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Olive, the Morkie

 

At Cricket’s last vet visit in October, there was a dog standing on the welcome desk barking a greeting. She was small, but mighty, with silky grey and tan hair and a willingness to be petted by almost anyone. I talked to Boopy, the African Grey Parrot who had always acted as greeter in the past, but my eyes kept going back to the dog on the desk.

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“Hey, keep your eyes on the parrot. I’m still cute!”

Cricket was in a panic. She peed on the floor and refused to sit still on the scale and she did not want any dry dog treats (as usual). The dog on the desk was put on the floor and given free rein to walk wherever she pleased, and Cricket was horrified when the little dog decided to walk into one of the examining rooms of her own free will!

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“We’re going to the vet?!!!!!!!”

Eventually it was Cricket’s turn to see the doctor and when we walked into the pristine examining room, Cricket tried to hide behind my legs. I picked her up and she climbed behind my neck like a monkey. The doctor came in and I removed Cricket from my neck, very carefully, and placed her on the stainless steel table. I expected him to take some blood and give some shots; I did not expect him to gasp and shake his head and tell me that Cricket needed to have the hair pulled out of her ears. He was not pleased with me, or Cricket’s groomer, for being so lax about such an essential hygiene issue.

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Cricket thinks this is comfortable for me.

A vet tech had to come in to hold Cricket down, because I was no help, and as Cricket started to squirm on the table, the little dog came in to the exam room and walked over to my feet and sat down. I squatted to pet her and she seemed to say, I see that you are anxious, I am an anxiety dog, pet me.

Cricket peed on the exam table, and cried pitifully as the vet ripped hair out of her ears with a rounded, bent, tweezer-like device. The little dog stayed with me, and leaned against my leg. She seemed to think I was taking the whole thing as badly as Cricket, and she was probably right. I kept petting the little dog and talking to Cricket and working very hard not to slap the vet’s hands away from my baby’s ears.

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This is what Cricket looked like on the exam table.

Once the trauma was over, and Cricket was back in my arms, I got the little dog’s C.V. from the vet. She was a Maltese Yorkie mix (a “Morkie”), and her name was Olive. The vet brought her to the office sometimes to help keep the humans calm.

 

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This is not Olive, but it captures her expression. (not my picture)

Cricket’s vet is tall and awkward, and not especially warm. He’s so good at his job, in part, because he can block out the anxiety of the dog on the table and do what needs to be done to make them healthy. It’s not a lack of compassion, though every once in a while, I get the sense that his compassion for humans is limited. He looks like someone who would have black labs or German shepherds and take them hiking in the woods, but there’s Olive, the sweet, little, silky-haired girl with the bedside manner. And she’s his dog.

He seemed surprised by the idea that once or twice, at least, he’d had to retrieve Olive from the parking lot when someone “accidentally” tried to take her home with them. But I was surprised that it didn’t happen more often. I had a visceral response to Olive – maybe because we’d been through a traumatic experience together (Cricket’s cries were truly harrowing), or because she is a born comfort dog. Or maybe it’s me, because I have this dog magnet embedded in my belly and I have to fight hard against taking every dog home with me, but Olive made the magnet supercharged. And I felt the tug, and the loss, for days afterwards.

My Rabbi still has not gotten a dog. I made a blanket for his potential dog, thinking, if I knit it she will come. His daughters even threatened to choose a dog for him and just bring her home. He has his reasons for not wanting another dog yet, or ever. I just don’t know what those reasons are.

The thing is, despite everything that I love about my synagogue, there’s too much of me that doesn’t feel safe, or welcome, when I’m there. And I feel totally accepted by dogs. They don’t care how many times my writing has been rejected. They don’t care if I make funny faces or don’t wear fancy clothes. Dogs care that I show interest in who they are, and listen to them, and give them scratchies and honor their unique energies. I do the same with humans, but humans have more conflicted reactions to being seen as they are. Dogs appreciate when you read their body language and respond to them as individuals, rather than just being the same polite, charming, whatever you try to be with everyone else.

Cricket and Butterfly are too much like me to be community dogs. They need to be in their own safe place with their familiar people in order to let down their guards. But Olive the Morkie was different. She sent out calming vibes to the room, even when she was barking.

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Cricket and Butterfly are home puppies.

If Olive were the synagogue dog, she would walk through the rows of people, listening for an erratic heartbeat, or feeling for a tremble in someone’s legs, and she would try to heal what she could. She’d run up to the bima to check in with her Dad, or stand still and listen to the cantor, or cozy up to the piano when the magic noise came out, but she would be there, and that would make me feel like I belonged.

