Lake Effect, Spring 2020, Volume 24: "Converting the Elephants"

Converting the Elephants

By Jacob Appel


Converting the elephants to Judaism was no was easy business—certainly on par with Luntschitz’s work along the Río de la Plata or Tzvi ben Broda’s feats in the Bengal—and Rabbi Eliezer might have received acclaim commensurate with his accomplishments, maybe even a statue on the grand colonnade at Bloemfontein, had he not been regarded by his contemporaries (with uncharacteristic uniformity) as rather officious and meddlesome. Also austere, arrogant, sanctimonious, and stubborn as a sounder of warthogs. Of course, there was another side to the man. As the Talmud reminds us, no loaf is all meal nor all yeast. Being his nephew, the son of his youngest sister, I had the occasion to witness Rabbi Eliezer dance the Utzu Etza for Purim, and to devour an entire plate of kichlach with chopped herring on countless occasions, which he did as though pickled fish were going out of style, so I do not believe these depictions to be entirely fair, and quite frankly, while I have no wish to cast aspersions, one cannot help suspecting a bissel jealousy was at play, because Rabbi Eliezer did convert the elephants.

These were no ordinary elephants. They inhabited a stretch of dry plain between the Molopo and Limpopo Rivers, a solid three days’ journey from Mafeking by jeep, and nearly five in my uncle’s Nash Lafayette sedan. Between the wars, Schweinfurth had estimated the herd’s size at upwards of sixty, but local gamesmen—whose word ought be accepted with considerable caution—placed the figure at closer to one hundred. Rabbi Eliezer first learned of the benighted creatures on a mission to Groot Marico, where he had been called to settle a dispute between two poseks over whether a domesticated pack of Burchell’s rhinoceroses, which had been specially bred to chew their cud, might be considered kosher. Clever folks, those Jews in Groot Marico. Having resolved the kashrut issue with dispatch, as well as a debate regarding where along the giraffe’s neck one ought to cut in ritual slaughter, Rabbi Eliezer might have returned home without delay to his wife and eleven children at Kroonstad, had not a Boer driving a bullock wagon, hitched at the square, told him of the heathen Elephants of Mokolodi. A Reformed minister had already failed to make headway with the pachyderms, you see, and the Catholic priest from Lichtenburg had nearly been trampled in an earlier effort, so my uncle felt himself called to the challenge. I suppose the notion of goyish elephants did not sit well with him.   

Before he converted the elephants, he had to find them. That in itself was no schmei on the veldt, let me tell you. They set out on the Bechuanaland Road the morning following the shabbus—Rabbi Eliezer in his safari jacket; his son-in-law, Rabbi Tarfon, who would later gain the pulpit at Fort Victoria and distinguish himself as an authority on the Halakha of gorings, and of injuries caused by domesticated beasts; three Bantu porters; and a whistling Coloured Malagasy guide whose only tune was Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” Their convoy must have made quite a sight for the hyenas, jouncing along the dirt pike in my uncle’s Nash and a De Soto Roadster borrowed from the shochet in Groot Marico. Der gleichster veg iz ful mit shtainer, as they say—The smoothest way is sometimes full of stones. And often the not so smooth ways are too, in this case glacial boulders and mud pits deep as impact craters. When they finally encountered the elephants, they had been out in the bush nearly two weeks, dust-caked and sun-bleached, and much to the guide’s delight, and my uncle’s displeasure, the porters and the son-in-law had taken to harmonizing “Moonlight Serenade” like a barber shop quartet.