“I hope this isn’t an offensive question, but why don’t Jews like dogs?”
As the only visibly Jewish dog owners at our local park (my husband wears a kippah, and I tend to dress a little more conservatively than most women), I’ve gotten this question a few times. I’ve even gotten it from other “invisible” Jews, where they ask more specifically about “religious Jews” not liking dogs. It’s a valid question.
Matt, for example, finds it bizarre that people will cross the street to avoid his dogs, which combined weigh under 20 pounds. They could be crushed by a toddler with a rattle, but grown men and women treat them like slavering wolf-beasts.
I’ve never conducted a study to confirm my hypotheses, but I believe I know the answer. There are several factors. First of all, religious Jewish families tend to be large, with five, six, even nine kids. (I personally know someone with 18, but that is stretching it.) Unless you have a large personal fortune, money can be tight, and there isn’t a lot of extra change for kibble and vet bills. There is also the caretaking factor; with only three kids, I have time to spend walking a dog. Someone with more kids than I may not have the time or the energy for an optional responsibility like a dog.
Second, while the collective memory is fading, there are still those who see, in the most innocent beagle, shades of a snarling, snapping Doberman or German shepherd with a Nazi standing behind it. In fact, though I try not to let it affect me, I am not a German shepherd lover (a little ironic, as Our Best Friend clearly has shepherd in his genome), for that very reason. This reaction is especially strong in children of survivors, and those who lost family during the war. Dogs were not their friends; dog were used to sniff them out of hiding, to attack, even to kill. They see no other purpose for these animals.
Finally, it’s simply not in the culture. Religious Jews are not known for their participation in multicultural group activities such as sports or dog shows. Generally speaking, they’re not into pets at all. Of course there are exceptions; in fact, we know one family with a pet snake. But unlike a dog, the snake does not need to be walked, let out, or even fed every day. (On the other hand, it eats frozen mice reheated in the microwave; no thanks, I’d rather do dog poop.) People who are not raised with pets, or know people with pets, tend not to be pet lovers. They see the smell, the nuisance, and the expense, rather than the fun, the love, and the joy a pet brings to his/her family.
I suspect this attitude will fade in coming generations. Our ownership of a large playful dog has brought every dog-loving child in our neighbourhood out of the woodwork and into our back yard. There are even a few older kids who hang out at the dog park to get their animal fix. The parents have multiple reasons for not wanting a dog; some have other children who are terrified of dogs, others can’t afford a pet of their own, and many worry about what the neighbours would think if they got one. (That, of course, is ridiculous; I’m their neighbour, and I’d think it would be great.)
Thus, we become ambassadors– our family to the world outside the small community of observant Jews, and Our Best Friend to those in the community who run from him in terror. Ours is definitely the easier job, and OBF makes a pretty poor emissary. He doesn’t know diplomatic restraint. He barks, he tugs at the leash, he’s a little overenthusiastic. Still, he’s had his successes. One of our neighours approached us over the summer, confessing to an extreme phobia, but also requesting help to overcome it. She allowed her toddlers to pat OBF, and cautiously reached out her hand as well. She was amazed at how his ears feel like velvet. I was just thrilled with her courage. It was a good moment.
Ours is a city rife with ethnic tensions and debates about how far the government should go to respect the rights of minorities, and how much minorities should change in order to conform to the greater society. These issues are left outside the gate at our dog park. It’s not just a place for dogs to run around in safety and freedom. The owners, too, have an unspoken pledge to respect each other as individuals. Just as all breeds are welcome, (and I’ve seen people turn a blind eye to the discriminatory “no pit bull” bylaw enacted by the city), all people are welcome, as long as they obey the cardinal rule and their dog is well-socialized. People have put forth their questions with civility and respect, and I answer in the spirit in which they were asked: to develop greater understanding of our neighbours as human beings.