 

Why We Need A Canine Co-Rabbi

Google image of a Rabbinical dog. What do you think?

Would this little guy make you want to go to synagogue? (not my picture)

Almost from the beginning of my time at the synagogue three years ago, I’ve been talking to the rabbi about dogs. I don’t remember how it started. Maybe I brought in a picture of Butterfly and Cricket right after we adopted Butterfly from the shelter, maybe it was because I’d heard about his dog, who’d died just a few years before we arrived, and was well known by the congregation, playing a role in rabbinical stories over her long tenure as canine in residence. And maybe it’s because, going to the rabbi’s house for a new members evening, I noticed that pictures of the dog were as prominent as pictures of his daughters, meaning, she was family.

"We are family!"

“We are family!”

He made it clear that he wants a smallish dog, but not too small, hypoallergenic, because he always has people at his house and doesn’t want anyone to get sick, and she has to be a girl. He has two daughters, so he knows he gets along well with girls, but maybe he also wants to avoid the marking and humping young male dogs can do. I did not ask.

I gave him a list of hypoallergenic, or supposedly hypoallergenic, dogs, and we went over it, a year and a half ago.

Talking about dogs is a neutral zone where I can offer the rabbi my attention and concern, without feeling like I’m invading his privacy. There’s such a strange dynamic with teachers and rabbis and therapists, where you create a bond and naturally want to know more about them, but their privacy is meant to be protected, and it feels like I am puffing myself up imagining that I know anything or have the right to care about whether or not he has a dog.

Once a year, dogs play a role in the ritual life of the congregation when they come to the pond on Rosh Hashanah. The ritual of Tashlich is about tossing our sins into the water to let go of them and start the new year fresh. At our synagogue we toss birdseed instead of the traditional bread, which supposedly chokes the birds. I guess the dogs are invited, because with all of the goose poop, no one will notice if they pee or poop on the grass.

"Where should we pee?"

“Where should we pee?”

But once a year is not enough if we want the dogs to get to know each other and develop their own roles in the congregation. We need a rabbinical dog to lead the rest of the dogs in finding their place in the community, whether it be helping kindergarteners learn to read, helping bar and bat mitzvah kids practice in front of a friendly congregation, or offering help to dogs who need it.

We need a rabbinical dog, a small, well trained, friendly, hypoallergenic dog, who can walk through the crowd offering consolation and sweetness and reminders of dogs at home. Just like a rabbi is often a stand in for the good parent you either had or needed.

The rabbinical dog could sniff each congregant’s dog, have private meetings with those in need of further consultation, and maybe plan a few more events during the year for the sake of dog/human families who otherwise have to go to shul without half of the family.

"Why can't we go with you?"

“Why can’t we go with you?”

I think the only real problem with dogs in the synagogue, other than peeing on the carpet, is that there is often food, especially cake and cookies and chocolate. We are in great danger of setting up the oneg on Friday night, going into services, and coming back an hour and a half later to an empty buffet table and sick dogs.

Butterfly is always hungry.

Butterfly is always hungry.

But Cricket might need some Pepto Bismal.

But Cricket might need some Pepto Bismal.

Listening Like A Dog

 

Cricket can be a very good listener. Even in a dead sleep, limbs flopping in midair, she can hear certain words (like: walk, chicken, go, out, and, of course, pee) and be up on her feet and stretching within half a second.

Don't be fooled. Cricket can hear everything!

Don’t be fooled. Cricket can hear everything!

She listens to the sounds of her people sleeping, and shifting, to determine when the waking up drama is about to take place, so she can mark it with screeching and scratching and growling and jumping. She listens to the outdoor sounds, to make sure terrorists are not hiding in plain sight, pretending to be birds or squirrels. She often listens by sniffing, hearing the story of her sister’s visit to the vet by smelling her ears, armpits, and, of course, her butt.

This is Butterfly sniffing Cricket, but you get the idea.

This is Butterfly sniffing Cricket, but you get the idea.

Listening like a dog means actively looking for the information someone wants to give you. It’s not about being nice, or friendly, or polite; it’s about tying an imaginary thread between you and the talker and letting them feel the tug each time you understand what they’ve said.

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

My rabbi went to Israel this summer with a group of other liberal rabbis, and they spent a week with different groups of Israelis and Israeli Arabs, and at the end of the trip they spent three days in Jerusalem, hearing from Palestinians from East Jerusalem, during the height of the Gaza war. These speakers had to spend hours travelling, because of the heightened security measures, but they felt it was important enough to come and tell their personal stories to this group of American Jews. The rule was that the listeners had to wait until the end of the presentation to speak, and even then, only speak in the form of a question, to try to understand better where the speaker was coming from, rather than to argue with them.

