Monday, July 25, 2022

Noah and the Dragon

Over the better part of the past year we have been working on an incredible Noah's Ark exhibit for the Biblical Museum of Natural History, which includes several components. One is a scale model of the Biblical ark. Another is an extraordinary range of artistic models of Noah's Ark, showcasing not only artistic beauty, but also the immense power of the Biblical story to capture people's imagination. The third component is a collection of model Noah's Arks from around the world which reflect the zoogeography of each region. 

The latter ties in very closely to one of the museum's fundamental messages. Different parts of the world have different wildlife which become part of cultural heritage of the people in those regions. And the wildlife of the Bible and of the Jewish People is the wildlife of Biblical Israel, not that of Europe of North America.

Everyone perceives the animal kingdom in terms of the animals with which they are most familiar, which is generally the animals from their part of the world. The cultural heritage of Jews in Europe included the aryeh and tzvi and nesher from the Bible and Pirkei Avot, significantly reflecting their connection to their ancestral homeland. But they weren't familiar with these animals in Europe, and that's how the tzvi became a deer instead of a gazelle and the nesher became an eagle instead of a griffon vulture.

This concept is expressed beautifully in our collection of arks from around the world. We have arks with llamas and toucans and Spanish architecture and Latino Noah - from Peru. We have arks with bears and raccoons and porcupines and skunks and Noah in a Davy Crockett hat - from North America. We have a European ark with golden eagles and alpine ibex and badgers and marmots. We have African arks with wildebeest and warthogs and humped Zebu cattle and African Noah and wife. We have an Australian ark with kangaroos and koalas and emus and platypuses. We even have an Arctic ark, featuring polar bears, snowy owls, caribou and musk ox.

But Asia was a challenge.

There aren't a lot of Biblical peoples in Asia. We did manage to obtain some very primitive Noah's Arks from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, but while Noah and his wife were of a matching ethnicity, the animals on the arks were not specific to the region. 

Then I found something extraordinary on Ebay: a Chinese ark! The architecture was in the style of a pagoda, and Noah and his wife were Chinese! And the animals that accompanied it, while including some species from various places around the world, had a particular Asian focus, including pandas, tigers, Asian water buffalo, and Asian elephants, all carved in a very distinctive Oriental style.

I purchased the ark, but I was not able to find out anything about who made it or where it was made. Which was a pity; museum exhibits are much more professional and engaging if they have a proper history and story to go with them. And this ark surely had a story - why would someone make a Chinese ark?

Meanwhile, in my extensive research of archives of auction sites, I came across a picture of an even more extraordinary Chinese version of Noah's Ark: a dragon boat! Meticulously carved from Chinese camphor wood, this incredibly ornate ark was created the style of the famous traditional Chinese dragon boat, which has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. It had an oriental dragon's head emerging from the bow and its tasseled tail from the stern. Along with Chinese Noah and his wife, it featured twelve pairs of animals, some carved into the boat and some as separate figures, corresponding to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.

It was the most extraordinary ark that I had ever seen - and I have seen many thousands of models of Noah's Ark! It looked like it was designed by the same person that had produced the pagoda ark that I had purchased, but I did not know who that was. And the only information that I had about this dragon ark was a website address that appeared on the picture - but the website no longer existed.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had a brainwave. There's a website which archives extinct websites. I used it to find an archived version of the defunct website that appeared on the dragon ark photo. It was a commercial site selling special carved wooden souvenirs from China, including both the dragon ark and the pagoda ark, and there was an email address on it. I wrote to that address, and it was still active! The person responded that the business had long since closed, but she had an email address for the person who had supplied them with the arks, a woman by the name of Stella Zang from Bejing.

And so I wrote to Stella in Bejing. And she responded that the arks were designed by her father-in-law, Wanlong Zang, a master woodcarver from the Zhejiang province near Shanghai. His father had converted to Christianity, and Wanlong had decided to use the family's ancient Chinese woodcarving techniques to create Biblical scenes, including Noah's Ark. He had created a workshop which operated for a while, but it became very difficult to find workers, since most people preferred to work in offices rather than spend years learning ancient Chinese woodcarving techniques. And so the business had closed down, and they didn't have any arks left, and no more would ever be made.

That's such a pity, I replied. I explained about the museum exhibit that I am working on, and how special it would have been to exhibit a Chinese dragon ark. 

Well, she replied, in that case...

She explained that that there was actually one dragon ark remaining. It was their family's own model. And for the sake of such a museum exhibit in the Holy Land, they would sell it to me!

I could not believe the museum's good fortune. It arrived today, in the most ornate gold-filigreed chest that I have ever seen. The very last Chinese dragon-boat Noah's Ark, which will never be made again. It's absolutely incredible and such a unique piece of Biblical art!

We hope to open our Noah's Ark exhibit to the public sometime in the fall. Until then, it is only available for viewing by museum patrons. If you'd like to keep posted about news of the exhibit and previews, subscribe to the museum newsletter on this page.


45 comments:

  1. Congratulations on these wonderful acquisitions, especially the unique dragon ark!

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  2. Beautiful arks with a dramatic story to match. You should have been a detective!

