How much is that doggie in the window?
The one with the waggly tail
How much is that doggie in the window?
I do hope that doggie’s for sale.
I’ve been thinking a lot about animals recently, specifically about why some of us might be pet people, and why some of us aren’t. When I was growing up in my ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, I didn’t know anyone who had a pet. It was inconceivable to me that one would willingly bring an animal into their home. How were these animal owners not frightened? As a child, it seemed that everyone around me was afraid of animals. We would routinely cross the street if we saw someone coming toward us walking a dog, regardless of its size. I can remember my brother and I having animated debates about what breed was more vicious, the German Shepherd or the Doberman Pinscher. Of course, since we didn’t actually know anyone who had either one of those nor did we have real life experience, all our information came from stories we had heard from folks who had. Whether the stories were true or not was never something that occurred to us to investigate, it was entirely irrelevant to our lives.
There are two incidents that stand out clearly in my memory. They both happened within a few days of each other, and were both incredibly traumatic for me. I was seven, and we were all in Paris having accompanied my father on an extended business trip through several European countries. He would be at work during the day, and my mother, brother, and I played tourist — going from one art museum to another until we would reunite at dinner time. We were at our hotel in Paris, and my parents were inside the lobby, while I had wandered outside. There was a woman standing near the entrance with a small dog on a leash. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I remember feeling the dog’s teeth on my hand and then calmly walking inside the hotel and telling my parents, “a dog just bit me.” I don’t think I cried until I saw how upset my parents were. The hotel doctor came and bandaged up the (tiny) bite, and the concierge had a gift basket sent up to our room. A few nights later, we were meeting my father for dinner at a kosher restaurant, A La Bonne Bouchée. We met up on a street corner and were walking to dinner, when suddenly there were a bunch of loose dogs around us. I don’t remember how many, or if they were large, or vicious, or even barking. What I do remember is that my mother screamed, “RUN!” And I ran. I’m not sure how my brother and father got separated from us, perhaps they had the good sense to stay calm and not encourage the dogs to chase them; I honestly can’t remember how the episode ended or where we ultimately met up with them after. I have no memory of anything else about that night other than the panic in my mother’s voice, the terror I felt as we ran, and the terrible argument my parents had afterwards. My mother kept screaming that my father had abandoned us, had left us to fend for ourselves in a dog attack. I remember feeling badly for him as he tried to defend himself. I knew that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but I also knew enough to stay out of it.
While dogs clearly were unacceptable housemates, cats were even worse. Cats were sneaky, evil, and considered tamei – impure, and though we knew no one who had one, we were strictly prohibited from entering a house that was home to a cat. Perhaps because we had never had any direct contact with cats we were never taught to fear them, in fact other than the initial ‘cats are impure’ conversation, I don’t recall them ever being a topic of another conversation. They were so not a part of our lives in thought or reality, that the disdain and disgust we were to feel at their very existence did not even warrant a second mention. Dogs however, were entirely different.
When my oldest nephew was around 18 months old and I was still allowed to be a part of my brother’s family, I took him out to spend the day with me. We went to visit my friend, a professor at a local college. On the door of her office, there was a poster of one of George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog paintings. It’s been over 25 years since that day, so while I’m not entirely sure which of his many paintings it was specifically, I can clearly remember what happened next. M. took one look at the picture on the door, and began crying. He kept repeating, “dog — I’m afraid” over and over in Yiddish. I tried to show him that it wasn’t real, that it was only a piece of paper, but he could not be consoled. When I asked my brother later why M had been so afraid of what was clearly a cartoon rendition of a dog, he explained that whenever his wife came across a picture of a dog, she would say to M — “dog, I’m afraid.” M had never even seen a dog in real life, but he already knew that it was something to fear. At the risk of angering some who might read this, I will say now what I couldn’t say then —that I believe indoctrinating children with this sort of fear is a form of child abuse.
In High School, we had two lessons that mentioned dogs. The first came on a walk back to school after some trip our class had taken. Some girls were eating chips, or chewing gum, or maybe even just drinking some water. The teacher gathered us together so that we looked like were having a huddle in the middle of a sports game. She gave us a talk about modesty — which it seems was a favorite topic among teachers in girls’ schools, and then said, “Haochel b’shuk domeh l’kelev” – one who eats in the marketplace (public) is compared to a dog. We were never to eat or drink in a public place because it was animalistic, or in other words, immodest. The second time I remember a teacher mentioning something about dogs was in reference to the Exodus story, which is appropriate for this time of year and probably why I thought about any of this at all. As the Israelites were gearing up to leave Egypt right after the Egyptians had suffered the worst of the horrible plagues, the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt, we are told in Exodus 11:7 that “But not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast…” —the Israelite’s departure from Egypt was so completely unopposed that not even a dog barked at them as they left. We were taught that if we ever came across a barking dog (or any dog actually) that frightened us, we should repeat this verse and no harm would come to us. I’m not sure why this lesson in particular stuck with me. I don’t recall a time when I ever employed this ‘trick’, but I guess I must have filed it away for some reason.
“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” – Martin Buber
With all this history, it is not surprising then that I never even entertained the idea of getting a pet. My children never asked for one like many others do, and so it was never something to which I gave much consideration until the pandemic. As I watched friend after friend post pictures of their ‘pandemic puppies’, I was struck with a strong urge to have a one myself. I became obsessed with looking at puppies, investigating which breeds would be appropriate for our home since my youngest child is allergic to dogs. We ended up with a mixed breed – a beautiful baby with a King Charles Cavalier father and a Shitzu-Bichon mix mother.
Esme Rose is the newest member of our family. She is lovable, mischievous, smart as a whip, and like every one of us, incredibly stubborn. She has been home for three months, and we honestly can hardly imagine our lives without her. I wonder what my old neighbors would think of her; would they be frightened of this sweet face? Would they cross the street if they saw us walking down the block?
Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote, “How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.”
I couldn’t agree more.