Flocks and bagels: Bird-watching author appreciates both a wing and a prayer

“Even the stork in the sky knows her seasons, and the turtledove, swift and crane keep the time of their coming.” Jeremiah 8:7

More than 1,500 years after Jeremiah prophesied, Jonathan Rosen, too, has spied stork and crane in the skies above the Holy Land.

Israel, says Rosen, “is a great place to watch birds. An astonishing diversity of bird life from Africa, Asia and Europe is forced to fly over this tiny bit of land.”

General editor of the Jewish cultural Web site Nextbook.org and a former editor at the Jewish Daily Forward, Rosen is a bit of a bird nut. Whether tracking storks in Israel or communing with warblers in New York’s Central Park, he has a thing for things with wings.

So much so, he has written a new book, “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature.”

He will discuss the book and his Jewish take on bird watching in a conversation with Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 2 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

While his book is all about birds, it’s no replacement for the Peterson Field Guide. “The Life of the Skies” explores not only Rosen’s personal encounters with class Aves, it also examines the allure of birds for writers throughout history.

He’s as likely to quote John Keats as he is John Jay Audubon.

“Birds appear to be living metaphors of our innermost desires,” he says of poets’ enduring fascination with birds. “They literally live between earth and sky, a place we imaginatively situate ourselves. In that sense they are almost poems with wings.”

Despite the stereotype of Jews as inveterate city-dwellers, a Jewish love of the natural world is as old as the Torah itself. Rosen asserts he is far from the first Jew to take up the hobby of bird watching.

In fact, the New Yorker isn’t even the first editor of the Forward to wrap a pair of binoculars around his neck and listen for a coo or caw.

Abraham Cahan, the man who founded the Yiddish language Daily Forward in 1897, was a birder.

“Cahan was all about finding your way into American life and culture,” Rosen says, “and natural history is a natural extension of that. Cahan was bird watching in 1903 when the Kishinev pogrom broke out. He heard the news and raced back [to New York] with his bird guide. He wanted to be with his fellow Jews.”

Statistics suggest more than 40 million Americans have tried bird watching. Rosen believes the pleasure stems from innate human desires to commune with the natural world and to hunt. In the case of birding, thankfully, no living being gets hurt.

Coming from a Jewish perspective, Rosen also compares fading Old World shtetl culture with bird populations now threatened by encroaching civilization.

“It never occurred to my grandmother that the desire to stop speaking Yiddish could mean the diminishment of Judaism,” he says. “She viewed Jewish culture the way early settlers viewed the forest. We now have the ability to literally destroy the natural world. Birds are basically the only wild animals left in abundance that we can all see.”

Just because he’s a dedicated bird watcher doesn’t mean he forgoes roast chicken or Thanksgiving turkey. Rosen has no problem with meat eating or hunting, provided “it doesn’t deplete endangered birds. Hunters have proved to be the greatest conservationists. Hunters are organized. They tax themselves, and they’ve become a political force.”

Even though his book invokes the high intellect of great poets and writers, Rosen is still a populist when it comes to bird watching. He wants one and all to see what the flap is all about.

Says Rosen: “Some people want to know how to get started. All you need is to grab your binoculars and go outside.”

“The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature” by Jonathan Rosen ($24, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 324 pages).

Jonathan Rosen in conversation with Jon Carroll, 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 2 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $8-$10. Information: (415) 292-1200 or jccsf.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.