|Family Matters: Unexpected BFF|
Illustration by Michael S. Wertz.
The Weimaraner arrived at my Jerusalem apartment one summer day alongside my wife’s nephew—a self-styled nomad who roams the Judean Hills with his goats, sheep, horses and numerous other creatures that drift into his fold. I simply assumed that the large, steel-gray dog was a member of his animal clan.
It was only when the nephew had vanished that I realized there might be other elements at play: “What is that dog doing here?” I asked my wife.
“It’s your surprise.”
“Your birthday present.”
I jerked the yarmulke off my head and waved it in front of the dog like a black flag in a futile attempt to shoo it away. The dog began licking its chops, as though I had offered up some tasty morsel.
How am I going to take care of you in the city?” I said to the dog. “Not to mention all the religious Jews....” There was little room in the Orthodox mentality for dogs. Not just that they were considered inessential to Jewish living, but they had, through the centuries, picked up an unsavory reputation.
Rabbi Elijah Judah Schochet in Animal Life in Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and Relationships (Ktav) pointed out that the dog was one of the few animals that Scripture blatantly dumped on: Dogs are considered noisy (Psalms 59:7-14), “greedy” (Isaiah 56:11), “ignorant” (Isaiah 56:10) and filthy (Proverbs 26:11). “Dog,” as applied to human beings, was an insult (I Kings 22:38) that included sexual transgressions (Deuteronomy 23:18).
“Dwight D. Eisenhower had a Weimaraner,” my wife said. “Its name was Heidi.... Yours is called Rita.”
At night, Rita began to whine. She sat on her haunches in front of the door, whining and whimpering. Midnight had come and gone. I opened the door and barked at her to shut up, but the whining increased.
“You’re gonna get the whole neighborhood on my back!” I growled at the dog.
“You have to make up her bed,” my wife called out.
“Take that big carton down in the yard and put in a blanket.”
“What am I, her lady in waiting?”
“Put some newspapers on top of her.”
“Newspapers? She likes to read in bed?”
The dog was a speed demon. Originally bred for hunting in the early 19th century, its stamina was incredible. I tied her leash to the seat of my bicycle, and she bolted as though possessed. People on the street stared as we raced past—through Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, up around the Supreme Court building, past the Knesset, the creature was literally a gray streak, never faltering, never breaking stride, tireless. She stopped short only at night, when the guards at the Knesset blocked our path with drawn guns, thinking the speeding dog was some terrorist device.
“She’s Jewish,” I said to them. “She converted.”
In spite of the Orthodox resistance to dogs and the negative scriptural remarks, Exodus (11:6-7) gives them a vital role in the history of the Jewish people: “There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt, such as there has never been seen and such as there shall never be again, but against all the children of Israel, no dog shall whet its tongue...so that you shall know that the Lord will have differentiated between Egypt and Israel.”
Various interpretations have been given about this, but one in particular suggests that the Weimaraner that arrived on my porch that day was not just a hodgepodge of animal instincts but possessed a sensitivity and awareness that might, in some way, supersede that of my own. At the time that the Egyptian firstborn were being destroyed, many of the Jews who lived in Egypt had become so “Egyptian” that the ordinary eye could not distinguish them from actual Egyptians.
Enter the dog: The range of sound that it hears is far greater than what the human ear can perceive. There are dog whistles that man cannot hear. Their sense of smell also exceeds anything that the human nose can detect—so at that particular moment where life and death hung in abeyance, where the difference between Jew and Egyptian was imperceptible to humans, the dogs’ extraordinary range of sense perceptions allowed them to identify as Jews those who had become almost, but not quite, Egyptian. The silence of the dogs, who are known to bark at every stranger, was, in fact, a moment of redemption. Every dog, apparently, has its day.
Scripture recognizes this and insists that all generations reward the dog for its behavior on that historical night: “People of holiness shall you be to Me; you shall not eat flesh of an animal that was torn in the field, to the dog shall you throw it” (Exodus 22:30-31).
Shortly after Rita moved in with us, there was an incident with a thief. Rita had already come to the conclusion that the porch was hers. Any stranger who approached was greeted by ferocious barking, gnashing of teeth—all of it a cover for her yellow streak: Hard-core elements of Jerusalem’s cat population (imported during the British Mandate to lower the rat populace) spit back, hissed and stood their ground against the terror-struck Rita.
The thief had stolen a car and was racing out of the city when, somehow, the police got onto him. He ditched the car and took off on foot. Trying to lose the pursuing police, he darted into my neighborhood’s narrow alleyways, arriving at the entrance to my apartment, which forks left into the garden, and right, up a flight of stairs, to the porch.
Powered by instinct, confusion or fear, the thief chose the steps over the garden and raced upward. As he reached the top, Rita charged him, gnashing her teeth, growling and barking insanely. The thief leaped off the porch, tumbling into the alleyway on the other side where the police were waiting for him, brought there by Rita’s yowling.
Even in the Talmud, there are stories of dogs who perform astonishing feats to save their masters. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Meir mentions a dog who saw a snake poisoning the milk of its master. The animal’s furious barking failed to alert him as he reached for the milk. Before he could consume it, the dog lunged forward, gulped it down and died. The grateful master not only gave the dog a funeral, but he constructed a monument in its honor.
These are exceptions. Twenty-first-century Orthodox Jews rarely admit dogs into their living spaces, except for one day—Purim—when the veils are dropped, when wine flows and the streets of Jerusalem become a living theater.
My youngest daughter put a red skirt on Rita, painted her nails a matching red, and off we trotted into a fantastic maze of Purimshpiel antics: blaring horns, fantastic masks and costumes. Rita was stroked, fondled, fed and whistled at by Hasidim who, the previous day, had shown only revulsion.
We drifted into a Purim party—music, laughter, dancing. Before us on a low stool stood a large blue bowl filled with kreplach. As I watched the dancing men, Rita, in her red skirt and her polished red nails, stealthily approached the bowl. Suddenly, a little girl in full Queen Esther regalia shrieked: “Look, Mommy, the dog’s licking your kreplach!”
An immense woman in a shapeless brown housedress lurched toward the bowl, but Rita lunged, overturning the stool and spilling the kreplach onto the floor. As she wolfed them down, the woman kept clenching and unclenching her fists as she shrieked: “I worked for hours on that!”
“Did you eat?” I asked.
“Nobody ate yet!”
“Then it’s O.K.,” I said, “because it’s a mitzva to feed the animals first—Deuteronomy 11:15.” Rita licked her chops as she swallowed the last kreplach.
“Too bad you did not make latkes,” I said as I coaxed Rita toward the door. “She eats them only on Hanukka.”