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Going Back to Shul

Now that I have more free time, because I don’t have a social work internship this semester, I’m free to return to my regular activities, including the irreverent Bible seminar at my synagogue every other Thursday night. I could even go to the open choir practices, which are supposed to be less stressful than the ones I tried five or six years ago, where I tried to learn twenty new pieces of music, in four part harmony, in a month. Or I could join a committee, of some kind. But, I’ve been feeling reluctant to step back into the flow, aware, all over again, that I don’t quite fit in.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, every year, we have the one event of the year where my dogs are invited into the synagogue community. The service is called Tashlich and it’s all about casting our sins into the water, by way of bread (traditionally), or bird seed, or cheerios. It’s a kid and dog friendly service, because it is held outdoors and it is short. There’s also singing, which makes it Rachel-friendly. I am not a believer in this casting-off-of-sins business, so I never join in with that part of the service. But I go, because it’s dog day. How could I skip dog day?

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“But, isn’t every day dog day?”

It was pouring rain for Tashlich this year, but I wasn’t going to skip Cricket and Ellie’s only opportunity all year to be seen and heard. We arrived before anyone else, and Ellie tried to make friends with the geese, despite the rain, dragging me through puddles, and piles of green goose poop, while the geese studiously avoided her. Someone I often see at services arrived after us, and said he was surprised that I had dogs, which seemed off to me. I thought everyone in the world knew that I had dogs; that you could see it through my skin. My dogs are my family, but I’m not sure that’s something the people in my community are able to understand, because my dogs aren’t human children. There is no synagogue school, or dog-friendly classes, or services for them on a regular basis. I can’t bring my girls to the bible seminar, or to choir practice, which means I can’t bring a big part of who I am with me.

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“I never knew going to services could be so much fun!”

The dogs were completely soaked by the time the rest of the small crowd arrived, but they got the chance to meet a grey-haired toy poodle who looked suspiciously like a baby lamb, and a tiny Maltese, and even a few bigger dogs. I met a woman with a husband, two little boys, and a dog, and she told me that she had to come despite the rain. I thought I’d found a kindred spirit, but she said, no, it’s not because it’s the one time of the year that dogs are allowed, but because she had so many sins she needed to get rid of. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

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“Mommy, did you know that rain is very, very wet?”

The next day, the junior rabbi came up to me at services, congratulating me on going to services, “rain or shine.” I explained, for what felt like the hundredth time, that I went because it was my only chance to bring my dogs to shul, but she didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. Maybe, in her eyes, I was just an obsessively religious person, I don’t know.

And then I missed Yom Kippur with vertigo, and continued to wonder if it was really worth all of the effort to keep going to shul if I was left feeling, endlessly, unknown. I went to Friday night services, two days after Yom Kippur, because the world had stopped spinning, and because I just like Friday night services. When the senior rabbi came up to me, to see how I was doing post Vertigo, he asked if there was anything he could do, and I got brave for a second and asked if Ellie could come to services on Monday morning, for Sukkot, since the services were being held in the Sukkah, and the Sukkah is, technically, outdoors. And the rabbi said yes.

I’m not sure I would have been motivated to get up early for services on that Monday morning, without the promise of Ellie being able to go to shul with me. I knew not to even think of bringing Cricket; she’s terrible with crowds, and her Attention Deficit Disorder would have made the two hour service torture for her. But Ellie was perfect. She sat quietly on my lap and let people pet her. Only one person seemed to have a problem with her being there: when I first walked into the Sukkah, holding Ellie in my arms, and sat down in the back row (of three), one woman from the back row stood up and moved up front. She didn’t say anything to me, just moved, so I don’t know if she was allergic to dogs, or just didn’t like being around them, but it made me feel uneasy. I worried that other people would have the same reaction, but as soon as they began to notice Ellie, they smiled and reached out to pet her. One woman purposely sat down next to me and fell in love with my Ellie within minutes. The junior rabbi laughed at Ellie’s funny faces from across the Sukkah, and made sure that the one little (human) girl at services had noticed the puppy dog. The senior rabbi made a point of publicly welcoming Ellie, as a hypoallergenic family member who was able to join us at services for this special occasion.

