I’ve never given too much thought to my last name. I know that Burnham isn’t much of a Jewish name; that was by design. My grandfather, whose last name was Berman, couldn’t get into medical school with a Jewish last name. In his time most universities had quotas determining how many Jews they would accept. So he simply changed it to Burnham, a totally non-Jewish name, reapplied and was accepted to medical school.
That little tidbit of Burnham family history meant that I’ve lived my entire life without meeting a Jewish Burnham who wasn’t one of my siblings, or their wives and children. The name itself is fairly common; it is the name of one of the largest manufacturers of boilers in the US, it is the name of cities in England and Illinois, it is the name of rock band (thank you Google), the last name of a famous comedian, the name of a soccer club in England, the name of large financial group, and the name of nationally acclaimed medical research group. But perhaps the most interesting Burnham of all, was Frederick Russel Burnham, who together with his sworn enemy tried to introduce the hippopotamus into the American diet.
I’ve only read a small portion of the exploits of Burnham (as we will call him from here on), and if I were to convey it all to you, it would take a weekend to read, so I will keep to the salient points, and hope that you do the research on the rest. (This long-form article is where I based this essay on, and it is a great place to start!)
Burnham was born in 1861 in a little house on the prairie in Minnesota. His first remarkable feat was lying perfectly still in a heap of fresh corn while the Lakota Indians raided and burned his house. His mother found him still alive in the smoldering ruins, protected by the moisture of the fresh corn. His father Edwin, a traveling Presbyterian minister, died when he was thirteen years old, from a punctured lung sustained when a log he was hauling fell on him.
His mother and younger brother moved to the East to be with family, but he remained behind and got a job delivering telegrams for Western Union on horseback throughout the Wild West. His extended family in the city of Clinton, IA, invited him to move in with them, but after a few months, utterly bored by the drab of city life, he stole a canoe and headed down the Mississippi River. Reaching Texas, he joined a community of grizzled old frontiersmen who taught him everything they knew about scouting. From this education, Burnham would go on to become one of the greatest scouts in US history, putting it to use in wars against the Native Americans, across the African continent, and in protection of American industrial interests in Mexico.
As a scout, he would at times lie motionless for over twenty four hours, tracking his enemies and living on a custom concoction he had created made of ground deer jerky and flour. In East Africa, for months at a time he lived on the local drink made of three parts milk and one part fresh ox blood, tapped from the neck of an ox like you would tap a maple tree for syrup. During one stakeout, he subsisted on raw corn, grinding away at it until his jaw was sore and the starchy paste made his tongue swell until he was unintelligible.
In the early 1900’s, when the Wild West was fully settled, and no longer so wild, Burnham became restless. So he headed to South Africa where he joined Cecil Rhodes, the British governor who was trying to wrestle the land away from the Boers, the Dutch farmers who had been there for years. The sheer numbers of British soldiers forced the Boers from their lands, where they retreated to the wilderness and conducted guerilla warfare against the British. Burnham was a welcome addition to the British, as he would fearlessly head into the wild to seek out hiding Boer forces. He also taught the British forces the basics of scouting so that they wouldn’t be sitting ducks to the Boer guerillas.
Burnham’s most fearsome nemesis in the Second Boer War was a Boer named Fritz Duquense. Fritz had been a scout before the war, and in the beginning of the war, came back to his home to find that the British had strung up his blind uncle and bayoneted him to death. They also violated his sister before killing her, and violated his mother before dragging her off to a concentration camp.
Disguised as a British officer, he slipped into the concentration camp, where he found his mother with a seven-month old baby, both infected with syphilis and days from death. He promised his mother that he would avenge every drop of her blood with a hundred British lives. He began his promise by killing two British officers as he was riding out of the camp. He then continued killing British soldiers with skill and audacity matched by no one in the Boer field. Burnham was sent out to kill him, and Fritz was desperate to kill Burnham, at one point paying the men with him so that if they ever found Burnham, he would be the one to put a bullet into his face. The men circled each other for years, never meeting on the battlefield.
One of Burnham’s more memorable experiences in the Second Boer War was when he sent with a 25 pound pack of explosives to blow up an important bridge. He was spotted, and Boers shot his horse and which fell directly on him. Wounded in the gut, he wriggled out from under his dead horse, held both hands on his wound to keep the blood flow down and hold his guts in place, made his way to the bridge, blew it up, and then camouflaged himself in a nearby field. At one point, Burnham was less than twenty yards away from a Boer officer berating his men for not finding him.
