The Secret Jewish Historical past Of The Pet Hamster – The Ahead


On April 12, 1930, a Zionist zoologist, his Syrian information, a neighborhood sheikh and a bunch of employed laborers gathered in a wheat subject exterior Aleppo, Syria. They began digging. Hours handed with out incident, save for the destruction of a good portion of a neighborhood farmer’s crop. Undeterred, they continued excavating till, finally, the laborers positioned their goal: a nest stuffed with tiny, lovely child hamsters. Israel Aharoni, the zoologist who prompted the search, described the second in a diary entry: “After a number of hours of onerous work, they succeeded in elevating from a depth of 8 toes, a whole nest, properly upholstered, with a mom and her 11 younger!”

Aharoni and his crew had discovered the Syrian hamster — or, as it’s now identified in elementary faculty school rooms all through the world, the golden hamster. That creature, whose pure vary is a mere 1,900 sq. miles and whose evolutionary instincts drive it deep underground, isn’t discovered within the wild anymore. However, on account of Aharoni’s efforts — and regardless of a number of devastating mishaps that nearly rendered his work futile — family of specimens discovered on this single nest now stay in nations all over the world.

Aharoni’s pleasure in all probability wore off shortly; it turned out that caring for the furry creatures was a nightmare. When he positioned them in a field, the mom hamster started to eat her infants, and he or she needed to be killed. Then, as Rob Dunn writes in a 2011 Smithsonian journal article, after Aharoni took the hamsters again to Jerusalem, 5 hamsters “chewed their approach out of the picket cage.” As if issues weren’t dangerous sufficient, one of many 4 remaining hamsters proceeded to eat one in every of his feminine siblings, leaving solely three. The state of affairs appeared hopeless, however, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s immortal “Jurassic Park” line, life, uh, discovered a approach. Two of the sibling hamsters produced 150 child hamsters, and the pet hamster was (actually) born. Aharoni had meant to breed the rodents as laboratory animals, however by 1938, they’d turn out to be home animals within the U.S. and the U.Okay.

Picture by Wikimedia Commons

Hamster Discoverer: Zionist zoologist Israel Aharoni.

It’s unclear if Aharoni was actually digging in these fields exterior Aleppo: In keeping with Michael R. Murphy’s “Historical past of the Golden Hamster” (1985), the zoologist’s colleague George Hess as soon as remarked that Aharoni was “a horrible coward.” Solely his “love of nature and extreme curiosity” gave him sufficient grit to exit within the subject and discover. That curiosity led Aharoni from a shtetl within the Pale of Settlement via the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Syria, Transjordan and Palestine to the Sinai. Aside from the hamster discovery, which has turn out to be his legacy, Aharoni lived a outstanding, productive life.

Born in Vidzy, in modern-day Belarus, Aharoni (who modified his title from Aharonovitz) studied zoology and Semitic philology on the College of Prague. In keeping with Oded Shay, an Israeli scholar, Aharoni was influenced by Mendele Mocher Sforim’s’ “Toldot ha-teva” (“Historical past of Nature”), a Hebrew guide sequence for younger readers that mentioned the fauna of Palestine and even gave the animals Hebrew names — in addition to by his religiously rooted Zionism — and sought to analysis the dwelling creatures of the Holy Land.

Aharoni settled in Rehovot, Palestine, in 1902. In “Reminiscences of a Hebrew Zoologist,” a memoir he accomplished a number of years earlier than his loss of life in 1946, Aharoni defined that even at such a younger age, he was sure of his objectives in Palestine: First, he wished to “research … wild animals of their habitat.” Second, he wished research these animals’ “authentic names,” by drawing from his huge data of the Hebrew bible and from researching native “desert dwellers.”

With these goals in thoughts, Aharoni started to gather uncommon chook specimens, and to present them scientific, Hebrew and Arabic names. In keeping with Shay, whereas Aharoni traveled between Syria, Iraq and Bedouin encampments in Ottoman Palestine, he “found many new species, and lots of considered extinct.” (He apparently housed lots of the specimens in his residence; since “Psycho” hadn’t but come out, it appears it was nonetheless socially acceptable to have a home crammed with taxidermied birds.) Right now, his collected specimens — together with a northern bald ibis, which is now a critically endangered species within the Center East — are housed within the Pure Historical past Collections of the Hebrew College.

Aharoni’s life was crammed with different fascinating adventures. He explored the Useless Sea and Transjordan for butterflies, which he introduced to Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout World Conflict II, Aharoni served because the zoologist for the Turkish military, the place, in keeping with Shay, his mission was to “direct the struggle towards locusts,” which have been a horrible burden on troopers. Not all of Aharoni’s theories of wildlife within the Holy Land would show to be right — his assertion that the biblical tabernacle could have been adorned with the conceal of a narwhal, or “sea-unicorn,” has not been borne out by science — however he bravely and passionately pursued his curiosity in an unfamiliar land and laid the foundations for generations of Israeli scientists. Nonetheless, for higher or worse, it’s these pesky hamsters that maintain his legacy alive.

Sam Bromer is the Ahead’s tradition intern. Contact him at


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