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Ellie learning how to be a therapy dog, in therapy.

I’m still trying to absorb how good it felt to be allowed to have Ellie with me at shul. I don’t expect to be able to bring her to synagogue with me on a regular basis, because we are rarely outside for services or other events, but just knowing that she’s been seen, and that I’ve been seen with her, means a great deal to me.

 

My New Nephew

 

I finally got to meet my new canine nephew last week. His name is Coby and he’s an eight month old Husky. He came home five or six months ago, but this was my first chance to meet him in person. When I entered my brother’s house, Coby and his canine sister, Lilah, a black Lab, fought for the right to hug me first. I have the black and blue marks on my arm to prove it. I pity any burglar who tries to enter their house, because he won’t know what hit him with all of those kisses.

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“You let other dogs kiss you?”

We didn’t bring Cricket and Ellie with us for the visit because Cricket has had trouble with visits when there was only Lilah to contend with; two big dogs would have given her a heart attack. I think Ellie would have liked to meet Lilah and Coby, and maybe even enjoyed running through the back yard with them, but Cricket would never have forgiven me for leaving her home and taking Ellie out for the day. And, when Ellie inevitably peed on my sister-in-law’s rugs, family violence would have ensued, so we were better off leaving her at home as well. It was actually Ellie’s longest stay at home with just Cricket for company. The evidence of her anxiety was left on the living room rug, because Miss Ellie is not clear on the difference between rugs and wee wee pads, and will pee and rest on both. So now we have a new, indoor/outdoor, easy to clean, living room rug, and I’m hoping that Ellie will figure out that rugs are not for peeing on.

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Ellie getting cozy on the wee wee pad.

Back at my brother’s house, we spent some time out in the Sukkah, getting to know Coby, and catching up with my other canine and human nephews and nieces. Miss Lilah, the black Lab, has that long suffering big sister look that Cricket wears constantly, but she made sure to bring me both her leash and Coby’s when she wanted to go for a walk. Cricket would never have been able to relate to such a thing.

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This is Coby, in the Sukkah, sitting on his human sister’s lap.

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Sweet Lilah.

My second oldest nephew is the dog whisperer of the house. He willingly wakes up in the middle of the night when Coby, still not quite potty-trained, asks to go out, and Lilah has a huge dog bed that fills most of his floor, but she still prefers to sleep in his bed, leaving my nephew two or three inches to stretch out in. He doesn’t seem to mind sharing his space with the dogs, or allowing the housekeeper to come in and clean, but he’s building a fingerprint lock to keep out the other members of the family. He hasn’t figured out how to add a paw print censor to the lock, but I’m sure that will come next, or else the dogs will just break down the door. He even has a 3D printer of his own, to build new parts for his fingerprint lock and other creations, and he made me a name plate as a gift, to show me how it works. It’s nice to have geniuses in the family, but it’s even better when they are also sweet, and kind and good people (or dogs).

When we finally got home, Cricket and Ellie were wild-eyed, as if they’d spent most of the day convincing each other that we were never going to return. They’d probably also been talking to their canine neighbor across the hall, Oliver, a black haired Shih-Tzu/Bichon mix, about the horrors of being left behind by their humans. He’s their size, and therefore manageable, even for Cricket. If only we could temporarily miniaturize Lilah and Coby, maybe they could spend a day visiting with Cricket and Ellie, just like Oliver does sometimes. I’ll have to discuss this with my second oldest nephew, he’ll be the one to know where to start.

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This is Oliver, carrying one of Cricket and Ellie’s toys on his walk.

The Bird Came Back

 

Last Sunday, while I was answering heartfelt condolences on the death of Mom’s friend Olivia, and sharing the joy of a visit from a bird who seemed to be acting as Olivia’s familiar, the bird came back. This time she came into the apartment through the small opening next to the air-conditioner in the living room (where Mom leaves bird snacks year round, just in case). The bird visited the quilting closet again, of course, and the light fixture in the dining room, but then she became more bold and stood on the kitchen counter to eat pizza crumbs off of a plate, and walked on the living room rug, looking for any treats Cricket might have left behind (as if that would ever happen).

