A giraffe ate my lulav set. Yes, this is a true story.
This is my third year running the Times of Israel Lulav and Etrog African Delivery Service, having brought the four species to Uganda and Kenya in past years. This year, I had it down pat: a cardboard box packed with six sets of the four species, the traditional Sukkot objects: an etrog aka citron fruit, a closed palm frond, myrtle branches, and willow branches.
I supplied sets to the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, a 100-year-old synagogue that supports a mainly expat Jewish community. I also brought one for the small Jewish congregation in the rural village of Kasuku, and an additional one as an interfaith gesture to use for educational purposes at the conference I was attending in Nairobi.
In addition to The Times of Israel, I also work at Global Sisters Report, a news website about Catholic sisters, where I report on Catholic nuns across Africa. They are often fascinated by Jewish traditions, seeing it as a direct link to Jesus’s life and culture.
So I was thrilled to be able to share Sukkot with them. In between sessions on measuring impact of human development projects and utilizing geographical data mapping to identify areas of service, I planned to help them shake the lulav with all their might.
The day before the Hilton Foundation conference for sisters, I convinced my editors to take a taxi to go feed giraffes at the Giraffe Center in Karen, a leafy suburb of Nairobi. Climbing up to a second story platform, visitors can take handfuls of “giraffe candy,” or feed pellets, and feed giraffes by hand. Only two handfuls per person, the sign states, because the giraffes are on a diet.
Here’s where things started to go south. I wanted to take a selfie with a giraffe and the lulav to send as a holiday greeting to my family, as reparations for missing yet another holiday season. Obviously, I hadn’t quite thought my plan through to the end.
As I was stupidly grinning into the camera and handing out food pellets, the giraffe raised its head and, with a long, black tongue, deftly plucked out in one fell swoop the myrtle and willow branches from where they were attached, as is customary, to my lulav. Seeing what was happening, I tried to grab them back out of the giraffe’s mouth, before realizing that I was fighting with a 900 kilogram (1 ton) animal for the branches. Maybe that wasn’t the smartest idea.
So, that’s how it happened: A giraffe ate two of my four species.
I say this sentence and I suddenly understand why 49 people have died from selfies since 2014. There is this overwhelming need to document ourselves doing crazy things, jumping ahead to the anticipation of “likes” without quite thinking how the situation could end, or what might happen before we get to that moment of the upload.
Luckily, my situation wasn’t life threatening, just unfortunate for my dreams of interfaith bridge building. But Betty the Giraffe isn’t the neatest eater, and she dropped exactly one willow branch and one myrtle branch, allowing me to reconstruct the saddest lulav and etrog ever.
The sisters, always able to deal with bumps in the road, loved the symbolism of the lulav and etrog and laughed over the mishap with the giraffe. So while the rabbis probably wouldn’t call this set kosher, the Catholic sisters don’t really care about the details and we were still able to do a few traditional shakes.
I found out later that apparently some forms of myrtle are poisonous to dogs and cats, leading to uncomfortable digestive problems but nothing serious. Sorry about that, Betty, but really, it’s at least partly your own fault.
So wherever you are in the world, as you shake the lulav and etrog on Sukkot this year, know that, thousands of miles away, somewhere in Africa, a giraffe’s digestive system is making half of a lulav shake as well.