A TALE OF SHEEP
or MUTTON SHE WROTE
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
It is well known that, with his wives, the patriarch Jacob fathered twelve sons whose names were given to the original twelve tribes of Israel. But what is less well known is that Jacob also fathered…spotted sheep.
It all began when Jacob decided it was high time to leave the employ of his father-in-law Laban in Haran and go home to his own country with Rachel, Leah, and the family retinue. After fourteen years of service and a good deal of trickery and greed on Laban’s part, the moment had come for Jacob to discuss back wages and a shepherd severance package. First, Jacob reminded Laban that he had vastly increased his father-in-law’s wealth by making his flock multiply. Then, in Genesis 30:31-32 we are privy to the actual negotiations:
“And he [Laban] said, What shall I give you? And Jacob said, You shall not give me anything: If you will do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep your flock. I will pass through all your flock today, removing from it all the speckled and spotted sheep, all the brown sheep and all the spotted and speckled goats; they will be my wages.”
Laban must have thought that he had gotten the employee deal of a lifetime: all Jacob wanted was some spotted sheep. But our forefather Jacob was very shrewd, and he had a long-term business plan in mind. What he intended, in order to provide for his wives and children in their new home, was to practice selective breeding and animal husbandry. With consummate skill, Jacob began to breed the speckled sheep. He returned to Canaan and lived well and prosperously with his family and his huge, strong, mottled flock. But then there was a terrible drought, and Jacob moved all his animals to the land of Goshen in Egypt, where his son Joseph, the dream interpreter, was a high-placed noble. From that time on, the trail of the speckled sheep was shrouded in intrigue and mystery.
Several thousand years later, in the library of the Jerusalem Fibre Artists Guild, Mimi Aumann was reviewing and arranging their books and magazines when she came across an old article in the Autumn l984 issue of Vogue Patterns about “Jacob’s wool.” As a fibre artist, she had never heard of this type of wool, so she read on. The words of the one-page article would change her life. “Jacob wool and cloths are special, not only because of the Jacob’s rarity but also because of its unusual quality. The Jacob are an ancient and unique breed of sheep whose origin in not known with any certainty, though it is believed that they originated in Mesopotamia.”
For Mimi, an American who had recently made aliyah to Israel, “it was almost like discovering the Ark.” She devoured the rest of the article, and learned more: “The first flocks in the United Kingdom can be traced back to at least l760 and it is thought they were based on stock imported from South Africa. In the late l960’s the breed was classed as rare; in fact, it was nearly extinct, but through the efforts of Lady Aldington, The Jacob Sheep Society was formed to preserve and strengthen the breed.” To Mimi’s amazement, she learned that there were 2,000 members of the Jacob Sheep Society and 30,000 Jacob sheep in the United Kingdom, one of the only countries where the breed was still found.
Mimi was trembling with excitement. She’d done so many things in her life, but never before had she been a detective. Was it possible that she was now on the trail of the patriarch’s sheep? She immediately made contact with the Jacob Sheep Society and purchased a book by Lady Aldington, who had been an ardent and passionate supporter and breeder of the mottled ones. According to Mimi, it was “passionate belief of Lady Aldington that the sheep of the parklands in the United Kingdrom were the descendents of Jacob’s flock.”
Mimi found out everything she could about the sheep–whose other distinctive characteristic is that they often have two, four or even six horns. When Jacob gave his favorite son Joseph a coat of many colors, was it made from the multi-colored wool of this rare breed? It was certainly possible. Were there Jacob sheep in England at the time of Shakespeare? The Bard certainly knew about them, and referred to Jacob’s flock in l600 in the Merchant of Venice. Was there any truth to the speculation that after Jacob’s sheep sojourned in Egypt, they traveled to Spain via the coast of North Africa and Morocco? Perhaps that was the route by which they came to England.
The more Mimi learned, the more she wanted to see the sheep face-to-face, and she arranged for a trip to England and an encounter of the very close kind at a farm. It was a highly emotional meeting for Mimi and the Jacob sheep: “When I saw them, I wanted to gather them into my arms and just love them like babies. I get kind of teary just remembering,” Mimi says.
