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It took about two years and the help of the Israeli government, but in recent weeks a farming couple from Canada has airlifted 119 sheep into Israel. The farmers are Jewish and citizens of Israel, and they say the sheep descend from an ancient breed which roamed the Holy Land during the time of the Bible. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been looking into their supposed biblical heritage and greeted them as they arrived at the airport.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This is Israel's main airport near Tel Aviv, and an Air Canada jet has just landed with 18 sheep in cargo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)
ESTRIN: Farmers Jenna and Gil Lewinsky have already flown over from Canada to shepherd their sheep through customs. The sheep have Hebrew names.
JENNA LEWINSKY: Come, Israel.
GIL LEWINSKY: Come. Come. Come. Come.
J. LEWINSKY: Come, Israel. Come.
G. LEWINSKY: Come. Come.
ESTRIN: Gil Lewinsky says he and his wife Jenna are on a spiritual mission.
G. LEWINSKY: You know that Israel is built on the Jewish people returning. And now you have a case of an animal that comes from, you know, the Old Testament also returning.
ESTRIN: Their sheep are a breed called Jacob Sheep. They're found in the U.K. and North America, but the Lewinskys say the breed is originally from the Middle East. And their coats have speckles and spots, as Jacob's flock was described in the Book of Genesis. About two years ago, the Lewinskys wanted help bringing Jacob Sheep to their biblical homeland, so they contacted Eitan Weiss at the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa.
EITAN WEISS: And I was like, what the hell? I mean, sheep? I don't know, it sounded very, very odd, I had to say. But when I did the homework and when they sent me some material I said, I think this is an amazing story.
ESTRIN: The Israeli Agriculture Ministry said no. Canada is not on Israel's list of approved countries for livestock imports. But the Israeli ambassador to Canada got involved and the Agriculture Ministry granted a one-time exception for the Jacob Sheep. I wanted to learn more about the Jacob Sheep, so I visited sheep expert Elisha Gootwine at the Israeli Agriculture Ministry's Volcani Research Center.
ELISHA GOOTWINE: Jacob Sheep are related to Jacob the same as the American Indians are related to India (laughter).
ESTRIN: He says Jacob Sheep are a British breed. They got their name in the late 19th century because their spots and speckles called to mind Jacob's sheep from the Bible. He says all sheep can be traced back to the region because sheep were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. But the Jacob Sheep breed was not indigenous to ancient Israel.
GOOTWINE: Anyway, it's a nice breed and people will be happy to see it. That's - and a good - it is a good story for journalists (laughter). Not for scientists.
ESTRIN: So it's just - it's a myth.
GOOTWINE: It's a - yes. But what is wrong with myth? If you enjoy it, why not?
ESTRIN: The Lewinsky farmers say it's not a myth. They've traced the Jacob Sheep's roots from ancient Israel to the Iberian Peninsula to England to North America and now to Israel. Jewish and Christian donors have contributed to help bring the sheep to Israel and help the Lewinskys set up a farm near Jerusalem, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry is planning a welcome home ceremony for the animals. Is Israel their original home? The Foreign Ministry's Eitan Weiss told me he sees it as a matter of faith. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBCHOP SONG, "UP WITH PEOPLE")
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