“A Jew with a dog? It’s either not a Jew or it’s not a dog.”
— Yiddish proverb
I heard these words uttered on the Israeli TV show “Shtisel,” but they hit home, just as if they had been uttered in my very own house.
I grew up in a dog-less household. As a child, I was afraid of dogs and instinctively believed they were dirty, wrong to have inside a house. No one taught me this. I did not live in a religiously observant household. I just “knew” dogs were no-goodniks.
But in that moment of watching “Shtisel,” I realized I had unwittingly inherited cultural and religious teachings that even my own nonobservant parents might not have realized they had passed down to me.
In the “Shtisel” episode, a young ultra-Orthodox student, expelled from his yeshiva for hiding a small, adorable stray dog, arrives awash in tears — pup in his arms — at his grandfather’s apartment. The grandfather, a big, hulking man, is horrified at the sight of this “unclean” animal, and vigorously supports the yeshiva’s position. It is in that scene he recites the proverb about “A Jew with a dog … is either not a Jew or not a dog.”
To understand the religious and cultural context for Jewish attitudes about dogs, I spoke to Rabbi Yoni Regev of Oakland’s Reform Temple Sinai.
“There certainly seems to be a deep ambivalence, going back to the Book of Exodus,” Regev said.
While there are no express prohibitions against keeping dogs as pets, there are multiple references to them as unclean and undesirable, he explained.
“Within the ultra-Orthodox community, there is this notion that dogs are synonymous with pigs, ritually unclean even though they are not specifically called out as such,” he added.
In the Torah and the Book of Prophets, dogs are spoken of unkindly several times. Foul-tempered, barking dogs scare off beggars, which prevents those within the homes from performing the mitzvah of giving tzedakah. Also, concerns are voiced that dogs can cause women to miscarry.
And in modern times, the use of dogs by Hitler’s SS during the Holocaust led to additional negative associations.
But I knew none of this growing up.
There is this notion that dogs are synonymous with pigs, ritually unclean.
My two oldest brothers, 18 and 21 years older than I, both had dogs in their own homes. While I adored my brothers, I viewed their pets with distain and disapproval. It didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem Jewish.
I also contacted Jo-Ellen Pozner, assistant professor at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, to discuss the foundation of my judgmental childhood views.
“Culture determines norms. We learn by observing others and by receiving feedback about how we’re behaving,” said Pozner, a faculty scholar at the university’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “‘Make eye contact. Be polite.’ There are phrases or reactions or ancillary behaviors that we don’t process consciously, but we absorb them because we see our parents or grandparents do them.”
She added: “What’s interesting about Judaism is that many people say, ‘I’m not religious, I’m not observant.’ They mean that religion is not an overt intentional habit. But what also makes you a Jew is certain norms and attitudes and beliefs about the way the world works, and those are transmitted as cultural values.”
My non-Jewish husband loves dogs. He grew up with a wire-haired terrier named Poco, and to this day speaks wistfully about him. But throughout our courtship, Jon never expressed a desire for another pet.
However, once we had children, dog drama quickly ensued. The first thing my children in tandem asked for was a dog. This, I blame on their non-Jewish genes.
For 10 years, the highly (maternal) allergic genes of one child prevented pet ownership. Eventually, however, the siblings and their father wore me down with a cunning age-old stratagem (i.e., lie) – “We’ll get an outdoor dog. We’ll never bring the dog in the house.”
We lived in Las Vegas at the time, so this seemed a formula for animal sunstroke and abuse. But they built a solar-powered air-conditioned doghouse, and so, we got the outdoor dog.
Instantly the sneaking and scheming began. When my back was turned, in came the dog. Before I knew it, the dog, Lady Shakespeare by name, was sleeping on the floor by the children’s beds. Then the dog was in one of the children’s beds. I cringed and groaned, but I’d see their happy (and somehow non-allergic) faces, and I caved. We had an indoor dog.
I had to admit it. Shakespeare, a 3-year-old rescue black Labrador Retriever, was sweet. When you’d come home, she would vault three-feet straight up in the air for joy, ears flopping wildly, and our “coming home” could consist of something as simple as stepping back into the house from getting the mail. Who could resist such unadulterated love?
The children claim they saw me kiss Shakespeare twice on the top of her head. They were wrong. I kissed her three times.
When she died eight years after joining our clan, this Jew, now without a dog, cried nonstop.