Jewish Dog Tales

By David Kaufmann

Published November 20, 2007, issue of November 23, 2007.
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An elderly friend who likes to pretend he comes from the old country but in fact comes from Detroit tells me that my two dogs make me look, well, goyish. He’s got 3,000 years of Jewish opinion to back him up. Dogs don’t do so well in the Tanakh or in the Talmud. To maintain, as Ecclesiastes does, that a live dog is better than a dead lion doesn’t say much for the dog. To argue, as the rabbis do, that breeding dogs is like breeding swine doesn’t say much for the breeder. It seems that dogs can’t get a break. They are either savage or wild. They drive away the Shekhina; they scare away the needy; they bring blood upon a house. For the tradition, it all comes down to the bark and the bite.

But the tradition doesn’t know about the modern Jewish dog. According to the whole new system outlined in the recently published “How to Raise a Jewish Dog” (Little, Brown), a “guidebook” by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman, this dog (a Bernard Malamute, say) is so confounded by guilt and uncertainty that it does not have time to bark or to bite. Mixed messages and an ever-present sense of both dread and inadequacy (combined, of course, with a monumental dose of aggrandizement) will instill obedience in even the most recalcitrant hound. What dog wouldn’t obey the Jewish command for “sit”? “What, would it kill you to sit down for one lousy second?” What dog wouldn’t toe (or heel) the line if it heard that baleful complaint, “How could you do this to me?”

For the modern Jewish dog, it all comes down to the whine.

Perhaps I have failed my dogs. I have not been appropriately inconsistent. I have not been careful to induce the requisite level of anxiety. But despite my negligence, they might be Jewish dogs, after all, or, at least, dogs that the Talmud would approve of. They are neither savage nor wild. They don’t drive the needy from our door. Apart from the time my 80-pound pit bull jumped up on Mr. Wally, the UPS man, to try to lick him, they have not scared a soul. They didn’t even notice the burglar who relieved us of a number of personal and remarkably portable electronics last year. For my dogs, it all comes down to sleep and their walks.

Their easy comfort in the world might indicate that they are not properly Jewish, but my dogs display what to me seem to be rock-ribbed Jewish virtues. True, they are disgustingly indiscriminate about what they eat. True, they are constitutionally unable to practice the kinds of self-control that the Law demands. Nevertheless, no matter what the rabbis say, my dogs do bring loving-kindness into the house. They greet every visitor as if that visitor were Elijah himself. They are relatively obedient and remarkably stubborn. They show an annoying curiosity, and their skepticism is tempered by an overbearing, even pushy, eagerness. Most important, though, they will wait. My dogs, bless them, are capable of an astonishing patience where it counts. And in this way, they really seem like Jews: They can sustain whole eternities of impossible hope.

David Kaufmann teaches at George Mason University.

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