Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Arachnophilia

In the previous post about my mysterious spider bite, I said that I would relate something that would be even weirder than my being involved in a weird arachnid phenomenon. And here it is, in full detail. I swear that everything that I write here is absolutely true, as crazy as it may seem.

First, the background. Over thirty years ago, as a teenager, I was very much taken by a movie called Arachnophobia. This ingeniously produced comedy-horror was about a newly discovered species of Venezuelan tarantula that accidentally hitches a ride in a coffin to a small town in America, where it hybridizes with a local spider to produce a litter of deadly offspring. The doctor around whom the story is centered struggles to explain the mysterious deaths, for which people are blaming him, until he finally realizes the arachnid explanation and has to tackle the spiders - which is particularly stressful for him, given that he suffers from arachnophobia.

Although rated PG, the suspense and shocks in that film were extremely intense; if you didn't suffer from arachnophobia going into it, you certainly suffered from it coming out. But in my case, it was simultaneously accompanied by a developing arachnophilia (love of spiders). I was fascinated by exotic creatures, and so I was determined to overcome my fears. I went out and bought a tarantula, which I named Big Bob and kept carefully hidden from my mother in my closet. And I was still obsessed with the movie, and I kept daydreaming: what would happen if an unknown species of dangerous spider were to materialize in my neighborhood? What if I was like the doctor in the movie, aware that there was a mysterious arachnid phenomenon and nobody believed me? I spent literally years dreaming about this.

A few years later, I was studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem. One day, we happened to find a tarantula in the street! I promptly captured it and housed it in a cage in my apartment. The other students in the yeshivah were variously fascinated or horrified by it, especially since it would sometimes rear up in attack mode (as seen in this picture), and some of them wanted me to get rid of it. I told them that I was eagerly waiting for it to shed its skin. When tarantulas molt, they shed their entire exoskeleton as a single piece, which basically looks like a complete tarantula. It's a remarkable phenomenon, and I couldn't wait for it to happen.

Meanwhile, the weeks went by, and the tarantula still hadn't shed its skin. Then, one day, I noticed a strange black object in the cage, sort of like a matchstick that had been burned along its entire length. I concluded that it must be the molted skin of a single leg of the tarantula. It was disappointing that it was shedding its exoskeleton piecemeal, but I explained to my roommates that I could perhaps glue the pieces together.

The next day, there were three more of the long black things. Okay, the skin of three more legs. But then the next day, there were about seven more!

What on earth was going on? Where had these objects come from? Later that day, one of the students at the yeshiva came to me gagging in hilarious amazement - he explained that he had seen the spider actually excreting them! Rather than being the molted skin of the legs, the black objects were apparently some sort of bizarre intestinal parasite!

One of the yeshivah students, whom we shall call Jamie, urged me write to London Zoo and ask them what was going on. I didn't want to; I didn't even know what species of spider it was. But in the end, after repeated urging by Jamie, I did write a letter.

Several weeks went by. I didn't receive a reply from London Zoo. No more of the mysterious black objects emerged. The spider turned a rather strange grayish color. Meanwhile, I did some further research, and discovered that it was a species named Chaetopelma olivaceum (parvanit shechorah in Hebrew) but I could not discover anything about the black objects that it had excreted.

Then one day, my parents, who lived in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, called me in shock. They had returned from a trip abroad to find a letter mailed from London Zoo. It stated that this phenomenon had only ever been documented once before, and it was of such great scientific interest that they were sending out a team to Israel to examine it! The letter also stated that on the previous occasion when this had happened, the spider had turned extremely aggressive and dangerous. I was urged to make sure that the cage was well secured. Needless to say, my parents were extremely distressed by this.

My first thought was that someone at London Zoo was having a laugh at my expense. But it is a respected and serious institution - was that likely? Furthermore, from the parts of the lengthy letter that were read out to me over the phone, clearly there was expertise here. The letter correctly identified the species as Chaetopelma olivaceum and noted that in the previous instance of this phenomenon, the spider had turned gray - which had happened after I sent my letter to them!

I informed the other students at my apartment about the letter, including the warning about the spider's potential behavior, and panic ensued. One of the students, a very quiet and serious masmid, started screaming and thrashing around and had to be physically restrained. Others were yelling at me to get rid of the tarantula. I was very flustered and couldn't believe what was happening. My childhood daydreams about being the center of a mysterious arachnid phenomenon were actually coming true!

