Lena was always staring at me. I wasn’t imagining it. It wasn’t paranoia on my part, not at all. I suppose it was the nature of the beast, but whenever we met in the back hall on Aldine Street, which was often, she would never show a friendly face or rub up against me affectionately. Never. She stared, malevolently, with a fierce expression in her deep green eyes.
To tell the truth, I was a bit afraid of her, this feral feline who had taken up residence in our house. The moms all would feed her, which, of course, was encouragement to her to stand her ground and feel at home. And I will say this for her, she was tidy. There was never anything to clean up after her. No litter box was there for us to trip on. I suppose she was acceptable as a housemate, although I never fell for her. One day she just was there, and she stayed for quite a number of years, and then she was gone. I never missed her.
Cats have never been my favorite creatures. So when Lena disappeared, I didn’t worry about her and all the terrible possibilities. Not for a moment. Never. This all happened around 70 years ago, so it’s certainly correct to say that Lena has returned to join her ancestors by now.
My lifetime love affair is with creatures of a different species. These adorable, loving and often brilliant animals are known as dogs. I’ve lived with dogs for most of my 83 years, although now I am sadly without one. Dogs have filled my days with delight, warmth, love, kindness, generosity of spirit, playfulness, and adventure. They each have been different in temperament, and I have had wonderful and amazing experiences and interactions with all of them. Sometimes they’ve fooled me by being wily or even wise. But more credit to them for that.
What’s more, they have all loved me. It’s nice to be loved. Dogs are sort of like grandparents with their grandchildren. In the mind and soul of a dog, its human can do no wrong. No dog of mine has ever been angry with me, rejected me, or challenged my sense of self-respect. If you want to feel adored, get a dog — or a grandparent!
Many of our fellow Jews abstain from owning pets at all. They are convinced that it is not the Jewish way and that Judaism frowns on pet ownership. I’ve done some research on this very matter and I’m here to tell you that those naysayers can find plenty of serious texts that suggest that owning pets is allowed according to Jewish law and tradition, and it clearly is not verboten. This will not become a talmudic argument but, trust me, if you want a dog, feel free to obtain one.
Our first dog, Gringo, was no member of Mensa, but she did have us fooled right from the start, so I suppose she was actually smarter than we were. As newlyweds we (meaning me) knew we wanted a dog. We soon acquired Gringo, a true slum dog who pretended to descend from aristocracy. I had been brought up to know — not merely to believe but to know — that mongrels, mutts, always were the best dogs to own. We have never owned a purebred dog, although several of our adult children have or had owned fancy pedigreed creatures. Those elegantly coiffed dogs, with their papers explaining which dynasty they belonged to, seemingly are more inclined to getting sick with obscure conditions that require huge amounts of money to treat than our self-reliant adoptees from the city streets. Our mutts never had chronic diseases and lived long healthy lives. (Except for Major, but that’s another chapter.)
Gringo pulled a trick on us every workday. My husband, always an early riser, would take her out for her morning toilette at 6:30 and then leave for work. At 7:30 or so I would descend the stairs in our apartment building on Newark’s Huntington Terrace and set off for my teaching job at Miller Street School. Gringo knew the routine, but she insisted on adding her own pathos to it. As soon as the apartment door closed, she would begin her dramatic and seriously alarming screams of torment and despair. These could melt the heart of a serial killer! How many days I was tempted to quit my job so I could romp and play with Gringo? I never did, but those horrible sounds followed me to work in the form of severe and intense guilt. She was quite the drama queen.
There was that day when I was chatting with our neighbor from across the hall. In my most sincerely apologetic tone I told her how we regretted that Gringo cried all day when we were at work, and how I hoped she and her husband were not disturbed by it.
The nice Jewish lady laughed. She ruined it for Gringo by telling me that the moans and groans and terrified shrieks stopped instantly, as soon as the door to the building, a mere one flight down, slammed shut. Gringo was not bemoaning her fate all day at all. She was having a nice rest, a respite from her very hard days spent sleeping on the bed or couch, which were interrupted only by snack time and relocating to another comfortable spot.
Adventures with Gringo continued throughout our childbearing years. The canine princess had no use at all for any of our offspring. So even though she had a pretty cushy life, which included roundtrip travel to Israel, she was always resentful of our darling children. Throughout her long life she never did anything to hurt them, but the animosity was clearly there, until the day she died at a peaceful old age, with no medical intervention.
During her sojourn in Israel, Gringo met her cousin Yogi, who belonged to the Goren family — my sister, her husband, and their children. I’ve often recounted Yogi’s brilliance. He was a pure white beautiful animal, also quite indulged, especially on Shabbatot.
We all know that when Shabbat comes to Israel, it’s in the very air. Friday afternoon brings with it the aura of the sabbath. Things become quiet throughout the land. It’s a time for intense napping, a respite from hard work. Even the cooking is all done. The table is set and guests often are soon to arrive. You can feel the peace, and so could Yogi. He always knew when it was Shabbat.
Yogi usually would spend Friday night visiting the parents, mine and my sister’s, at their nearby home. This was a dangerous walk only if you were an unleashed dog. There were several major streets to traverse but Yogi was never unescorted.
Mom would have cooked up a storm of delicacies, and the table would be set by Dad, impeccably. Yogi was always invited, and he knew the routine perfectly. He would enter the house on Herzliya’s Rehov Ruppin through the foyer downstairs, with a leonine roar, and charge up the stairs like a graceful gazelle. The door to the apartment was always open for him, and he would go straight to the kitchen, where fresh water and a meal of home-cooked delicacies awaited him. Gobbling down his Shabbat dinner would make him relaxed and tranquil, and oh so happy. Life was beautiful.
And then life took a turn. Mom died.
How could we explain that to Yogi? One Shabbat, before mealtime, Dad was sadly home alone when he heard the lion’s roar. He thought it was his imagination until he heard the scratching on the apartment door. There was Yogi, alone, beseechingly seeming to ask for Mom. Couldn’t someone explain to him what was going on here? His eyes told the story. He was confused, bewildered, and just didn’t understand. Where was she, the woman of his dreams, that loving person who knew just what a hungry dog likes to eat, who greeted him as if he were a prince, laughing and petting him gently? She was always there, always so glad to see him.
Dad embraced him and delivered him home, that now dangerous mile’s walk away, with traffic, lights, and any manner of threats to a dog’s life.
A few weeks passed and the scene replayed. Yogi searched the apartment once again, looking for Mom. He couldn’t find her. He was beginning to understand the futility he was facing. Sadly he was escorted home again, and he never returned. Mom was gone. He didn’t know exactly what that meant, but neither do I. Yogi’s Shabbatot were never the same.
There are so many more dog stories to share. They fill me with joy and sadness. When those dogs were young and living with us, we were young as well. I miss the dogs and I miss the vibrant lives that were ours.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!