Mimi speaks of the regal bearing of the animals, and the fact that in Lady Aldington’s writing, she used a phrase from Psalms to describe the sturdy sheep: “like Jerusalem, compactly built together.” Like Jerusalem? An idea was born in Mimi’s mind, and with her very determined character, the idea was soon translated into action: she was going to bring Jacob’s sheep back to Israel, and house them in Jerusalem’s Bible Zoo. And she recruited her husband Moshe to help her.
“It is true that, initially, I was simply infected by Mimi’s zeal for this Ocrusade,’ says Moshe. But as time went on, the results we were beginning to get on some of our early efforts to track down these sheep definitely took this subject out of the realm of a pipedream, I began to get into the spirit of our quest, in my own right, and Mimi and I really worked as a fully motivated team, from there on in. To me as to so many others today, Jews as well as Christians, the real excitement of Israel Reborn is the excitement of seeing and feeling the Bible come alive in this place, in so many different ways. And what better way to add yet another element to this coming-alive than to help bring the descendants of Jacob’s flock back home?”
Mimi and Moshe were unstoppable. They contacted Lady Aldington directly, and she was receptive to the idea of sending a pair of Jacobs to Israel on aliyah. The woolen ball was now really rolling, and it seemed like Jacobs would soon be baahing in their ancient grazing grounds. Moshe and Mimi wrote to the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, Sheep Department, and there the ball stopped. The Ministry said it was out of the question to import sheep from Britain, and the villain was none other than…. Mad Cow disease. There was a firm ruling against importing any meat animals for human consumption, and Jacob sheep fell in this category.
After all their efforts and all their enthusiasm, the Aumanns hit a brick wall. “We kind of gave up at that point in time,” says Mimi. She left for Springfield, Missouri to tend to her sick mother, and the baaah of her beloved sheep became a background bleat. Then, one day, she got a very excited call from Moshe. Some people they knew had been visiting the Safari Zoo in Ramat Gan and had seen…what else?…..spotted sheep. Moshe rushed to Ramat Gan and there, by some miracle, already on Israeli soil and unbeknownst to anybody, were the Jacob sheep. No one had connected the origins of the spotted ones to the flocks of the patriarch. The sheep had been acquired from Spain. The Safari Zoo didn’t know what a treasure they had until Moshe told them. And when they found out, they were more than willing to help Mimi and Moshe realize their vision. Finally, the Aumann’s obsession was paying off.
Now the Aumanns were sliding into sheep home plate. They went back and forth between the Bible Zoo and the Safari Zoo, getting them acquainted with each other and on board with the project. All they needed was for one pair of Jacob sheep to be transferred from Ramat Gan to Jerusalem, but there was one last snafu: the Safari Zoo had only one ram, and they weren’t about to give him up.
By now, everyone concerned knew how persistent the Aumanns were, and the Safari Zoo promised that if one of the ewes gave birth to a ram, a male and female Jacob would be sent to the zoo in Jerusalem.
And so the waiting for mating began. Finally, thanks to the wondrous rules of nature, a ewe gave birth and one of the babies was a ram. Now there was a couple available for transfer. It took four months before the young sheep were old enough to travel, and then, says Moshe, the final “deal was cut with the Jerusalem zoo.”
Moshe was asked to prepare a brief text, in English and Hebrew, so that an identifying sign could be displayed at the Bible Zoo. Of course, the he-sheep was named Jacob and the ewe was his beloved Rachel. Poor Rachel died, but was replaced by another Rachel and now visitors to the Bible Zoo in Jerusalem can see the lovable Jacob’s sheep who were hiding under wooly cover in the land of their namesake.
As for Mimi and Moshe, they are still involved with their sheep friends. They give talks about the Jacobs, telling their story and addressing interested groups. Mimi sums up her current feelings about the speckled sheep: “The public has reacted in awe and appreciation of a current-day revelation that G-d has always known where the Jacobs were–even when only a few were left–and has made a way when there seemed no way–to regather them from the Diaspora as well.”
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