Because I was having a hard time wrapping my head around it all, I decided that I had to see the letter from London Zoo for myself and read it in full and carefully. I went to call a taxi that would take me to my parents house to get the letter. As I was about to make the call, Jamie stopped me. "Don't do that," he said, "It's all a joke."

Here is the extraordinary truth of what had actually happened.

I hadn't actually mailed the letter to London Zoo myself. Instead, Jamie had said that he was traveling to England and could mail it from there. But he hadn't actually mailed it. Instead, he went to London Zoo, made up a story about doing some sort of project, and got a sample of their letterhead stationery. Jamie then returned to Israel and engaged in spider research, so that he would be able to identify the spider and write a convincing letter about a bizarre and dangerous phenomenon. While he was doing his research, the spider turned gray, which he was able to incorporate into his fake letter. He then mailed the letter to his brother in England, and had his brother travel to London Zoo and mail it to me from there, so that the envelope would be postmarked as coming from the Zoo. (If you're thinking that this is is an utterly insane amount of effort to put into a practical joke, I am inclined to agree.)

Meanwhile, the entire yeshiva had been in on this all along. Including the quiet and serious masmid who had been screaming and thrashing. And as for the black objects in the spider's cage - they were matchsticks, carefully burned and blackened along their entire length.

You might be as lost for words as I was. At the time, it was quite embarrassing. And I was mortified when, a few years later on a date, a girl mentioned a crazy story she had heard about a practical joke involving a spider that took place in some yeshiva with a gullible fool. Of course, while Jamie didn't realize this, I was the most ripe person for such a joke, having long daydreamed about being involved in a mysterious arachnid incident!

But think about how much weirder this makes the strange spider bite that I received two weeks ago. What are the chances that a guy who has a childhood obsession with mysterious arachnid phenomena, and who is the later the subject of an extraordinarily intricate practical joke about a mysterious arachnid phenomenon, ends up actually really being the subject of a mysterious arachnid phenomenon?!

It's a proof! Of something. I just have no idea what. Maybe it's God's sense of humor. Or maybe it's the Gemara's principle that בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה ,מוליכין אותו - a person is [supernaturally] led down the path that he wishes to travel!

Meanwhile, I've made a decision. We have two beautiful large furry tarantulas at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, each with a leg span of around five inches. But I'm gonna get some even bigger ones! 


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15 comments:

  1. Can't believe I never heard this story !!

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  2. At least you can laugh at yourself. As can your friends, the entire yeshivah, potential marriage partners, and now... the internet.

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  3. That is amazing!

    " בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה ,מוליכין אותו - a person is [supernaturally] led down the path that he wishes to travel!"

    You can replace "supernaturally" with "psychologically." Like the stories in the Gemara about how dreams come true if you believe in them. But yeah, this one's a puzzler.

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  4. i assume a goliath bird eater or a came spider are next?

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  5. LOL. Hysterical. We're your parents in on the joke when they read the letter to you or where they in the dark too?

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  6. I have 19 tarantulas at the moment. Going to get 4 more in a couple of weeks. I can see that one of the species that you're holding is a Grammostola Pulchripes (Chaco Golden Knee) but I'm not sure of the other species?

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  7. Nachum-In the way a person wishes to go G-d moves us. Replace your by"supernaturally" with "naturally".

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  8. Man has freewill and G-d sees that the actions of man take place in the natural world.

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  9. Is RNS a nerd or what? I have fantasies about other things LOL

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  10. I’m inclined to believe that what bit you was actually a snake. And your assumption that you could not have been bitten by a snake without noticing it was in fact wrong.

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  11. I knew you were a great blogger but never knew you were such a great storyteller! On another note, what terrible friends(if you can call them that)/roomates you have in yesheva that played such a terrible, intricate practical joke on you. I'm all cool with jokes and stuff but this is way too far. Terrible roomates.I feel bad for them that this is what gives them joy in life.

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  12. What a hilarious story! But I don't understand one thing: after taking such trouble to make the letter look authentic, why did your friends reveal the joke to you before you saw the letter? To save you the cost of the taxi?

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  13. What an incredibly mean thing for “Jamie” to do (and all the other bachurim to go along with)…

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    1. As I explain to my kids, I have never understood why “pranks” are somehow considered a culturally acceptable thing to do.

      They are usually nothing more than an attempt to distress or embarrass someone in the name of “having fun” at their expense.

      I cannot imagine that such a thing is halachically permissible.

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