Eventually he was found by British soldiers, severely wounded and barely conscious. He was sent back by boar to England to receive medical treatment, and on the ship befriended an Englishman who was also wounded in the war, a fellow named Winston Churchill. In London, he was invited to dine with Queen Victoria where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order by King Edward VII.
After nursing himself back to health, Burnham moved back to Pasadena, CA where he had an orange grove that he tried to run unsuccessfully before heading off to war. He was not much of an orange grower, and he was on the hunt for something new and exotic to do. It was at this point in his life that he began to work on bringing the hippopotamus to the US.
At the time, beef prices were on the rise in the US, as all the cheap land previously used for cattle grazing had been turned into farmland, or had been overgrazed to the point of uselessness. The US was experiencing explosive population growth, bringing millions of immigrants a year into its teeming cities, and the number of cows in the US was dropping by millions each year. The whole country was talking about the Meat Question.
With Burnham’s years in Africa fresh on his mind, he believed that a possible solution would be to import herds of hippos. He was bothered by the fact that most Americans restricted their diet to just four animals; the cow, sheep, pig, and poultry especially when there were so many other delicious animals in nature. He dreamed of eventually brining in giraffe, gemsbok, eland, and other African animals, but decided to start with the hippo because of its enormous size, and tasty nature, especially in the fatty brisket cut. Burnham began writing articles and sending them off to papers across the nation, where the idea was immediately sensationalized and debated by a meat starved nation looking for relief.
He found an unlikely partner in colorful and effusive Congressman from Louisiana, Robert Foligny Broussard. Broussard had been representing New Iberia, Louisiana for as long as people could remember, and was a larger than life character who claimed he was related to one third (or at times he would say one half) of the people in his district. Whether he was related to them or not, he was affectionately known as Cousin Bob throughout Louisiana, and had become a strong force in the Democratic Party on a national level.
His interest in hippopotami came from a different angle, he wanted them as vacuum cleaners. In 1884, at an international conference on the cotton plants in New Orleans, the Japanese brought over a beautiful plant known as the water hyacinth as a gift to the host country. The Southerners were enamored by its pale lavender flowers and the ease of cultivating them, and began planting them everywhere.
The hyacinth turned out to be an invasive species, growing out of control, and clogging up entire waterways. They sucked all the oxygen out of the rivers, suffocating the local fish, and ruining the professions of millions of fishermen along the rivers and wetlands. Even worse, they grew so thick that they stopped boats trying to navigate the rivers, and soon waterways that used to carry millions of tons of cargo were reduced to stinking rotting blankets of pale lavender hyacinths.
The War Department had staged an all-out offensive against the flower, but with minimal success. They could clear a waterway of the flower, but one month later it would be clogged again. (To this day Louisiana spends millions each year on pesticides to curb the hyacinth problem.) Broussard knew that the hippos were voracious plant eaters, and he saw them as not just a source of meat, but as a solution to the hyacinth problem.
Broussard started pushing for the hippo solution in Washington, and even introduced a bill on the floor, H.R. 26231, a proposal that the US allocate $250,000 towards the importation of hippopotami to the US. The bill came before congress on March 24, 1910, and Broussard usually bombastic and magniloquent kept his comments brief saying that the three people he brought in to testify before Congress were far more knowledgeable than he.
The first to testify was a federal researcher and scientist named William Newton Irwin, a man who had been on a crusade to diversify the US diet for years. He had pushed for American to adopt turkey eggs instead of chicken eggs, arguing that they were bigger, richer, tastier, and due to their thick shells able to last much longer. To prove his point, he would buy a turkey egg, leave it out for six months, and then eat it, claiming it still tasted fresh. He was also on the hippo bandwagon, he once invited an unassuming Washington Post reporter to his office, fed him some jerky, and then took out a picture of five East African natives butchering the hippo that the jerky was made of.
Irwin laid out all the scientific reasons behind the need to bring in the hippos. Burnham followed with an impassioned testimony, based on his years in Africa, and then the third speaker was introduced. His name? Fritz Duquense. Two sworn enemies who had tried to kill each other for years, met for the first time in the halls of the US Congress, on the same side of one of the most bizarre bills to ever be presented on the floor. Fritz was quite the orator as well, he began his presentation with the following statement: “I am as much one of the African animals as the hippopotamus.” He then went on to describe his childhood when he remembered seeing hunters return with hippos, one of the easiest animals to hunt, and then butchering it and distributing its meat to everyone in the village.
