The Secret Jewish History of Dogs

adorable blur breed close up
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Even though I own two of them (or they own me), Jews and dogs are widely believed to be an oxymoron. Consider the Yiddish proverb, “A Jew with a dog? It’s either not a Jew or it’s not a dog.”

An 18th-century German rabbi, who allowed the ownership of dogs for economic or security reasons, ruled that owning one merely for pleasure is “precisely the behavior of the uncircumcised.”

Certainly, growing up, dogs were not a common sight among our Jewish friends and acquaintances (although cats were, including our own).

Anyway, where does this bias come from? Dogs have been considered unclean animals, and in the modern era, there is the association between dogs and Nazis.

But the evidence is that the relationship between Jews and dogs is more multifaceted. In  A Jew’s Best Friend? The Image of the Dog throughout Jewish History, academics address the relationship between Jews and canines throughout the ages.

In the Bible, dogs are generally depicted in a poor light. Deuteronomy 23:19 states,

You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the LORD your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to the LORD your God.

Elsewhere, dogs are referred to as feeding on dead bodies, as beasts that maul at human beings. The Eyptians, who enslaved the Hebrews, worshipped the the jackal-headed dog, Anubis.

On the other hand, during the tenth plague — the death of the first born — dogs remained silent, which is considered a good thing. Dogs are also mentioned as working animals, in the context of shepherding and hunting, rather than as pets.

Confirming this, archaelogical digs in Israel revealed the largest known dog cemetery in the ancient world. 700 skeletons of the Canaan dog were excavated in Ashkelon and it is believed they were revered but also served as guard and herd dogs for the ancient Israelites. But when those inhabitants were expelled from their lands, the dogs became wild.

Thousands of years later, these dogs formed the core of a military corps of service dogs for the precursor to the IDF, the Haganah.

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In fact, dogs received their first mention, albeit not directly, in Genesis 2 where it recounts that all animals were created by God as a source of human companionship. But then, not being fully up to the task, God created Eve for Adam…

Later Jewish writings and superstitions continued the negative rather than the positive portrayals. Kabbalistic works connected dogs with demons. In the medieval period, according to Joshua Tractenberg,

The disconsolate howling of a dog is a certain indication that the angel of death is strolling through town. If a dog drags his rump along the door in the direction of the door, this too is a token of approaching death.

Jews didn’t really get a chance to learn otherwise in the Diaspora because, being  forbidden from hunting and owning land, the need for dogs was negated.

In contemporary popular culture, as I said above, dogs are associated with Nazis and thus appear in many Holocaust films.

In Adam Resurrected, Jeff Goldblum plays a Jew who survived the Holocaust by acting like a dog for an SS officer. After the war, he has delusions that he is a dog.

A more unusual take on that is the bestselling Israeli novel, “The Jewish Dog,” by Asher Kravit, which has also been made into a film, Shepherd: the Story of a Jewish Dog.

Likewise, in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where the Jews are mice and the Germans are cats, dogs represent non-Jewish Americans are dogs.

Conversely, in Franz Kafka’s story “Jackals and Arabs,” the dogs have been read as an allegory for Jews.

In 1972, the Israelis even created Azit, the Paratrooper Dog, for a movie. In a later Israeli TV show, the cracking Shitsel, a young Jewish student is expelled from his yeshiva (seminary) for hiding a stray dog. When he shows his grandfather, we learn the above Yiddish proverb.

On the other hand, a Jewish director who loved dogs was Stanley Kubrick and he featured dogs in a couple of his movies.

Comedian Louis C.K., who has Jewish ancestry, voices Max, a Jack Russell Terrier in The Secret Life of Pets. Other famous movie dogs, owned by Jews, include Walter Sobchak’s ex-wife’s dog in The Big Lebowski and Bernie Focker’s Moses in Meet the Fockers.

Schnorbitz, was the sidekick of British-Jewish comedian Bernie Winters (born Bernie Weinstein). Appropriately, Schnorbitz was a St Bernard. Her name sounds like a Yiddish expression.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is a rare example of a rabbi who owns a dog. He wrote the book Things My Dog Has Taught Me.

For the record, now that I have moved to semi-rural northwest Wales, pretty much as far from Jewish North London as one can get in the UK, it is de rigeur to own a dog. I possess two — Pepper who is a Cockapoo and Moose who is Golden Doodle (I even have green wellies).

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