All photos by Sara Maria Salamone
The first thing I noticed when I walked into Torah Animal World was the giant moose head on the front of the building. This is just one of the many strange and incongruous things I saw at this "spiritual taxidermy center" in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn.
This zombified version of Noah's Ark was built by Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch. It's housed inside his massive brownstone apartment, a three-building-wide, 11-floor-high gonzo natural-history museum holding more than 350 stuffed fish, mammals, birds, and reptiles.
Torah Animal World is probably the only Hassid-run taxidermy museum in America, a menagerie of stuffed animals from the Bible, like rams and goats.
Strangely, there are also many animals that are definitely not in the Bible, like the mother kangaroo with joey that sits in the front bay window of the building.
As Deutsch explained to me, “The kangaroo is an example of an animal that's not mentioned in the Torah, but it's fascinating for kids to see the kangaroo with her baby in the pouch… so we'll expand it if it has an educational value.”
The site, initially created in 2003 to house rare religious artifacts, was transformed in 2008 into the Brooklyn outpost of Torah Animal World, an educational taxidermy trifecta that also includes branches in the Catskills and Lakewood, NJ.
Meant to bring the stories of the Torah to life through an immersive real-life diorama, the museum presents a highly idiosyncratic vision of the natural world. Otters hang out with giraffes, foxes mingle with VCRs, and you’ll have a chance to touch a 3,500-year-old deerskin Torah from Aleppo, Syria.
The artifact center, also known as the Living Torah Museum, holds some of the “rarest treasures in history,” some older than similar counterparts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There's an ancient makeup container supposedly used by a queen of Ancient Egypt, sixth-century throwing daggers, 2,300-year-old Greek dreidels, the “best-preserved gladiator trident in the world,” and ancient ostrich eggs you’re encouraged to punch to test their durability.
Rabbi Deutsch believes that touching religious and cultural artifacts is the best way to learn about ancient history. As he frequently stated on his "non-Yiddish speaking tour," “I believe if you touch history, history touches you.”
None of the actual killing and stuffing of animals is done on premise. Most of the goods on display at Torah Animal World come from private donors, scattered across the globe. When an owner of a large taxidermy collection dies, his or her children, usually unable to find a use for, say, a statue of an American black bear attacking a deer, will often sell it to larger collectors or institutions.
For pieces like the giant African elephant head on display in the climate-controlled basement, which Rabbi Deutsch calls a "5-D panoramic theater," costs can sometimes reach over $40,000.
While the Rabbi doesn’t personally condone killing for sport, he’s generally OK with the outcome. “We don't believe in killing animals, but I think we should use the skins of the animals for educational purposes. Every kid who goes to school, every adult who learns references of the animals [in the Bible], gets to see what they're really like, how wild some of them really are. For example, an elephant is really hairy. You can't [learn] that at the Bronx Zoo.”
This may or may not be true, but I've never felt history truly come alive until I spent an afternoon in a basement filled with Hasidic men petting a giant elephant head.
Torah Animal World attracts 35,000 visitors a year. Though they encourage visitors of all religions, most of the visitors are large traveling Amish and Christian bible groups. According to Rabbi Deutsch, National Geographic has a program in the works.
Though the museum attracts an unexpectedly steady stream of guests, it's still in danger of closing. Rabbi Deutsch was recently forced to put the building on the market, and unless he can raise the necessary $1,000,000 to keep it open, he may have to relocate much of his fantastically bonkers collection to the museum's other branches.
In short, if you live in New York City and have a MetroCard and some free time, I strongly recommend spending a day in this bizarro alternate universe before it closes and they throw all these animals in the dumpster.
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