A City and a Cat

About 20 years ago a tractor appeared on the horizon over the rugged rolling hills overlooking Moshav Matityahu. Inexorably, like a slow moving juggernaut, tilting from side to side and piercing the silence with its gruff engine, the vehicle edged jarringly towards the settlement’s barbed wire fence. Nearby, a lone Arab shepherd tending to his flock stood up in indignation as the tractor carved out a narrow track by scooping up rocks, stones and pebbles in a vast valley of thorny untamed terrain.

The forlorn shepherd looked at the few curious onlookers on the other side of the fence including myself, and in what was to be an absurdly futile protest furiously made it known that he intended making his way to the moshav office and filing a complaint against the intrusion. I actually felt somewhat sorry for him. Little did he know what he was up against. Only a day or two prior to this seemingly innocuous occurrence I had gotten wind of a piece of information that a town was to be built in this area – a swathe of land upon where we immigrant moshavniks had naively contemplated that sometime in the distant future Matityahu would initiate the building of a swimming pool, followed by a guest house, perhaps even an old aged home, or whatever other pipe dream conjured up by our entrepreneurial fancy at the time. A simple, uncomplicated dream bearing no relationship to reality.

modiinInstead, something far grander and way beyond the comprehension of our scattered whims was in the offing: A pyramid-building surge envisaging a coming concrete jungle of epic proportions which would result in a burgeoning city strategically located midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Today, the Chareidi metropolis of Modiin Elite comprised mainly of the large Kiryat Sefer and Brachfeld neighborhoods together with various other developing suburbs houses close to 50 000 souls. Eighty percent of the population is under 30 and a couple of years ago the city’s median age stood at 10.

In order for this phenomenal growth to come about, however, sturdy foundations had to be laid and an initial series of explosions day after day rocked the earth for miles around. The land shook and an underworld domain whose dominions of mice, rats snakes, scorpions and other creatures, snug for thousands of years ensconced in their wild habitat, were now scurrying in almost stampede fashion for fresh hitherto unknown pastures – and one of the destinations, Moshav Matityahu.

Consequently, snakes roamed free, homes were infiltrated by mice in almost epidemic proportions, and the most dreaded of all fears loomed menacingly close – rats, the size of kittens, had found their way into some of the houses and became a nightmarish scourge of daily life. My wife took decisive action.

“We need a cat”, she uttered with the authoritative air of someone who wore the pants in the family. All other options had been thrashed out and this was the only one which remained.

No, no, you don’t know what you’re doing…you don’t know how I am with cats,” was pretty much all I could muster.

The wife gave me a blank stare and another discussion abruptly ended most likely attributed by her to the wide chasm of cultural differences existing between a South African and American union. But I knew that it was a side of me that she hadn’t encountered in the 14 years or so that we had been married.

Going back more than fifty years into a different realm my parents presented me for my eleventh birthday with a pure gray kitten (some would describe it ash-blonde). Slyly, my sister suggested we name the furry feline Abba – an abbreviation for the infatuation she felt at the time for a lurking ducktail hovering somewhere in the city of Johannesburg. For the next fourteen years Abba was my cat. He waited patiently for me to come home from school, accompanied me to the cafe down the road, and remained my companion during those turbulent teen years. My mom faithfully and lovingly took care of him upon my subsequent long departures serving in the army, working in other places, and embarking on adventures overseas. No mere pet, Abba was something or someone that I constantly worried about day in and day out. Snuggling up at night in the crook of my leg behind the knee sent out the message that all was well with the world. If he had been out on the town I was left anxious and insecure.

Coming back to the present, I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. How ridiculous.” That was a long time ago. After all, I was now supposedly grown-up and a married man with six children to boot. Things would be very different. Besides, could be that she was just mouthing a frustration and a less drastic solution would crop up. You know, Chareidi family and all. Household animals were not exactly recommended fare. An assumption as it turned out based on unadulterated wishful thinking.

Some days later without any prior announcement that such a purchase was imminent I was outside talking to someone when my wife returned home with a lively striped grey kitten about four months old. An organization similar to the SPCA was operating on a rooftop somewhere in Tel Aviv, where scores of cats filling a wide area were taken care of and prospective buyers could come along and pick and choose to take home. Faced by this meowing symphonic spectacle, she had no idea which one to take. The decision was not hers to make as the future Shnapsi Beilin (named in honor of the weekly “le chaims” celebrated during the special Sabbath meals my family and I indulged) seized her opportunity and made a beeline for her ankles all the while conducting an immaculate sales pitch of purring and looking up with baleful eyes.

