Where I come from, people don’t like dogs much. I grew up in Flatbush in the 1950s, in an Orthodox home. My parents were both from Crown Heights, a generation removed from the shtetl. I was raised to be terrified of dogs.
Old joke: A baptized Jew is lambasted by his former yeshiva pal for becoming a goy—“You, the Talmudic prodigy, how could you leave it all behind?!” Replies the apostate: “Moish, relax, I’m still afraid of dogs.”
Dogs were for gentiles, Cossacks, Nazis. I remember a German shepherd who sat like Cerberus, the hound of hell, on a stoop on East 23rd Street, a block down from my house. I would cross the street to avoid it, trembling as I walked to the bus stop on Avenue J. The owners were Jews, but they were strange. Where I come from, a German shepherd was a dog with an armband. To own one was 10 times worse than driving a Volkswagen. Today, in Jerusalem, I own a German shepherd, a puppy named Juno.
She was born on Jan. 19, of an Israeli father and a German mother whose father was a national champion. (More than that, I don’t want to know.) She shares a birthday with Robert E. Lee, so I wanted to call her Dixie. My wife and daughter said the name was too close to Lizzie, our beloved German shepherd who had recently died at age 12. I also liked Roxie; my son said it sounded like a stripper. So I proposed Juno, queen of the Roman gods.
Juno chases her tail on the rug beside my desk as I write these lines. I watch her anxiously: she has chewed books about Nietzsche and Moses Hess. (Good taste, but I went ballistic.) She’s a huge, rambunctious beast, and I hate it when she licks my leg and scratches me and gnaws affectionately on my forearm, but I do enjoy her company. In time, it could be love.
Dog love is a variety of intermarriage. Man’s best friend is much maligned in Jewish religious sources. The Mishna (Bava Kamma 7:7) states: “One should not rear a dog unless it is kept on a chain.” Rabbi Eliezer the Great comments (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 83a): “He who rears dogs is like one who rears swine.” An elegant Midrashic parable about religious doubt and divine kindness (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 43) compares a dog to Amalek, archetypal foe of the Jewish people. Do you want Amalek in your house?
Dogs in our tradition are linked to sexual transgression. Consider a creepy story from “Kav HaYashar,” a work of kabbalistic ethics published in 1705. In the Galilean town of Safed lives a wealthy and generous Jew, Avraham Ibn Puah. Next door lives a merchant, who suddenly takes sick. His flesh begins to rot, private parts included. Doctors can’t save him; he dies in agony. Several years pass. One day, a black dog shows up in town, ugly and scary with a “face like a demon.” The dog sneaks into the Ibn Puah residence, jumps on the wife and bites her viciously. You guessed it: The black dog is the reincarnation or gilgul of the dead merchant, whom the perfidious missus had seduced. (This could make a good Pedro Almódovar movie.)
Another strike against dogs involves anti-Semitism. In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock the Jewish moneylender boldly rebukes Antonio: “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,/And spit upon my Jewish gabardine/ . . . ‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;/You spurn’d me such a day; another time/You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies/I’ll lend you thus much moneys?’” The great German poet Heinrich Heine, baptized as a young man but forever a Jew, cited this passage in his literary essay of 1838, “Shakespeare’s Maidens and Women.” It lodged in his bones until he found a way to transcend it.
A dozen years later, as Heine lay slowly dying in Paris, he wrote an exquisite poem called “Princess Sabbath,” which revises the image of Jew as dog. “In Arabia’s book of fables,” says the poet, there are princes transformed by witches into “hairy monsters.” I sing of such a prince: “His name is Israel.” An evil spell has turned the Jew into a dog: “As a dog with doggish notions,/All the livelong week he piddles/Through life’s slime and slops and sweepings . . .”
But on every Friday evening,
At the twilight hour, the magic
Fades abruptly, and the dog
Once more is a human being.
For Heine’s dog-faced Jew, Shabbat is a magical restoration of humanity and nobility. At lunch, he tucks into the heavenly cholent prepared by his wife, and imagines himself, “eyes aglowing,” in the Holy Land: “Do I not hear the murmuring Jordan River?” But as Saturday night approaches, the Jew begins to feel the eiskalt Hexenfinger in sein Herze—the ice-cold witchy finger in his heart, signaling the start of the Hündischer Metamorphose, his inexorable Kafkaesque reversion to the status of downtrodden dog.
Hör ich nicht den Jordan rauschen? You can hear the mighty river of Jewish history in those German words. We inherited Lizzie, our first German shepherd, from an Israeli woman who had died, a family friend. As it happened, we picked her up on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Some might see that as inappropriate, even sacrilegious; or merely ironic. I see it, looking back, as a Zionist victory.
When both Lizzie and my kids were young, we took her up to Yad Kennedy, the Jerusalem memorial to the slain president. It was Chanukah, a gorgeous afternoon. We let her run off the leash. Suddenly, among the pines, she came face to face with a gaggle of white-shirted yeshiva boys with Brooklyn accents—tourists. One of them cried out in astonishment: “Look, a Joimin shepid, in Eretz Yisroel!” Nope. Just a normal dog, scampering through the pines.
It occurs to me, as I reflect on my rebirth as a dog-lover, that the name Juno, “Jew-No,” signifies a Zionist negation of the Diaspora. In the words of Yudke, a brawny kibbutznik in Haim Hazaz’s classic Hebrew story, “The Sermon,” penned in 1943: “When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.” In Brooklyn, I quivered in fear of toothy canines. Here in Israel, I own a scary German hound that my kids (I have my finicky limits) kiss and cuddle like she was their sister. That they are bolder than I am, more attuned to nature and to animals, comes with being Israeli. What more can a parent want?
My son likes to quote me a sweet old saw: I wish I could be as good a man as my dog thinks I am. I’m trying my best. I can look into Juno’s adoring brown eyes and not think of the Mishna or Mrs. Ibn Puah. But I do sometimes, in moments of weakness, recall the four-legged narrator of Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” (1922), an enigmatic story construable as a satire of the self-absorbed Jewish condition: “For what is there actually except for our own species? To whom else can one appeal in the wide and empty world? All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the dog.
Stuart Schoffman is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal
of Jewish Conversation. He has lived in Jerusalem since 1988