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Bugs in the System

If you ever come upon a scientist in chareidi garb hovering close to the ground collecting some creepy, crawly thing in a distant corner of Israel, don’t look surprised. It’s safe to assume that it’s Reb Leibele Friedman.

“People are sure that I’m crazy,” he says. “Worse, some think that I’m trying to eat the bugs.”

In order to explain what he means, he takes out his primary research instrument, a test tube with two pipes, one that he places in his mouth and another that sucks up bugs. In order to trap an insect, he sucks air into one, which pulls the insect into the tube through the other.

“For someone who’s not familiar with it, this might look like I’m hungry,” he says, chuckling.

When I met him recently on the campus of Tel Aviv University, where he works as an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects), he looked a bit like an odd beetle in tall grass: a smiling, bespectacled man with a beard and peyos, he wears a large black yarmulke, a chassidic vest, and a woolen tallis katan with techeiles fringes. Despite appearances, Friedman is one of the most respected entomologists in the Middle East, and the man in charge of the national beetle collection of the State of Israel. To be precise, Reb Leibele specializes in weevils, the largest family in the beetle kingdom.

At the entrance to his research lab, he welcomes me with a hearty “shulem aleichem,” pulls a magnetic card out of his pocket and swipes it past an electronic eye. After the door buzzes, he pushes it with his shoulder and we enter a clean, well maintained building. Reb Leibel’s kingdom, if you will. We make our way through a maze of corridors to the top floor.

There, his office looks like a cross between a yeshivah and a research lab. There are bookcases of old tomes in a number of languages, a large cart with more stacks of books, and a pile of white boxes stuffed with beetles — the reason for my visit.

When Reb Leibele opens a box and peers inside, his smile broadens. There are about 50 beetles lined up, each pierced with a metal pin. As we stand in his office, he eagerly begins to tell me about the various differences among the thousands of species. This one has a longer head and this one has a proboscis.

When Reb Leibele talks about beetles, his face glows with a special light. He can’t pinpoint exactly why, but he loves the tiny creatures. “When I walk in the field and see one of them, it’s like meeting a good friend,” he says. “I love their color and shape, and when you examine them under a microscope you can discover amazing structures that you don’t see with the naked eye. I can’t take my eyes off of them.”

In recent years, he has become well known in Israel as the man who explains beetles to the larger public. It started a few years ago, when a species of beetle invaded Israel. Reb Leibele was dispatched to media outlets to calm people’s nerves and explain that the creatures were harmless. But that isn’t the case for every beetle. “There are a few types of poisonous beetles in the world,” he explains. “They are less dangerous to people, and more to animals who eat them.”

Mostly, his job entails keeping track of the thousands of species of beetles that live in Israel and making sure that they don’t hinder crop production. Sometimes Reb Leibele is summoned to come inspect cargo ships docked at the Ashdod port. “If someone discovers a beetle in the cargo load — and let’s not forget that they are sometimes tiny — he cannot let it into the country before getting my ‘hechsher.’ I come, check the cargo, and look for the beetles. I make sure they belong to the species that we recognize here. In most cases, I approve the shipment. But there are times when I reject it and return the cargo to its country of origin.”

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 789)

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