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Psst. Check the pink thing.

Cricket tolerated the invasion moderately well, until the bird stepped into Cricket’s food bowl to sample the kibble, and then wet her beak in Cricket’s water bowl. The bird even had the temerity to wander under Cricket’s couch! Cricket ran after the bird at that point, and was flummoxed by the whole flying thing.

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“I must guard my couch from interlopers, Mommy.”

The bird landed on top of curtain rods and lamps, checked out cookbooks, and stood on my computer chair for a good long time, looking over at me with what looked suspiciously like Cricket’s side eye expression.

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(This is my favorite picture – photographed by Mom and her magic camera.)

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“These had better be vegan.”

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“This chair is just right.”

At bed time, instead of remaining in the living room, or the kitchen, the bird followed me and Cricket into my bedroom, investigating the tops of my bookcases, and the notebooks on my bedside table. She even followed Cricket into Mom’s room, and stood on the blanket, about a foot away from Cricket’s tail. We were starting to wonder if we had accidentally adopted a wild bird.

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“No. Just say no to the bird.”

 

Mom did research on Carolina Wrens, through Google and bird-wise family and friends, and she found out that this is the time of year when they go house hunting, to decide where to nest in the spring. Of course, we started to worry about how much bird poop we’d be dealing with if the bird decided to bring her whole family to live in our apartment, but there was also something gratifying about even being considered for such an honor.

 

When Mom woke up in the middle of the night (she and Cricket are big fans of the late night snack), she was sure that the bird had left, but then she saw a pile of feathers on the radiator in the living room. She was afraid that the bird had died, but it turned out that this was just the bird’s sleeping pose, puffing her wings out to act as a blanket, and stuffing her head down to mute the outside noise.

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Ssh. It’s nap time.

By the next morning the bird was gone. We were able to clean up all of the lingering bird poop, which is surprisingly tenacious stuff, but there was also a sense of loss, and then hope, that maybe the bird will return again. Maybe this will become a weekly Sunday visit! Cricket would not be thrilled with a bird in the house on a regular basis, but, for me, it was nice to have another pet again. I think Miss Butterfly would have approved.

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“Birdie!”

(Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Naomi Mankowitz. Any pictures that look less than perfect were taken by me.)

My Nephew is Going to Israel

 

My nephew is going to Israel for his gap year between high school and college. It has become de rigeur for kids from orthodox Jewish schools to spend a gap year in a yeshiva or seminary (for girls) in Jerusalem, immersing themselves in Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and maybe even the political realities of the Middle East. I wouldn’t want to spend a year in Israel, though, even now. I’m kind of addicted to familiar things. I could manage a week away, maybe ten days, tops. Though even that would strain Cricket’s anxiety disorder to the breaking point. Mine too. I’m impressed by all of these eighteen and nineteen year old kids who have the self-confidence to go to another country for a whole school year.

And the state of peace in Israel is always shaky; flair ups can come at any time. The recent violence at the holy sites could be forgotten by the time my nephew even gets on the plane, or it could grow into a conflagration. Many parents will send their kids to Israel during wars or uprisings. I don’t know why they feel so confident that their children will be safe, but they do.

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This is how I’d feel about it.

 

My nephew probably won’t be visiting a kibbutz, because there aren’t many left. Israel is a tech crazy country with some of the best medical research facilities in the world; it’s not a country of people living on collective farms, picking oranges, anymore. Will the boys get to meet the Palestinians who live on the other side of Jerusalem? Or visit the Knesset (the parliament) to hear arguments from politicians from the many different sides? Or will they spend all of their time studying Talmud and meeting other Jews? Maybe even only other American teens like the ones they grew up with, instead of the Russian or Ethiopian or French or Indian Jews who have found their home in Israel.

It took me a long time to even dip my toe into the waters of modern Israeli history, and I still can’t say that I fully understand the conflicts and points of view of everyone involved. I know that my support for Israel is tribal rather than logical, but then, I think that’s probably true of everyone, on either side.

