What’s in a Name?

Kristine, this is for you. Yes, I know you pronounce it Shee-vah.

As I have mentioned in the past, I am sometimes approached by people at the dog park to explain what their ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbours have against dogs. My friend Helen, in particular, was very conscious of how uncomfortable they seemed around her German shepherd puppy. I told her my personal theory: that for many of those who lost parents, grandparents, or other family members in the Holocaust, dogs, especially German shepherds, evoke memories of the war, when they were used to patrol the camps, flush Jews out of hiding, and generally behaved as police dogs are trained to act– but to nefarious purpose.

Helen was horrified. She had never connected the “German” in GSD, a breed commonly used as police dogs and in search-and-rescue, with Germany’s history as a police state. “But you know,” she told me, “it was worse with my last dog. And it was because of her name. When they heard me call her, they would take their kids into the house.”

I was thoroughly puzzled. What had she named her dog? Hitler? Titus? Jew-dog?

“I named her for the Hindu goddess Shiva,” she explained.

Shiva (courtesy Wikipedia)

She pronounced it “SHI-vah,” with a short i. “Shiva,” same spelling in English, is the Hebrew/Yiddish word for the seven-day period of mourning following the funeral of a first-degree relative (parent, child, sibling, or spouse). Those sitting shiva gather in the same house each day for a week (usually the home of the deceased, or in the home of one of the principal mourners); they sit in low chairs, do not cook for themselves (friends and relatives not sitting shiva provide meals), and receive people making, what else, “shiva” (aka condolence) calls. Other than coming from their homes in the morning and returning at night, they stay in the entire time, focusing on their grief and loss. We all sit shiva at some point in our lives; no one (no one normal, anyway) enjoys making shiva calls; and ultra-Orthodox Jews are, generally speaking, unaware of the names of Hindu gods. So, yeah, hearing someone yell, “Shiva!” down the block would turn heads.

But still, while I might be puzzled by someone yelling, “Shiva!” in the street, I don’t think I’d take my children back inside out of fear, especially if it was clear she was talking to her dog and not simply raving about. “It couldn’t just be that,” I said, “What kind of dog was she?”

“She was a husky.”

“Well, maybe she was a just a big, scary-looking dog!”

“No,” she insisted. “They reacted much more strongly when I used her name than when I just walked by.”

Maybe it was the name. Or maybe they heard the word, looked, and ran from the dog. Whatever. This one I didn’t make sense even to me.

In our increasingly culturally complex world, it’s noble and kind to be aware of the sensitivities of others. I am very taken by Helen’s desire to understand and lessen her neighbours’ discomfort. But it’s impossible to know everything there is to know about every culture that surrounds us. And sometimes, cultures overlap in ways we don’t expect. As long as people interact with courtesy and respect for each other– and that goes for Helen’s Chasidic neighbours too; respect is a two-way street– there’s no reason we can’t all get along… even with people who don’t love dogs.

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About one person's view

I'm the mother of three girls, three cats, and a dog. All need constant attention, but only the dog likes to go for long walks!
This entry was posted in dog breeds, Dogs, society, World War II and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. chesshirecat says:

    Another good and thoughtful post! Muslims believe dogs to be “unclean” not to the same extent as they do pigs, but…dogs are avoided unless they are to be used in the work category such as herd dogs or guard dogs (they will tolerate cats though). I wonder if the ultra Orthodox Jews are in the same thought frame?

    • Not exactly– there is a concept of “impurity” that applies to animals, including dogs, but it doesn’t preclude owning them. It’s just not in the culture; when you have nine kids, you’re not going to be spending money on kibble and vets.

      Muslims like cats because Mohammed owned cats; there are stories about him and his cats (well, one that I’ve heard anyway).

  2. The Hook says:

    What an awesome, interesting post!

  3. Silverycloud says:

    I would take it a step further: the neighbor who ran away with her children was offended by the name, thinking perhaps that it was chosen deliberately to mock her and her/our culture. She should have said something, which is what I would have done. 

  4. Silverycloud says:

    Thinking about it some more, I’ve concluded that it’s an instinctive mistrust inherited from their parents and grandparents who suffered all that, not really memories as it’s too long ago for that.

    • That’s what Jung called the “collective unconscious.” I wasn’t implying that people born in North America have memories of the Holocaust, but those with relatives that lived through it carry a psychological burden as well. You literally have to choose to get past some of it.

  5. Bailey says:

    Unless you talk with people it is hard to know where the fears come from because there are thousands of possiblities. It may be cultural, it may also be personal.

    • Well, when it’s an entire STREET of people who all dress alike, it’s most likely cultural. 🙂 Seriously, dog phobia is very pervasive in ultra-Orthodox communities. And I mean phobia. They will cross the street to avoid even the smallest dogs.

      And then there are those who long for a dog, or a pet of any kind, and they come hang around my house. 🙂

  6. Growing up I knew a dog named N-I-G-G-E-R. It was a black lab and I didn’t think it was funny. But in Barrie in the 80’s there was almost no other culture to clash with. Everyone was a redneck or assumed redneck.

  7. thatjenk says:

    Aww… I read the title and thought you’d be revealing OBF’s real name (though I think I’ve stumbled across it elsewhere 🙂 Your secret is safe.)

    I know I’ve mentioned before that we once encountered a gentleman who took exception to Moses’ name. I have a degree in Religious Studies and am well aware a particular Moses is considered a prophet, but that is not where I got the name and it’s not meant to offend; it just suits him. So suck it up. I’m okay with applying cultural relativism to pet names.

  8. Kristine says:

    I was also hoping this would be a big reveal of OBF’s real name. Alas, I will have to find solace in this excellent and thought-provoking post.

    So far I haven’t received any reaction to my dog’s name, it could be the pronunciation, other than confusion. She often gets called “Sheba” by the neighbours, which is fine.
    When different cultures live side by side and don’t understand one another, there are bound to be some problems. I like that your friend was doing her best to be sensitive. Orthodox Jews are definitely marginalized by our society and I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to live so carefully, wondering who is against you and who you can trust. It’s easier to trust no one.

    I agree that as long as we live with courtesy for others, we will hopefully increase our understanding of one another.

  9. Pamela says:

    I loved this post! Very thoughtful. And my suggestion to folks with GSDs in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods? Teach your dog some really funny and non-threatening trick. Teaching your dog to lie on his back and wiggle or do a silly play bow could be an act of healing.

    When we lived in Philadelphia, many children were afraid of our dogs. We were the only people on the block for years who saw our dogs as companions instead of weapons. It was a challenge to teach neighborhood children to trust dogs appropriately without causing them harm in other times and places.

    BTW, the names Agatha and Christie meant nothing to the neighborhood children (and many of the adults) so for many years, they were known around the block as Africa and Christie.

  10. tukamann says:

    My sentiments exactly. If there was more understanding and respect in our world, there would be peace. Keep writing.

  11. Lucille says:

    I’m considering naming my new pup Shiva. I thought this was an awesome article. My late father’s third wife did not appear to like dogs and rolled her eyes and said ‘Oh God’ whenever I mentioned my several dogs.
    I did not realize until I read this article that perhaps her distaste for dogs was perhaps cultural or religious.

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