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My schnauzer fell in love with challah — just in time for Passover

As often happens with old souls, our nearly 12-year-old Schnauzer is showing a late-life hunger for religious sustenance.

He rouses himself from cushioned slumber whenever we prepare for Friday night Shabbat dinner, fidgeting as I place the candles, wine cups and especially bread board on our dining room table. He also joins my wife and me for Saturday morning services via livestream, though like me, he frequently sits during the standing parts.

But his true craving for Jewishness is reserved for the staple at the center of our weekly observance, which he only recently discovered and now can’t live without: the challah.

Zeno staring at challah on kitchen counter

The object of Zeno’s affection, just out of reach. Courtesy of Allan Ripp

Zeno’s always been food-obsessed and a scavenger, probing the baseboards for crumbs and lunging at partially-eaten containers on the street. When he falls behind outside on leash we know he’s hiding some scooped-up treasure; we’ve pried many a putrid and petrified substance from his little mouth. He devours his three scheduled meals on the spot, looking up immediately after with his best canine version of “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

Aside from whatever is in his kibble, he’s only known a kosher diet, enjoying rabbinically-certified cuts of chicken, brisket, ribs, corned beef and lamb chops that stock our freezer. No doubt he’d pounce on pork and shellfish if given a chance, though not in our household.

However, challah has created a whole new level of fixation since imprinting on his terrier brain earlier this year — we think from having given him some medication wrapped inside a rolled-up bread ball rather than his usual chicken-flavored pill pocket. Since then, it’s been all challah all the time and where have you been all my life?

Forget fresh-baked challah, like the sweet and crusty loaves dropped off weekly by the Challah Fairy from Rockland County, or the homemade variety my wife Sarah used to make. Zeno is perfectly happy with the spongy, egg-washed, tearaway challah from Bagel City or Zomick’s obtained from our neighborhood health food shop. But he certainly won’t turn down a fresh Zabar’s challah, or a stale one for that matter.

Zeno staring at challah in hand

Zeno taunted by challah. Courtesy of Allan Ripp

His passion is obvious, not just because he snatches pieces from our hands like a reptile, or stands with all four legs on my chest sniffing for that last yeasty morsel. It’s that he feels entitled to a challah treat for every occasion — after a walk, a bath, a nap, whenever anyone enters the apartment, even following a meal. Challah has become his universal reward and just dessert, whether he’s earned it or not.

And single helpings don’t cut it. The most pathetic — and I suppose adorable — sight in our home these days is Zeno sitting expectantly in front of the white metal breadbox on our kitchen counter, waiting for the challah (or Challah Fairy) to materialize. Never mind that he already had a healthy serving moments before or will have another after his next outing. If we don’t immediately respond, he’ll issue a slight throaty grumpf— not a full-out bark but more like a friendly call to the server asking for a refill.

Of course, we oblige his double-dipping. In fact, it’s hard to tell which of us has become Pavlov’s dog in this dynamic — Zeno for shaking with excitement at the sight of the see-through challah bag, or me rushing to the breadbox upon hearing his muffled ring-tone bark. Only when he’s certain that no more is coming will he saunter over to his fluffy bed in the dining room and curl up into a Schnauzer doughnut.

I wonder what we could have accomplished had we recognized his challah reflex years earlier. No mad barking at the cable guy or plumber who cross our threshold, or the skateboarders who dare breach his path on the sidewalk. Maybe little bits of challah could have calmed his shivering fits during thunderstorms or fireworks celebration. I had a friend in high school who trained his dog with the simple commands of “kosher” and “traif.” Zeno was born with elegant lines and still moves with the Fred Astaire grace of a show dog — with enough challah in my pocket, he could have been a contender at Westminster.

Plying a 13-pound dog with starchy bread may offend some trainers, but so far there’s no sign that challah has added anything other than joy to Zeno’s life, as chocolate lollipops did for my father in his late 80s. Zeno hasn’t gained an ounce and still walks 10-12 miles many days, even as he demands his due portion the moment we return. Even our vet said plainly, let him eat challah.

And then, a dilemma. Passover was approaching, our first since Zeno’s obsession took hold. Was there a way to keep any challah in the house to accommodate him even as we eliminated all other chametz? A lead-lined breadbox perhaps?

I called on my favorite sage, a Chabad rabbi from the Lower East Side whom I used to visit at the spirited Mitzvah Tank on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. I knew he wasn’t a dog lover but still wise. “This is complicated,” Rabbi Stone said, proceeding to tell me under no circumstances could I keep any challah around during Pesach, even for a nonhuman. Technically, I should only have kosher dog food, he explained. But there was an option.

“You could sell your dog and your challah to a non-Jew — maybe for $8 or $10,” he said. “Then, during the eight days, this person would give the dog his treat, as long as it’s not done inside your apartment. And then you could buy him back after Pesach, even if there’s no challah left. There’s your answer.”

Zeno eating challah

Zeno finally enjoys his last bite of chametz before Passover. Courtesy of Allan Ripp

I considered the rabbi’s suggestion. It’s true, none of our three immediate neighbors is Jewish but each had something to disqualify them, like the 98-year-old widowed cat owner next door. I thought of our door attendants and the assistant super Camacho, who has a 15-year-old lap dog in the throes of dementia — surely, he would oblige. But I couldn’t imagine sending Zeno to the Bronx with a senile Yorkie, nor could Camacho turn up at our place multiple times a day to dispense some challah in the hallway. It was ridiculous. There was really only one solution.

“Here, have this,” I said, handing Zeno a small piece of Streit’s matzo ahead of our first night Seder. He didn’t quite say “blech” but I could tell he wasn’t ecstatic either, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth from its rough dryness. I promised I’d give him some Passover soup croutons and Tam Tams but that challah was off the menu for the next week-plus, just as I had to make do without pasta, pretzels and chocolate oat milk. “Get used to it,” I told him. “You’re finally a real Jew.”

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