I have seen and heard a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric recently, and some of it goes over the line into the anti-Semitic language used during the Holocaust. But I have also heard prejudiced arguments and comments from some Jews that are not only unconvincing but disturbingly racist in nature. Smarter and better informed people than me will have to figure it all out and find the compromises that will work. I don’t have answers, or ease, on this issue.

But what I do have is a deep understanding of the need to live somewhere surrounded by people who are like you. I grew up going to Jewish schools where we could each be who we were – the athlete, the musician, the artist, the brain, the druggy – and not be defined by everyone around us as “the Jew.”

I am an American Jew, though. America is my country, my home. This is where my family is, where my dogs are, living and dead. It would be nice to visit Israel, though, and see how it feels to be one among many, and no longer in a minority, surrounded by my people’s history, deep in the ground under my feet.

Unfortunately for me, the Jewish state is in the Middle East, in the desert, where it is too freaking hot. Maybe if the Jewish state were somewhere like Vancouver, I’d be more eager to go. I wonder how Cricket would take to traveling in a plastic crate under my feet.

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I mean, she has fit herself into smaller places.

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When she was a puppy.

Look-a-likes

 

I have a friend whose 17-year-old daughter is like a facsimile of her, except that she does her hair and makeup differently (as in not at all) and dresses her own way. They’re like two identical dolls dressed by radically different children. There’s danger there, because my friend sees her own face so clearly on her daughter, and struggles at times to see her daughter as a separate person, with different characteristics, and needs, and limitations. The temptation to project yourself and your own feelings onto such a familiar face must be extraordinary.

“You sound just like your father.” I said this to my second oldest nephew recently, because I heard his voice from a distance and actually thought it was my brother. His voice had deepened significantly since my previous visit. The older one looks more like his father, and the younger one sounds more like his father, but neither one of them is just like either of their parents, even though there are those genetic matches, and habits they’ve picked up in how they phrase things.

I look very different from my mother, especially in body type. I am taller, with a bigger frame. I’m built more like my father, which does not feel good to me. As a teenager, I tried to starve myself down to the right size, so that I would resemble my mother more, and my father less, but it only lasted long enough to give me fainting spells and muscle cramps, and when I started eating again, the illusion of similarity disappeared.

My father is six-foot-four and over three hundred pounds. He used to be unspeakably strong, before diabetic neuropathy, two strokes, cancer, and age. My hair is brown with red highlights, like his was, rather than dark brown to almost black like Mom’s. My nose is more rounded, like his, my face is more Russian, like his, my skin color is peachier, like his, whereas Mom’s coloring is more Mediterranean. To other people it’s probably subtle to the point of invisible, but to Mom, and therefore to me, the differences are overwhelming.

The fact is, I didn’t and don’t look like my father. I have a full head of hair, and no beard. I am nowhere near as tall or imposing as he is, and my body language is very different. I wasn’t a smaller version of him, at any point in time. But when categories were being given out, my brother matched up more with my mother and I matched up more with my father, and that was that.

For a lot of people, there’s relief in being able to see a parent’s features in a child, if only because it proves parentage. That way you know for sure that the babies weren’t switched at the hospital, and the mailman didn’t get his genes in there without you knowing. But I wonder if looking nothing like your parents might be easier, as long as you are certain of their love and attachment, because then people can see you more clearly as an individual and not so easily confuse you with someone else. But then again, we all look for clues to who we are in the people in our families. We look for a great uncle with our particular inability to do math, or a cousin with our propensity to laugh until we fall on the floor crying. The balance between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in is so precarious.

I have two dogs instead of human children, and they are small, white-haired dogs. We will never show up in those side by side pictures of dogs and owners who look alike.

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“Wait, you don’t look like us?”

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“We need to lie down.”