“I guess I’ll take this one.”

“A good choice”, the lady accompanying my wife said.

I waited a good half an hour before I ventured inside. The kids were cock a hoop with feverish delight, pulling at her tail, chasing her under the couch, and coaxing her out by poking a broom stick. Friends came by to watch. I sat down and sighed, clicked my fingers, and immediately the kitten answered my call by moving swiftly in my direction. I stroked the top of her head, scratched her throat, and for her the bond was signed and sealed. Somewhat duty bound and without having any other choice, she eventually tolerated most others in the home and grew to truly adore my wife and one of my daughters. But I was the one that she instinctively knew from the outset who was going to be the provider of all her needs and desires.

And so came about the birth-pangs of my latest blog, the saga of the second cat in my life, who for the next nineteen years lived in my house and for me at least was an intricate member of the family. During this era which came to an end a couple of months ago, in a type of juxtaposition between a cat’s nine lives and the creation of a city, Shnapsi Beilin lived out her years, while Modiin Elite, still in relative infancy, hovers like a encircling octopus with skyscrapers facing our sacrosanct moshav entrance.

joe catMy cat was the epitome of good health for almost her entire life. After we had her about three weeks one of my kids experimented by throwing her across the room to see if she would land on her feet. Unfortunately, her leg broke by clipping the sharp end of a chair. I remember the vet teaching me a lesson by stating that once I had taken responsibility for her care it became my obligation to fix the leg, no matter what the expense. My wife and I unequivocally agreed. Shnapsi Beilin recovered and some months later for the one and only time became a mother herself to a litter of two kittens.

A few months ago suddenly in drastic fashion she began to lose weight, her fur became matted and fell out in clumps, and she took to drinking a great deal of water. Symptoms, I was later to find out, of deteriorating kidney function. Ominously, the writing was on the wall.

Perhaps I was in a state of denial but I never really contemplated her dying. We did discuss taking her to a vet towards the end but the consensus was that the recommendation would be to put her down. She did not seem to be in any pain and actually maintained a healthy appetite right to the end. What’s more, probably owing to her fragile state, she appeared to be more cuddly and contented than ever. In any event, the few times over the years that we had gone to the vet mostly for one inoculation or another she would fight ferociously, so why have her prodded and filled with medication to extend her life a little longer, was our assertion.

Still, with hindsight, I sometimes think that in a way I showed neglect by not doing more, even though I think I can say that she definitely was one of the most spoiled cats in the history of the species. Another issue I have been grappling with is the subject of afterlife. As a believing Jew, I am consoled by the knowledge that upon death the departed soul enters a new form of life and those left behind go through meaningful mourning periods. What about Shnapsi Beilin? Was this long and happy life snuffed out forever? Actually, a rabbi once told me of an opinion held by an ancient sage that there was a form of afterlife for animals. Bring it on!!!

Anyway, the Creator of the universe knows what He is doing and how things should operate. Honestly, I don’t think that I could handle being an atheist.

Now is the point where I am supposed to comment on what an amazing cat I had. Let’s see. Those balmy nights when she slept on my bed I would have to face her and she would curl up next to me. If I plucked up the courage to turn around, usually feeling a tinge of cramp, after a few seconds she would gently scratch the nape of my neck until I relented and had to swing around to face her again. Otherwise, she was a cat just like other cats. Mostly over the course of the years, she was in and out of the house insisting on her independence while being demonstrably demanding, and never to be taken lightly.

What I am left with is a void of something alive and vibrant which became part of my world for nineteen years. It has to be said though that so much happened during that time. My cat’s life danced in tandem with a new city bristling with growth. In my own household children became adults and once youngish parents are today nestling in a perch of aged maturity.


Oh yes. Almost forgot to mention. Not long after Shnapsi Beilin’s passing, mouse droppings have been discovered in some of the bedroom drawers.

About the Author
Joe Neppe, a former journalist at some of South Africa's leading newspapers, today specializes in writing people's life stories. He lives on Moshav Matityahu in the Modiin region.