The idea caught on like wildfire. The press all over the country shouted out headlines like, “Hippos for Dixie!” and “Hippos answer the Meat Question!” The Washington Post went so far as to confidently predict that it was, “a question of only a very few years now when large shipments of hippos will be made to America.” Duquense and Burnham, previously sworn enemies, now joined forces to create the New Food Society, and Irwin joined them to move across the country and make the case to the American people.
What happened? Why is there no hippo bacon on the shelves of US Supermarkets? Why can’t you buy smoked hippo brisket at the local Kroger’s?
H.R. 26231 stalled. At first it was attacked by Republican candidates simply because it was introduced by a Democrat. Broussard turned to higher profile activities shuttling between Washington and Central America in his bid to bring the World Expo to New Orleans. Additionally, he frequently traveled back to his district to run his reelection campaigns by trying to shake every man’s hand in the district despite the fact that he was running unopposed.
Duquense left to chase a lucrative venture traveling the country and lecturing about the wild animals and civilizations of Africa. When Teddy Roosevelt, one of the most universally loved presidents ever, left office, he immediately set out on a hunting expedition to Africa. People wanted to know what Teddy would find, and Duquense toured the country delivering lectures complete with videos and photos of what Teddy was probably experiencing to sold out audiences.
Burnham also took on new projects. By late 1910, frustrated by the lack of movement on the hippo issue, he moved to Mexico to oversee and protect the mining operations owned by the Guggenheims, J.P. Morgan, and John Hays Hammond, the mining baron. And slowly the American Hippo died. Instead the American feedlot rose up, where thousands of cows were confined into small farms, and raised for the butcher. Disease, overuse of antibiotics, superbugs resistant to antibiotics, and massive pollution from the runoff of feedlots, have been the byproducts of the feedlot. Somehow, hippo bacon sounds like a much better alternative. (And had hippo been successful, giraffe and other exotic meats may have become mainstream as well!)
Passion is great, enthusiasm is a powerful force, but even stronger than both of those is the character trait called zerizus. Commonly translated as alacrity, the trait encompasses far more than the just the ability to act quickly. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, an eighteenth century Kabbalist and philosopher, in his magnum opus, “The Path of the Just”, explains that the trait of zerizus also means that one sticks to whatever project or mitzva he is working on with great tenacity, never letting it rest until he completes the job.
Every new project, every new idea comes with a swell of energy, but zerizus is what is required to get to the finish line. As the Sages teach us, “A mitzvah that comes to your hand, don’t let it sour.” As Rabbi Luzzato explains, “The nature of a person is to be very heavy, for the earthiness of physicality is very coarse, therefore people don’t want to work hard and labor.” The result is that we often only have the energy to start projects of improvements in our lives, based on that initial infusion of energy, but then progress slows as the initial energy dissipates, and often we end up exactly where we left off.
We probably are not working on any projects quite as bombastic as the importation of hippos to a skeptical nation, but we can draw inspiration from the story of these remarkable men who almost changed the landscape of America. As Bo Jackson, the first person to ever become an All-Star in two different sports said, “Set your goals high, and don’t stop until you get there.”
Every person who ever made a difference to society, from Thomas Edison, to Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Galileo, to Beri Weber, the founder of Hatzala, a volunteer rescue agency that saves tens of thousands of lives around the world each year, all faced many significant challenges along the way. And while our projects may not be as bold as theirs, we too want to change ourselves, our families, and perhaps even our community in ways we already know in our mind to be true and necessary. But training ourselves in zerizus, is what will get us across the finish line.
The lives of Burnham and Duquense are truly fascinating, and I’ve only mentioned a fraction of their stories. Please see the article I linked to above for the rest of the story, but be prepared, it is a very long and well researched story!
Last week, by mistake I thought it was Parshas Eikev, when in fact it was Parshas Ve’eschanan. Therefore this week has the same Dvar Torah and Parsha Summary as last week, only this week it is the proper one.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha contains one of my favorite verses. In Deuteronomy 8:3 it states: “For not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live.” This seems to be telling us clearly that in order to live fully one has to be connected to something greater than simple physical material. One has to be connected to spirituality, the emanations of the mouth of G-d. What does this mean, and how exactly does being connected spiritually help me live? I see many people who live long lives and are not at all connected to any form of spirituality?
