Friday, June 13, 2008





In the later stages of the contest, the likeliest candidate seemed to be the graceful prinia, a species of warbler commonly found in Israeli gardens. At Blich High School in Ramat Gan, whose mock elections have been remarkably successful predictors of Israeli political contests in the past, the graceful prinia won easily, with a full 25 percent of the vote. Yossi Leshem describes the bird as "a very, very small bird that is very, very loud and noisy." Which makes it sound like a natural choice for Israel's national bird.

But the winner, declared on May 29, was the hoopoe, a bird with almost too much symbolic meaning, even for Israel. In Greek mythology the tyrant Tereus, after cutting out his mistress's tongue and unwittingly banqueting on the corpse of his son, was changed by the gods into the hoopoe. In Midrashic tradition, the hoopoe solves Solomon's tricky problem of how to cut the stones of the temple without using iron by presenting him with magical worms called the shamir. (The hoopoe isn't, however, part of a traditional Jewish diet: It's on the list of "abhorrent" birds in Leviticus 11.) It's a good choice, all in all, a gorgeous bird with a crown-like crest. Any country would be proud to have it on its telephone cards. And in its rich depth of traditions, in the ambiguities within those traditions, there is something at least approaching a reflection of Israel's culture and history.

Once each month Solomon rode upon his White Eagle to the secret pleasure palace he had built for himself in the wilderness of Palmyra. One day as he rode upon the wings of the giant bird, the sun beat down upon him so intensely that he thought he would die. Suddenly a flock of Hoopoes flew by, and seeing the kings distress, gathered together, wingtip to wingtip, so that they formed a sheltering canopy over the king.

In gratitude for their kindness, Solomon summoned the King of the Hoopoes and said to him, "Ask me whatever you wish and I shall grant it to you."

For a day and a night the Hoopoes considered Solomon's offer. The next day, their king appeared before Solomon and said, "Here is our wish, my lord: May we be given golden crowns to wear upon our heads?"

Solomon laughed, "Your wish is granted! But know my friend that it is a foolish thing that you have asked for. It will lead you straight into the hunter's snare. But when such evil overtakes you, return to me and I will remember your kindness and help you again."

The King of the Hoopoes left Solomon's palace with a golden crown upon his head. Soon all of the Hoopoes sported golden crowns, as Solomon had promised. And their pride swelled and so did their vanity, so that they hardly deigned to speak any more to the other birds. At every stream and river and the shore of the sea, the Hoopoes gazed for hours into the water to admire their beautiful new crowns.

Then one day a hunter saw a Hoopoe with its golden crown and wished to catch it. So he set a trap and placed a mirror inside it. And the Hoopoe flew into the trap to admire itself in the mirror and was caught. Then the hunter wrung the bird's neck and brought the crown to a brass smelter.

The cunning smelter saw that the crown was made not of brass but of gold, but he lied to the hunter and said it was only made of brass. He gave the hunter a few small coins and told him that he would buy any more crowns the hunter brought him.

But the next time the hunter trapped a Hoopoe, he met a goldsmith on his way to town. When the goldsmith saw the crown in the hunter's hand, he told him that it was made of gold. He paid the hunter handsomely for the crown and asked for more. When word of this began to spread, people abandoned their shops and fields and began hunting Hoopoes for the golden crowns. Soon the sounds of whizzing arrows and clanging traps rang through the forests and hills. The Hoopoes became fewer and fewer in number until only a handful remained.

Then the King of the Hoopoes came to King Solomon with a heavy heart and said, "How right you were, my lord king, to call our wish for golden crowns foolish! Now our own vanity has brought evil down upon our heads. Please help us before we are all dead!"

Solomon replied, "Indeed you have brought this trouble upon yourselves but because you were once so kind to me, I will help you again. No longer shall gold crowns adorn your heads, but instead you shall wear a simple crest of feathers. Thus your beauty will no longer entrap you."
From then on all the Hoopoes wore crests of feathers upon their head. Without their gold crowns, hunters no longer pursued them, and they increased in number. Throughout the land they lived in peace and no one made them afraid.
The hoopoe in Hebrew is "duchifat" and has served in the Israeli armed forces...
I saw this bird daily, growing up in Israel. It is indeed part of the Israeli landscape, almost, though not quite, as the fruit of the Sabra.

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