When I was younger, we used to have black-haired dogs, so that was a little more like me. I especially felt like Dina, my black lab mix, was my familiar, even if we didn’t look exactly alike. I related to her “black dog” status, not the most desirable puppy at the shelter, not the right size or breed or coloring to be popular. There were lots of puppies like her at the shelter, and at every shelter. But mostly it was her personality, and her status in the family, that I related to. She cried desperately when we had to keep her downstairs in the kitchen as a puppy, before she was potty-trained. She escaped from every enclosure we made for her, but no one was willing to put time and effort and money into training her, or buying her special beds and toys and treats, or coming up with a set schedule for her. She was largely left to her own devices, like I was, and she was overwhelmed, like I was, and she developed some odd behaviors as a result, to try to comfort herself, like me.

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Dina’s smile.

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Me and Dina (we even dressed alike).

A look-a-like was what I needed at that time. Someone I could think of as just like me, and still worthy of love and attention and care. Taking care of Dina taught me how to take care of myself. But by the time Cricket came along, I was ready for a dog who was not like me at all, but who needed me anyway. She was so assertive, and cute, and very high maintenance. She taught me that even though there’s a steep learning curve in loving someone so unlike yourself, there’s also a freedom in it. It’s so much easier to accept her strengths and weaknesses as they are when they don’t reflect on me. She’s her own person and I can see her clearly without judging her, or myself, quite so much. And that’s a relief.

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Cricket is her very own person.

Family Photo Albums

Earlier this summer, when one of my cousins came to visit from Paris, it occurred to me that she might like to look at the two or three family photo albums we have at our house that I’d been organizing and reorganizing obsessively. Both my French and American cousins spent hours poring over the pictures, and requesting copies, and Mom spent the next few days at the library scanning the pictures and downloading them to drop box, for everyone in the family to share.

My grandmother was the keeper of the family photo albums, and showed them to us as the only form of entertainment she could offer when we visited her. I loved the black and white pictures of serious people and children in sailor suits. I loved knowing that I was connected to this ongoing story and I wasn’t just a solitary blip in time.

I don’t know what it means that my grandmother created and kept the photo albums. She wasn’t a storyteller, she was a collector: colored glass, interesting people, recipes, and photo albums full of disconnected moments in time. When we looked through the photo albums at her house, she stood at a distance, and when we asked questions, she answered in one or two words, or not at all. She could only offer us the pictures, not the lives behind them.

After her death, my aunts divided up the photo albums and furniture and books. I don’t know if they looked through the boxes and made conscious decisions, or if they just put things where there seemed to be room. My French aunt took the blue and white sofas and put them in her country house, I have the old rocking chair with red cushions and a few photo albums, and the largest box of family photo albums was in my other aunt’s attic in Queens. Untouched. And after my cousin’s visit, I had to go get that box. I spread the photo albums out on the floor of the living room: a lot of them were falling apart at the binding, or had lost their stickum, and pictures were falling out the sides.

It was exciting to finally see so many pictures of my cousins as children, because they were all together each summer at my grandparents’ house in Lake Placid, even my brother was there one summer as a baby, but the house was sold the summer before I was born. We were rarely anywhere at the same time after that. One set of cousins or the other would visit, or my brother and I would visit our grandparents, but there were no big family gatherings again like those summers in Lake Placid.

But the great discovery was the dogs! All of these dogs I’d heard about over the years were finally visible. We are a dog family, no matter what else we are. My Grandmother, severe and moody, loved Rufus. My mom, skinny and lonely, had Minky by her side. Even the housekeeper, dour and apart, had Chihuahuas – given to her by my grandfather, for company – dogs that really did make her a part of the family. Dogs have magical powers to soften the harsh edges of life, and people. There was Lady, and Minky, and Rufus, and Hercules, and Bijou, and Sarika. The dogs were much easier to love than the people, but all of the people loved the dogs.

That's my aunt, mind-melding with a family dog.

That’s my aunt, mind-melding with a family dog.

Annie, the housekeeper, with Herculina.

Annie, the housekeeper, with Herculina.

Grandma with a puppy.

Grandma with a Momma and her puppy.

Mommy and Minky.

Mommy and Minky.

Rufus, guarding the house.

Rufus, guarding the house.