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  3. If נשר became eagle from living in europe, how did cognate Arabic نسر become eagle?

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    1. Isn't it easy for those who are unfamiliar with biology to confuse terms? I was at the zoo and the Chassidish mother called her kids over to the sloth to "come look at the monkey!"

      Most people have never even heard of a griffon vulture, even if they live in that region, much the same as most people in NYC cannot differentiate between a house sparrow and a tree sparrow, even though they are both abundant in the region.

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  4. Some people risk their lives for the State. And you criticise those that don't whilst learning torah, whilst spending your own time sourcing Chinese arks. Each to their own.

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    1. Wait, wait. So are you saying that for anyone to be internally consistent, they have to be devoted to that concept 100% of their time? Even career soldiers have down time, and of course most of the people in the country are not career soldiers. As a sheetah, one can agree to have one's community send people to the army - or even oneself and one's children - and still have a "day job." And one can still support the country in other ways, by paying taxes and saying the Tefillah L'shlom Hamedina on Shabbos.

      Even learning Torah 24/7 is not for everyone. Though building a Torah-themed museum is certainly a unique way to generate "l'hagdil Torah u'l'ha'adirah"! Kol HaKavod!

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    2. An incredibly shallow comment. Creating a healthy state, a healthy society and a healthy culture need many and varied talents. If the entire population was devoted to sourcing Chinese Noah’s Arks, we’d be in trouble - but one Slifkin is a unique, beneficial and unusual blessing, for which we should all be grateful. Those who appeared in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices were, unusually, not given direction on what to bring - only to bring their gifts with which God had blessed them.

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  5. Sacrificing your life for the State
    means for the Jewish people. This is a super requirement for everyone. It doesn't stop one from learning Torah when,where,
    and how he can. You can look for
    Chinese Arks which is also part of learning and understanding
    Torah.













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    1. Yaacub, why do your comments have a big blank space under them?

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  6. Exhibiting models of Noah's Ark is part of teaching Torah which is
    part of the purpose of learning
    Torah.

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  7. The Near East is part of the Golden Eagle natural living area, and so is southern Europe for the Griffon Vulture, so I wouldn't say that's the reason for the shift.
    Rather I would say that the jews followed local medieval folklore, which linked the eagle with nobility and the vulture with cowardice and opportunism, and naturally associated the biblical nesher with the eagle.

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    Replies
    1. I think the same, but it must help that there are no vultures in Northern Europe.

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    2. A quick search shows it used to be common as far north as the Black Forest, Swabia, Sudetenland and the Polish Carpathians. So definitely not an unknown bird.

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    3. Can you define "used to"? And that's still a bit south.

      Of course people must have known about them, but how much?

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    4. For example on french wikipedia:
      In the 18th century, the Griffon Vulture was still nesting in southern Germany, and even higher up in the 13th and 14th centuries (at the latitude of Luxembourg).

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    5. Interesting! So Jews might have seen them. But eagles would be more common.

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  8. Even an innocuous cute post about a teivah collection elicits nasty comments and mudslinging. So sad.

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  9. That's amazing! And great detective working! I hope they can visit from China one day. And exhibit the box too- another "ark".

    If the Peruvian Noah is racially distinctive, he's not "Latino," he's Native American.

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    1. "If the Peruvian Noah is racially distinctive, he's not "Latino," he's Native American."

      Provided that he's one of the natives; if he's of Iberian descent then he is Latino. How do we know which he is?

      The Davy Crockett hat from North America, is, CMIIW,, immigrant as opposed to native garb.

      The larger question is whether the local designers use local fauna and not those of their mother country. What are the stats on that?

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    2. If he was Iberian, then he wouldn't stand out.

      Peru is about 60% mestizo, 26% Indian, and 6% white.

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  10. I'm picturing a haredi viewing the Chinese dragon-boat ark and asking a docent "What's up with the Chinese and dragons?" And then the docent will start explaining "Well, their forebears discovered fossils of dino.... oh, never mind."

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    1. I'm just curious: Do we know that to be the case about dragons- who are, of course, found around the world? I know it's commonly said, but is there evidence?

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    2. Supposedly part of the source for the mythological Cyclops was the elephant skull (or mastadon or mammoth or what-have-you), where the central "nasal" cavity was understood to be an eye while the actual eye sockets were too small to be noticed.

      I agree that "dragons" being a "thing" the world over is kinda incredible. (OK, at least in Indo-European and Southeast Asian and even Southern Native American cultures. Is there an African dragon legend?) It would be interesting to know who actually found dinosaur bones and who simply theorized a large flying lizard/snake with or without fire breath based on an occasional whale sighting and a volcano.

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    3. There's an African belief in Mokele-mbembe, which actually resembles a large dinosaur. It's usually listed up there with the Loch Ness Monster and similar legends.

      I've heard about the cyclops- you can actually see it once you're looking for it.

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  11. Is this who you're talking about, from Beijing-San Francisco?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stella_Zhang

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    Replies
    1. Nope. There are quite a few Chinese people, you know...

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    2. Sure. Just that the other one is also into art, so I was wondering.

