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.
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.