Through all of this, Cricket and Butterfly wandered around and sniffed. I don’t think they could identify which particular pictures were of their doggy relatives, but there were interesting smells everywhere nonetheless.

After-sniffing exhaustion.

After-sniffing exhaustion.

It’s going to take a while to scan all of these pictures, but it will be worth it, to keep the family narrative intact so that we all know where we came from and that we are different strands of the same complicated family story.

Passover for Dogs

 

I think the role of dogs in Passover has been woefully neglected. Cricket and Butterfly are my family, and they deserve a prominent role in such an important holiday, but I’m not sure what that role should be.

Butterfly and Cricket are ready for anything!

Butterfly and Cricket are ready for anything!

Leading up to Passover, there is an official search for leavened bread, or chametz, throughout the house, because you’re not supposed to eat, or even own, leavened bread for the weeklong holiday. When I was a kid, our dogs were very helpful with searching for old crackers under my brother’s bed, or half eaten candy bars in my book bag, or left over dog food in the corners of the kitchen. And then they would help with the ritual cleaning, done by candle light, where we would dump a handful of bread crumbs on the pristine floor and say a blessing as we swept it up, and the dog would lick the floor clean.

Dina, surveying the kitchen floor.

Dina, surveying the kitchen floor.

Samson, chewing on something more tasty

Samson, chewing on something more tasty, my brother

Delilah, intimidating the bread out of the house.

Delilah, intimidating the bread out of the house.

I may have to reinstitute this ritual, if only to clean up the kibble trail Butterfly has left throughout the apartment.

My favorite part of Passover is the Seder itself. All of the stories and songs make me feel like I’m living inside of a story book and travelling back in time. But the Seder is, first and foremost, all about the food.

When you think about it, the Seder is organized as a series of small plates. First you eat a piece of matzo, then a nibble of raw horse radish. Then you make a sandwich out of matzo and horseradish and sweet apple and nut charoset. It’s a tasting menu that gradually builds. And all the way through there’s the wine. This would be Cricket’s idea of a good time. She’s always been a fan of small plates, and wine.

Just a little sip.

Just a little sip

and a taste.

and a taste.

Generally the next course at our house was a hard boiled egg, to represent life, with some salt water to represent the tears that are inevitable in life. Then gefilte fish, for sweetness, with some horseradish on top, to toughen you back up. Then matzoh ball soup with chicken and carrots and onions, just because. And then the rest of the meal came at once, with brisket or chicken or steak, a vegetable or two, some sweet potato tzimmes. And then for desert, a nondairy flourless chocolate cake, Ring Jells, and macaroons.

Every dog we ever had made it a habit to stretch out under the table during the meal, to catch anything that dropped.

We brought Cricket with us to my brother’s Passover Seder one year, before Butterfly arrived on the scene. Cricket was actually a good distraction for the kids, since we didn’t eat dinner until 10:30 at night. The kids were antsy and grumpy with the lateness of the hour, and it was a relief for them to sit under the table with Cricket, and murmur to her, and feel like she could understand them.

I think Cricket would have been very helpful with the search for the Afikomen, if she’d been invited to participate. There’s a custom to break the middle piece of matzoh and hide half of it somewhere in the house. The children search for it like a treasure hunt and get a reward if they find it. At my brother’s house it was an every-man-for-himself blood sport, but I would have loved if Cricket could have participated as part of a team, with some chopped liver smeared across the matzoh, so she could really use her skills to help her human cousins. She would have been especially happy to share in the reward, which, for her, would have been the chopped liver.

I’d really like for Butterfly to experience a Seder. It’s not that I believe she would understand the words, but the story is all about the escape from slavery to freedom: this year we are slaves in Egypt, but next year we will be free in Jerusalem. And Butterfly knows that story. She lived in a puppy mill for eight years, and now she is home, where she belongs. There should be songs for her to sing, to express the pain of her journey, and the happiness of the now. I’d like to sing those songs with her and celebrate that miracle. And maybe find some kosher for Passover chicken treats for her to eat between songs.

Butterfly has a lot to sing about!

Butterfly has a lot to say!