational and fun experience, where the guides explain the significance of the animals mentioned in the Torah and identify them, point out which animals live in Israel and why they’re mentioned in the Bible at all, as well as providing the fun that’s involved in handling a 10-foot python,” Slifkin said.