In order to understand this, let us take a micro-mini class called Self- Awareness 101. Who are we? We are a combination of a soul and a body. My body comes from the earth and its primary goal is to transport my soul to wherever it needs to go in order to accomplish its goals. My soul comes from a purely spiritual world and all it is interested in is spirituality, yet it is quite immobile, so it needs the body to accomplish its takes. It tries to control the body and direct it to squeeze spirituality out of physicality (e.g. using the physical, such as wooden boards, to make a spiritual place, a Succah.)
A good analogy would be to compare the relationship to you and your car. Obviously the primary object is you (although if you see the way some people treat their cars, you begin to wonder who is there to serve who), but you can’t get far without a car. Car is to Human, as Body is to Soul. One needs to take good care of their body in order for it to continue to function well, and therefore we eat. But the minute we only feed the body we are forgetting about the primary object. This would be analogous to going on a road trip and filling up the car with gas, but not feeding the humans in the car. The car may continue running, but soon it will be running on empty (empty of inner life not gas).
If we feed only our body, giving it every gastronomical delight it desires, feeding it with eye-candy by looking at whatever it wishes, and taking it all over the world to pamper it, then the soul inside, the primary object, starts to slowly waste away. The first sign of this wasting is usually mild depression and a sense of emptiness. This is what the verse means when it days that man doesn’t subsist on bread alone. We need to feed the body, but it is much more important to feed our soul, which needs a different diet, one consisting of that which emanates from the mouth of G-d.
This parsha starts off with a great deal for the Jews. G-d tells them – you keep my mitzvot (even the little ones that people think are insignificant), and I will keep you healthy, wealthy, and wise. In addition G-d reassures them, and tells them not to fear the numerous strong nations that live in Israel as G-d will go before them in battle and help them win, just as He destroyed the Egyptians who oppressed them. As a matter of fact, the Jews had miraculous help from a special hornet called a tzirah which would seek out enemies and shoot poison into their eyes. (If only we could order a couple thousand of those for the IDF!)
G-d also tells the Jews to remember the miracles they experienced as part of daily life in the dessert, how they had spiritual food (manna) delivered to them daily, their feet never blistered, they never had to wash their clothes (the Clouds of Glory acted as a cleansing agent and kept everyone’s clothing fresh and pressed), and their clothing and shoes never wore out. Even though they are about to enter a land in which all these miracles will cease, G-d promises them that it is a land lacking nothing. It is filled with streams and underground springs that wind through the mountains and the valleys. It has seven fruits for which it is particularly blessed: wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives (and their oil), and dates (and their honey).
However ,G-d warns the people of the pitfall of becoming too accustomed to material success, forgetting about G-d, and claiming that it is you who earned everything you have. G-d warns us that when that happens, we will lose all the wealth we have become accustomed to, as it has become the source of our forgetting G-d. (Analogy: Parents buy child video game console, kid forgets about parents and plays game all day long, parents take away gaming console.) G-d even applies this concept to the spiritual affluence the Jews experienced in the desert. He tells the Jews, “Don’t think that it is due to your righteousness that you merited living with such spiritual greatness, because you rebelled against me many times, but rather because you are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and because G-d has chosen you as his nation.”
Here, Moshe reminds the Jews of the Golden Calf, about how he had to break the first tablets, and ascend to heaven for forty days to beg forgiveness, and then another forty days in order to receive the second set of tablets. Moshe reminds the people that they saw with their own eyes the miracles G-d performed in Egypt and in the desert, and that those miracles should propel them toward proper service of G-d. This will enable them to live on the land of Israel which, besides for being a wonderful place to live, has the added benefit that G-d’s eyes are always upon it, and it will only support a G-dly existence.
The Parsha ends with the second portion of the Shema, V’haya im shamoa. This portion has two main ideas, reward and punishment, and our obligation to fulfill the mitzvot. The interesting thing to note is that the Torah, unlike any other religious book, only promises rewards in this world, it never mentions the world to come. Other books are filled with glorious promises of reward in the Kingdom of Heaven, promises easy to make because people don’t come back from there to report if it’s true or not. However, the Torah promises that in this world it will be better, a promise that could only be made by a G-d Who can back up what He says. So I guess we have our H.W. cut out for us – we have to get out there, behave well, and then reap the benefits G-d promises us throughout this parsha! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. – Mahatma Ghandi
Random Fact of the Week: Only female mosquitos will bite you.
Funnyl Line of the Week: Take my advice – I’m not using it.
Have a Jubilant Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham