When I was a little girl, there were things as clear as sunlight, as the sea God had split just for the Jews. One of those things was that dogs were despicable creatures. They were scary and dirty, with teeth like knives, and paws with claws, ripping flesh off bone, the way they’d done to Jews in the Holocaust.
Dogs were impure, unclean and ferocious, their eyes — so dark around the pupils — like those of a demon. Only gentiles liked dogs, taking strange comfort in the animals; good Jews stayed far away.
The first time I came close to a dog was in fourth grade. It was a bright, fall afternoon, and I’d skipped off the school van cheerfully, humming a tune to myself. As I pranced down the block, I looked up at a tree gracefully shaking off its fall leaves,and it was then that I had the fright of my 8-year-old life: I nearly crashed into an old lady and her terrifying dog.
I looked down. I screamed. I dropped my satchel. I ran down the block and around the corner, never once looking back. I ran until I could not breathe, and then I stumbled behind a neighbor’s bush. There I crouched, begging God for mercy. After several moments of silence, I peered out from between the branches. I saw only the bright leaves twirling in the wind. The old lady and her dog were gone.
I ran back home.
The next day, I skipped off the van, nearly just as happily. But I stopped my humming to look cautiously around, just in case.
I was safe. I jumped on the piles of leaves under the old oak tree. I did this with such joy and relish that I never noticed the old lady, or her terrifying dog, until I nearly jumped on the dog’s paw.
I yelped. I stumbled over the fence of our house and rushed up the porch steps. Good heavens, Dear God of the Universe; those things were everywhere.
I eyed the dog, my heart still beating hard. I could see the old lady smile hesitantly.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Sammy is a gentle dog. He won’t hurt you.” And she petted the creature, stroking its back, as it looked at me in demonic silence.
Well, I thought from my very safe distance, she’s safe because she’s a goy. Dogs don’t bite goyim.
The old lady smiled gently now, her eyes creasing under her floral shawl.
“Do you want to pet him?” she asked.
Pet him? Why would I ever want to do that?
I shook my head quickly, and half-smiled back. The old lady nodded. Then she and the dog walked slowly away,
The next day, I sat on the grass inside our gate, so when I saw the old lady coming there was no need to run away. I watched her walk slowly toward our corner house, the dark-haired dog walking patiently beside her.
She was an old lady like any other, her beige trench coat pulled tightly around her thin frame. She wore that floral shawl on her head and old-lady shoes on her feet. Why, if not for the dog on the long leather leash, one could barely tell she was a gentile.
She stopped when she saw me.
“Sit, Sammy,” she said, and the dog did.
I looked at Sammy warily, at the dark fur and the black around his pupils. He stared back at me, patiently.
“What is your name?” the old lady asked.
I didn’t answer.
“My name is Diana,” she said. “I live there.” She pointed toward East Second Street. “And Sammy’s my old dog. I bought him when he was just a wee pup; now look how big he’s gotten.”
I stood up and stepped toward the fence. The dog shifted. I stepped back two steps.
“Does it bite?” I asked.
Diana chuckled. “Oh, no,” she said. “Sammy’s an old dog and very gentle. Even cats aren’t afraid of him.”
And suddenly, like that, I was curious. I wanted to know what a dog felt like. Really felt like. So I stuck a hand through the hole in the fence, and touched him with one finger. Then two. I was surprised. His fur wasn’t rough; it was warm and smooth, and had a silky feel. He didn’t move, just sat and stared like a quiet sphinx, comfortable in his silence. I pulled my hand back in. Then I looked at Diana. She looked back at me. Suddenly, I felt silly. I laughed.
Diana and Sammy came by nearly every day. I played with Sammy, stroking his smooth fur, pushing his slobbery tongue off my face and, always, repenting afterward.
Because a Jewish girl wasn’t supposed to be friends with a dog. She was supposed to be frightened of dogs, preferably of cats, too, and it was highly inappropriate that I was not. So I washed my hands till they were red, and my face, too, just in case, all the while murmuring psalms.
Pious Jews did not like animals, and they certainly did not like dogs. It was only proper to be afraid of such beasts. Our grandparents had been afraid of dogs, and our great-grandparents had been afraid of dogs, and this, of course, meant that their parents and grandparents must have been afraid, too. And so the ancient tradition was passed down to us.
My teacher explained the sages’ prohibition against owning a dog, since all dogs are intrinsically bad. A dog’s vicious bark shows its beastly intention. In Kabbalah, the dog is a symbol of demonic powers; a person’s evil impulses must be controlled like a vicious dog on a leash.
Our grandparents and relatives taught us about the snarling dogs of Eastern Europe, the Nazi-trained German shepherds that ripped the flesh off innocent Jews and hunted our ancestors like they were prey. Over the years, the fear became lodged in the communal psyche.
The last heroic stand of dogs in Jewish history occurred during the Exodus from Egypt. Dogs did not call attention to the escaping Jews, and they are praised for their silence in the Torah: “And against the children of Israel, no dog wagged its tongue.” The dogs that followed after were never silent; like demons of Kabbalah, they barked and howled, sinking their teeth, like knives, into long-lost brethren and martyrs. Now children are taught to repeat the words from the Torah when they pass dogs on the street, to guard themselves against harm.
“And against the children of Israel, no dog wagged its tongue. And against the children of Israel, no dog wagged its tongue….”
No dog would dare hurt a Jew who was saying the words from the holy Torah.
A pious Jew fears dogs. If he doesn’t, well, he must try harder. A good Jew passes on the fear to his children, lest they shall be led astray. As if, becoming unafraid, they might turn into the people who set the hounds on the Jews in the first place.
So not being afraid of dogs was a problem, and this bothered me a lot. Because I knew that if anyone found out, I’d be in big trouble. My friends would think I was strange, somehow unclean, like a gentile.
When I saw Sammy, I tried my best to see the evil that was there, the impurity of his paws and tail. The problem was, Sammy was uncooperative. He was just the wrong kind of dog, much too slow and gentle. One time I peered deep into his eyes, trying to locate the demon in the dark around his pupils, but he just wagged his tail and licked my nose. Another time I tried to tease him by pulling his ears, but he did the same thing.
Finally, I gave up. It wasn’t my fault that Sammy did not bare his teeth, that he refused to bark ferociously. It wasn’t my fault that he was stubborn, that he would never have bitten a Jew in the Holocaust. Most other dogs were evil, I reassured myself — German dogs, dirty dogs, all dogs who weren’t Sammy.
So nearly every day, I played with Sammy when Diana came by on her walk. Except for the time when I had a friend from school over. When Diana walked by, she smiled, expecting me to come. But I ignored her, as if I did not know her or the dog.
Inside, I felt terrible about it. But I also felt terrible about feeling terrible about it. It was prohibited to feel anything for a dog or his owner. I was so confused, I decided to stop thinking about it altogether.
The next day, Diana passed by as if nothing had ever happened. I petted Sammy and scratched the back of his neck, just the way I did nearly every afternoon.
Then came the day in June when my family and I went up to the Catskills, like we did each summer. There, along with thousands of ultra-Orthodox children, I spent my days climbing trees, attending day camp and inventing secret clubs. It was there, on the back road of the bungalow colony, at a meeting with my friends about one of these exclusive secret clubs, that a dog bounced right out from the thicket — suddenly, abruptly, seemingly out of nowhere.
I don’t remember seeing the dog at all, only that my friends, screaming in terror, began to run, and that instinctively I ran with them. I looked back and saw a dog happily chasing us; but I kept running.
You see, I had no choice. There was no way they could find out that I wasn’t petrified of the dog. There was no way I could allow them to realize that I was different from them. So together we ran. And the faster we ran, the faster the dog chased us around the dirt road of the bungalow colony.
But five minutes into the chase, I slowed down. I was breathless. Frankly, it was exhausting, all that screaming and running from a dog that I wasn’t even scared of. Two more minutes passed, and I gave up. Panting, I watched my friends disappear around the curve. Then I turned around.
The dog stopped in its tracks. It scampered up to me, circling my legs, sniffing my hands and clothes. I looked over my shoulder again, just in case. No one was there.
I stomped my foot. I pointed an angry finger at the shaggy canine.
“Go away,” I said in a loud whisper. “I’m not your friend! Go away! Now!”
But the dog jumped up, trying to play.
I folded my arms across my chest.
“No! no! no!” I said in a way even a dog could understand. Chastened, it scampered off into the woods.
I was tired. Pretending to be afraid was draining. But later, as my friends recounted their tale of horror to the other girls of the colony, I joined the conversation. I told them of how I had escaped the terrible dog by hiding in the shed of the neighbor’s bungalow, just in the nick of time. One more second and the despicable creature would have had me for supper. I was every bit as afraid of dogs as they were. I was a good Jew.
In September we returned to the city, and a few days later, I began fifth grade.
Weeks passed. Sometimes, after school, I’d stand outside the gate, peering down the block, waiting. But Diana and Sammy never came. Other times, I walked past the block on East Second, trying to guess which house she lived in, but I saw only strangers and closed doors. I wanted to ask, but there was no one who would have known where the gentile lady and her forbidden dog had gone. Diana and Sammy had disappeared. They were there, then they were not. I never saw them again.
Today, I often watch my children play with dogs on the lawn in Central Park. They play fetch with them, taking turns throwing sticks. The dogs’ owners watch from the sidelines.
I remember feeling surprised at how quickly my children took to animals, and at the joy they expressed while playing with them. I was certain that my fear was genetic, an inherent part of my DNA. Yet I quickly discovered that children aren’t afraid of animals. What they are afraid of is the fear in their mothers’ faces, the vulnerability in their older siblings’ eyes. For a child, any creature that can so frighten a parent must be a terrible thing. And so the wound is passed on like a holy tradition.
Sometimes, as I watch my children jumping playfully with a puppy, or making a beeline for the kittens on a stranger’s porch, I think about Diana and Sammy. As I child I thought about them often, wondering where they had gone and if they were happy. I can still see them like it was yesterday, my little hand sticking through the hole in the fence, reaching out to the old lady and the gentle, waiting dog that taught me not to be afraid.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. “Inside Out” is her essay series about life in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is based on true events, but her characters’ names and identities have been changed; some are composites, comprising several real-life people.
This story "An Old Dog's New Tricks" was written by Judy Brown (Eishes Chayil).