That way, even if you hear something early on that’s provocative, or that you think is untrue, or unfair, you don’t interrupt. You keep listening, in case there’s something for you to learn. And isn’t there always something to learn? Maybe you learn why the other person believes as they do, or why they are willing to go through the difficult journey just to speak to you. There can be a moment of understanding, and compassion, and even progress, through dialogue. Not total agreement by any means, but maybe one or two points of connection will come through.

It is taking me forever to learn how to listen when listening is difficult. Patience was never my strong suit. And to be fair to me, people keep saying the craziest things and I feel like it is my job to set things straight so that the world won’t tilt out of control.

Cricket is listening, but she doesn't like what she's hearing.

Cricket is listening, but she doesn’t like what she’s hearing.

Butterfly is a much better listener than I am. She very rarely takes offense. She listens to her sister’s diatribes with curiosity and patience. She even sniffs an ear to see if there’s more to find out. She uses a tactic I’d call whole body listening. You can see her ears lift and rotate, and her nose twitch, as she focuses her gaze on you. But even more, you can feel her listening, feel the heat of her body leaning against you to see what mood you are in, or her tongue licking your palm to let you know that she’s paying attention.

I can probably skip the licking part, but the rest of her listening skills seem worthy of imitation. Now, if only I could get my ears to lift up and rotate the way hers do…

Look at those ears!

Look at those ears!

Synagogue Dogs

            I wish that my dogs could participate at my synagogue. Yes, Cricket is obstreperous and barky and disruptive, but I’d like to believe that there is something in the music of prayer and the solemnity of the service that would help calm her and give her some relief, the way it does for me. The Rabbi and Cantor at my synagogue like to sing harmonies. I think that was the clincher for me when we visited the synagogue last year and decided to join, the way the music was like a conversation between the two of them.

            It would be nice to have an acknowledgment that dogs are members of our families, especially for people like me who don’t have children, or husbands or wives. We get left out of community rituals that would allow us to feel more whole and welcome.

And sometimes, I just feel like I want Butterfly to be sitting on my lap, so I won’t feel so strange to myself in this strange place that isn’t home. She would be my therapy dog, for when I start to twitch and shake and feel self conscious about being in public.

Butterfly, in silent prayer.

Butterfly, in silent prayer.

 Butterfly’s presence would calm and relax the people around her, except for the occasional stress peeing. And then there would be one less place my dogs would be barred from going. It’s already painful for them that they can’t go to the supermarket.

            My synagogue is Reconstructionist and one of their prime directives is to be inclusive of all kinds of people. People, but not dogs? They’ve broken down barriers for intermarried couples and gay couples and women in leadership. Shouldn’t there be some way to break the prejudice against my dogs?

At Friday night services, people wear casual clothes. I started out wearing black dress pants and high heeled boots, because I thought I should, but now I wear jeans and sneakers. There is an aging population at services and they are very accepting of each other’s limitations. They understand the need to be there instead of alone. This is the kind of place that could welcome dogs.

            I would have loved there to be a service to welcome Butterfly into our family. I picture something like the Lion King scene where Simba is introduced to the community, raised up high. I would have liked the Rabbi to hold Butterfly up on the pulpit and say a blessing over her and announce her name to the congregation.

Butterfly's naming pose

Butterfly’s naming pose

When Cricket is sick, it would be nice to be able to go to synagogue and say a public prayer for her recovery. There’s something powerful about putting aside privacy to ask for help from the community, as if we are tapping into an electrical system where everyone’s energy is pooled together.

Cricket is less amenable to being raised in the air

Cricket is less amenable to being raised in the air

On Purim, when we read the story of Esther and use a noise maker, called a grogger, to blot out the name of the bad guy in the story, Haman, the dogs could participate. My dogs, especially Cricket, could be living noisemakers. There could be a whole Hebrew school class for the dogs, to train them for their big day, when they can stand up as a barking choir, and blot out the name of the enemy who tried to harm their humans.

But most of all, I think dogs could bring something unique to a house of worship, because they are not of any particular religious or ethnic persuasion. A Golden Retriever could just as easily, and happily, live with Jews or Muslims or Christians or Buddhists. Dogs are not biased towards one religious group or another. A dog’s presence in the synagogue could be a reminder of the basic spirituality we all share, the God-sense we are all trying to tap into, rather than the specific religion we use to get us there.

My synagogue-ready dogs

My synagogue-ready dogs