Julie Gray

Israel’s street cats are my therapy

I dispense handfuls of comfort to little creatures living short, brutal lives, making what difference I can amid so much that I cannot change
The author with Pinky. (courtesy)

I sit on a park bench and hold Pinky, one of my outside kitties. Winter has definitely arrived here in Israel, a welcome relief from the sweltering summer for us humans, but not so much for the feral cats of Israel. Pinky’s fur is a bit dirty, and she shivers in my arms. It was cold and rainy last night. Nearby, there are three cardboard boxes that my neighbor Shmuel built as shelters for the kitties. They are wrapped in plastic and even have small plywood overhangs to keep the rain out. After it rains, I take the damp bedding out and replace it with fresh, dry rags.

The cats are a source of tension between my life partner and me. Gidon suffered from near-starvation in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt for four years as a child. Feeding an animal was unimaginable. For him, then and now, coping with hardship means shutting down and conserving resources.

Gidon tells me that I should put my energy toward human beings and not cats. “Don’t exaggerate,” Gidon says, as I pack up a plastic bag with leftover chicken scraps and some dry food and head out to the park. He says I have become “a cat lady,” and maybe I have. As much as he grouses about what a “waste” it is, Gidon always accompanies me.

I am a lifelong lover of animals, but lately, caring for the cats is how I cope with the emotional and psychological exhaustion of the past year. So much suffering, misery, and death. Wearing a mask and washing hands and not hugging, much less seeing friends and family. When I feed the street cats, I feel like a fairy godmother, dispensing handfuls of comfort to little creatures who live short, brutal lives. It’s a difference that I can make in a sea of differences that I can’t make. I turn outward and Gidon turns inward. We are both coping.

The pandemic forced all of us into a kind of hibernation, and for Gidon, this has been especially difficult. Keeping busy and productive is how he creates a sense of purpose and independence, regardless of circumstances. Before the pandemic, Gidon delivered flowers and taught English to children at a school in Jaffa once a week. That has all changed.

About eight cats are living in the part of the large park nearest our home in Ramat Gan. My neighbors Yamit, a tall, lithe actress, and Shmuel, an older man who lives further down the street, also help care for the cats. Gever Lashon died a few weeks ago, which made us all very sad. We hadn’t seen him for weeks. He was an orange and white street kitty with a pink tongue that always stuck out. Yamit found him.

There has long been an invisible army of cat-loving Israelis who leave out food and fresh water for the cats year-round. I have rarely encountered any of these cat angels, but I see evidence that they were there: little mounds of dry food on stone walls and in walkways and small plastic containers of water that appear mysteriously. Since the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, I have seen even more evidence: shelters stuffed with leftover clothing, bowls of food left up high, where the dogs can’t get it.

Slowly, reluctantly, over the course of the pandemic, Gidon has begun to recognize some of the cats in the park — and they him. One day, Blacky, the unchallenged queen of the park, wound herself around Gidon’s legs over and over, trying to get his attention. Finally, he bent over and patted her awkwardly with his big Czech hand.

Gidon and I have both received our second vaccinations, something that we are incredibly grateful for. It seems that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Things will change once more; there will be a new normal.

A few days ago, between the rains, Gidon brought a sturdy wooden box into our home. “I think this would be good,” he said, without meeting my eyes or finishing his sentence. He busied himself hammering and sawing away, determined to outdo Shmuel’s shelters in ingenuity. “We’ll need something to put in it,” Gidon said. I gave him some old towels from the closet. “All right. Well, let’s get this out there for Blacky,” he said. “But don’t exaggerate with the food, cat lady!”

About the Author
Writer, editor and content creator Julie Gray lives in Northern Israel with her life partner, Gidon Lev. Let's Make Things Better, co-authored by Gidon and Julie will be available in Fall 2024 (Hachette/Pan MacMillan).
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