Film Review: “There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv” — The Story of Rabbi Doolittle

By Helen Epstein

This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, one that I plan to view again and again.

There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv (2019, dir. Duki Dror) Available on Vimeo, in Hebrew with English subtitles. Recommended for general audiences.

A scene from There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv 

With so many streaming offerings to choose from during the pandemic, it’s hard to know where to start. I was fortunate that a savvy anthropologist friend recommended this ingenious and brilliant documentary. There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv is based on an extraordinary set of events; it features ordinary but very colorful people; it contains extensive archival footage (for example, a bombing raid by the Italian Air Force on Tel Aviv in 1940 — who knew?); and, like so many new Israeli films, it is technically superb. Although there are a few talking heads, they are shot in such innovative ways and blended or intercut via so many eccentric directorial choices you forget this is a documentary. The film is whimsical, risky, and cinematically discursive; it also features a zany and surprising soundtrack.

To start with, this once-obscure story, set in Mandatory Palestine and contemporary Israel over a period of four decades, is highly unusual. In 1935, Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Max (Mordechai) Shorenstein retired at the age of 65. He had long been a Zionist, but his wife’s health prohibited a move to the Middle East. After she died, the Rabbi made what we would call “a career change,” and his granddaughter calls “a complete switch,” and left Copenhagen for Tel Aviv with a couple of birdcages, along with his luggage. After arriving in a city that was still mostly sand dunes, he opened its first pet store out of his home. The film documents the evolution of people and animals as that pet store grew into the beloved municipal institution of the Tel Aviv Zoo (opened in 1938). We see how the Friends of the Zoo Association was formed and how its board eventually forced Shorenstein out after demoting and demeaning him, cutting his salary and, ultimately going to court over an episode that recalls Les Miserables – Shorenstein was arrested for stealing three lirot from the zoo cashier.

There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv also tells a larger historical, political, and sociological tale, a time when Jewish citizens of Tel Aviv and Arab citizens of Jaffa both rode buses to the orange groves on the then-outskirts of Tel Aviv to see this institution of “western culture.” Of course, waves of immigration and construction soon engulfed the “outskirts” of Tel Aviv. The film documents the inexorable march of what we call “development” that ultimately moved the animals to Safari Ramat Gan, the largest collection of wildlife in human care in the Middle East.

Director Duki Dror has a dry sense of humor and has assembled an excellent group of interviewees who, as children, were zoo afficionados. They include two of the Rabbi’s descendants; the daughter of the Jewish widow of the German (non-Jewish) zookeeper Johnny; an urban planner; a taxidermist; and an artist and teacher at Israel’s best art school, Bezalel. He is captivated by Shorenstein’s story and assigns his students to draw him. Their work is integrated into the documentary and provides contemporary commentary on archival material.

Out of these sources Dror assembles a fabulous script.

“What does a Rabbi have to do with animals?” one contemporary Israeli asks, with typical Israeli intonation. “For him everything that had to do with them was kosher!”

Shorenstein was not easy, his grandson notes of the man whom some called Rabbi Doolittle. He kept a bear, a snake, and two leopards in his home, walked baby lion cubs on a leash down Tel Aviv streets, and taught his parrot how to sing the national anthem. “Some said he had an easier time with quadrupeds than bipeds.” He died in 1948, after losing the institution he created and moving to Jerusalem, where he lived with only a few animals.

But Rabbi Shorenstein is not the only exotic character in this tale. There is also Johnny Zusia, the Tel Aviv Zoo’s head zookeeper, an anti-Nazi German who first came to Palestine to live on Kibbutz Yagur but soon went to work for Shorenstein. During the Second World War he was interned at Latrun, a detention camp for enemy aliens by the British government. While he was gone, the animals he loved – including the elephants Motek and Varda — were mistreated by others.

The documentary evokes parallels between freedom and captivity for human beings and other animals while also examining themes of innocence and its loss, trust and betrayal, escape, illness, and death. But its touch is rarely heavy-handed. I would say that Dror is even somewhat capricious, lingering on some shots: animals the filmmaker finds especially interesting (the giraffes in gorgeous color); Rabbi Shorenstein walking his lion cubs; Johnny Zusia returning from captivity to greet his animals; or filming the activity of humans who are drawn into the world of the zoo, such as the taxidermist in his workshop.

In 1938, Tel Aviv’s population numbered around 120,000. Today, Tel Aviv-Yafo numbers over four million. Along with growth came land deals, corruption, displacement of the poor, and gentrification. Although There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv does not deliver an explicit history lesson, a view of the past is implicit in Dror’s careful selection of excellent audio clips, photographs, and film footage. If you understand Hebrew, you can hear how the language itself changes over 40 years, along with the culture, the clothing, the buildings, and the zoo. This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, one that I plan to view again and again. Hats off to Duki Dror. I look forward to viewing the rest of his films.

Helen Epstein reviews for the Arts Fuse and has published 10 nonfiction books including, The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma. Most recently she edited Franci’s War by her mother.

1 Comment

  1. eva fogelman on June 19, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    i so appreciate learning about this film. As always Helen Epstein is astute, perceptive and eloquent in her analysis. thanks so much for introducing the readership to this part of Israeli and Jewish history.

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