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  12. A friendly comment:

    Are you prepared if anyone visiting the museum asks you the following possibly innocent or possibly unfriendly question?

    The museum is all about gaining greater appreciation for Tanach and the Creator's wonderous creation. Why do you also have interpretations from Goyim about the Teiva? Who's interested in their interpretations? And who's interested that the Biblical story captured Goyim's imagination alongside with their Da Vincis and Rembrandts?

    Cheers!

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  13. A photo of the gold-filigreed chest, please?

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  14. The third component is a collection of model Noah's Arks from around the world which reflect the zoogeography of each region.

    The latter ties in very closely to one of the museum's fundamental messages. Different parts of the world have different wildlife which become part of cultural heritage of the people in those regions. And the wildlife of the Bible and of the Jewish People is the wildlife of Biblical Israel, not that of Europe of North America.


    Um, this isn't true when it comes to this part of the Bible, namely pre-flood Bible. There was no *Biblical Israel* before the flood!
    In fact, according to tradition, the flood was world-wide, so it is utterly appropriate to display animals from all regions of the world as entering the ark. It's completely accurate. (It is also accurate to display Noach in multi-racial people since he was the progenitor of all modern human races!)

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  15. "In fact, according to tradition ..."

    Were you born yesterday? The museum isn't patterned after that tradition.

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    1. gullible chareidiJuly 27, 2022 at 8:43 AM

      What?? I thought Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is making his museum 100% kosher just to make sure chareidi Jews are comfortable visiting and paying his admission fees!
      Of course he has to say the mabul was a worldwide phenomenon with all the animal species of the earth going in!

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    2. The museum does not enter into that topic.

      Delete
  16. "(It is also accurate to display Noach in multi-racial people since he was the progenitor of all modern human races!)"

    No, according to tradition, based on Sanhedrin 108b חם לקה בעורו. שיצא ממנו כוש: , there were no "Africans" before the flood.

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    1. skin color isn't the only marker for the Africa-based race. Noach apparently was the source of those other markers.

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    2. "skin color isn't the only marker for the Africa-based race. Noach apparently was the source of those other markers."

      Or, as in Shabbos 31a מפני מה רגליהם של אפרקיים רחבות וכו', they happened later.

      And if African Noah has dark skin he can't be the real Noah.

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    3. Of course all these variations of the human race were expressed after Noach in his offspring. Noach couldn't express all races simultaneously in a single person! The best you could do is portray multiple Noachs in multiple races--which is exactly what this exhibit should be doing.

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    4. "Noach couldn't express all races simultaneously in a single person! The best you could do is portray multiple Noachs in multiple races ...."

      Your wisdom and sincerity are heartwarming. Indeed, the museum is following your advice and will have 'multiple Noachs in multiple races'.

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    5. The Museum's director is certainly not following my advice. He opened this post by stating that one of the central goals of his museum is to convey the notion that the Torah is not universal. It is confined to a particular place and time like all other works of human literature. And he wants to use this ark exhibit to highlight this.
      I'm saying if he actually wants to run a biblical museum true to Jewish tradition, he should use all these arks to convey the opposite message--that the Torah is universal in its scope and it and transcends any particular time or place.
      The

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    6. Traditionalist, I don't think that you have understood my post. Torah is binding at all times and in all places. My point was only that the setting of the Torah is in a particular time and place, which you surely don't dispute.

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    7. The setting of the GIVING of the Torah was in a particular time and place. But as Chazal and many rishonim point out, the Torah itself predated creation by thousands of years. It is the very blueprint of all physical reality--how can the Torah itself have a particular setting?
      Narratives like the creation of Adam and Chava and their sin and the mabul and the tower of Babel are all understood by the tradition as actual historical events which actually shaped the course of all human history. There is no particular setting of the *biblical land of Israel* for these events.
      This is why Chazal said the dimensions of Noach's ark are the most seaworthy of all possible dimensions, This is why Chazal said all fish with scales must have fins (Mishna Nidda 6:9, and that there are only four animals in the entire world with one kosher sign (Gemara Chulin 59.
      So according to tradition, The Torah itself has no particular setting of time and place.

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    8. "But as Chazal and many rishonim point out, the Torah itself predated creation by thousands of years." Actually, many Rishonim point out that that statement of Chazal is not to be taken at face value.

      "It is the very blueprint of all physical reality--how can the Torah itself have a particular setting?" Because it was give at a particular time and place. That's why, for example, it doesn't give us the halachos of cloning.

      "This is why Chazal said all fish with scales must have fins (Mishna Nidda 6:9)" Actually, as RAmbam explains, Chazal looked at fish, and drew their conclusions from what they saw.

      "and that there are only four animals in the entire world with one kosher sign (Gemara Chulin 59)" Actually, there are more. Rav Gedalyah Nadel explained to me that the "world" of the Gemara does not include America and Australia etc.

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    9. Something tells me you are evading the central point when you throw a red herring about cloning and say the Rambam or Rav Nadel disagrees with this or that traditional view.

      Delete
    10. Something tells me that you realized that your claim doesn't hold water.

      Delete

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