Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pini's Room

The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is an obvious destination for Israeli families during school vacations, even for those who live outside Jerusalem; for Jerusalemites, all the more so. We're lucky to live just a few minutes' drive from the Zoo, and we spend a lot of time there throughout the year; our family subscription, pricey though it is, is one of our more worthwhile annual expenditures. When we enter the Zoo gates it's like walking into an extension of our backyard -- albeit a better-tended extension.

Yet however often we go there, we seem to discover the Zoo afresh every single time -- sort of like finding something new each year in the same Torah portions we read last year ... This Hanukkah we got to see a little corner of the Zoo that we had never had an opportunity to visit before -- one that isn't on most people's Zoo itinerary. In fact it doesn't have regular opening hours; getting into it is kind of hit or miss, unless you happen to speak in advance with the individual who's in charge of it, and for whom it was named.

The place I'm referring to is Pini's Room -- Cheder Pini -- "Pini" being Pinchas Amitai, the well-known zoologist, expert on all things that crawl, swarm or buzz, and prolific author of books with titles like Scorpions! and Life Beneath the Rocks.

Prof. Amitai (I guess I'm too American to feel comfortable with Pini or Pinye, as he is widely known) has produced numerous works on Israeli wildlife, including a youth-oriented guide to the local insect world that makes a great Hanukkah or birthday present for the child so inclined. But in Jerusalem he is more than just a famous author; he is a colorful figure on the city scene, legendary for his hospitality toward the many children who come knocking on the door of his Bayit VeGan home in quest of "walking sticks." (For a cute Haaretz profile of the Professor and his walking sticks, click here). Prof. Amitai not only supplies his young callers with the spindly creatures, but also provides detailed explanations about how to care for these and other animals. Endlessly patient and eager to transmit his love of the natural world to children, he treats his visitors to tours of his home and garden, introducing them to the exotic creatures that populate the myriad jars, boxes and aquariums scattered throughout.

My boys have visited Prof. Amitai once at his home -- a memorable occasion and one which they are clamoring to repeat. (DS#1 blogged about it here -- in Hebrew.) But somehow it never seems to work out on those hectic weekday afternoons. A visit to Cheder Pini at the Zoo during Hanukkah seemed like a good interim compromise -- we were going to the Zoo anyway and I could occupy the toddler in the adjacent play area. A phone call to the Professor confirmed that he would be there sometime during the course of Friday morning ... so off we went.

Cheder Pini, located near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo's petting zoo and playground, is really a microcosm of Prof. Amitai's home collection. It was donated by him and he maintains it himself, often picking leaves of various kinds to feed the room's many little occupants as he walks from his home to the Zoo -- a very long walk.

As I noted above, Cheder Pini is open only intermittently, that is, when Prof. Amitai happens to be there. However, while he is there he is a most attentive host. On this particular occasion my boys spotted him, unassumingly attired in his "Zoo Volunteer" shirt, as he entered the playground area on his way to the Room (we had been waiting for him for a while). We followed him in after he unlocked the door, and he made sure that we left the door open so that others could come in as well, which they did.

As my two year old wasn't too keen on hanging out in a not-large room full of cages and aquariums that were too high for her to comfortably peer into, I only stayed in the room long enough to snap a few photos (the boys remained for quite a while afterward). Unfortunately our "real" camera recently died, leaving me with only a phone camera for the time being. The limitations of that latter device, coupled with the difficulty of managing the little one, made for some pretty awful pictures. I'm posting below a few of the more presentable ones:

The Professor and his avid students:

Well-camouflaged grasshoppers:

DS#1 with some choice walking-stick specimens (which he got to take home):

A poisonous centipede:

The fearless Professor picking up the poisonous centipede:

Every mother's dream:

A sampling of Prof. Amitai's books on display:


shmulik said...

Pinye Amitai was, unfortuantly, hospitilized last week due to a strock . We all hope he will get better soon!
Pinye is not a proffesor by University degree ( he never studied there) but he is more than that just beacuse of his life experience . I am one of the lucky guys who was educated by Pinye years a go...
Shmulik- Jerusalem zoo curator

Julie@walkablejlm said...

Thank you Shmulik for letting us know -- he will be in our thoughts and prayers, and we will try to stay apprised of his condition.
About him not being a professor -- it never occurred to me that he wasn't. We have a friend who studied with him at Hebrew University, so we naturally assumed he had several degrees. An amazing man ...