“The Elephant and the Jewish Problem” is the punchline to a hoary old Jewish joke, the point of which is that there is a Jewish perspective on every subject imaginable. The same point is made in a remarkable work of scholarship, “A Jew’s Best Friend? The Image of the Dog Throughout Jewish History,” edited by Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman and Rakefet Zalashik (Sussex Academic Press, $65, hardcover; $34.95, paper), a pair of self-proclaimed dog lovers who were inspired to explore what Jewish tradition has to say about dogs and Jews.
The book itself is no joke, and the role of dogs in Jewish culture is a long and troubled one. Dogs are viewed as “vile and tainted” in the Bible, according to contributor Meir Edrey. The Talmud cautions widows “so as to exclude any possibility of bestiality,” a rabbinical concern that also appears in the Shulhan Arukh, as Sophia Menache points out. Thanks to these Jewish traditions, fear and loathing of dogs came to be regarded as a trait of the authentic Jew in the Diaspora: “If a Jew has a dog,” goes one Yiddish proverb quoted by Robert A. Rothstein, “either the dog is no dog or the Jew is no Jew.” And he cites a modern anecdote about a Jew who has converted to Christianity but still feels Jewish: “Every day I read the New York Times, every Sunday I have a pastrami sandwich, and I’m still afraid of dogs.”
Contempt for the canine came to be embraced in medieval Europe as a useful metaphor for hatred of the Jews and has never really disappeared from anti-Semitic propaganda. Kenneth Stow shares the experience of a contemporary Jewish poet, Marjorie Agosin, who grew up in Chile. Her classmates once invited her to join in a game by placing her in the middle of a circle of children who proceeded to chant a rebuke with deep roots in Christian anti-Semitism: “Who has stolen the bread from the oven?! The Jewish dog, the Jewish dog!” And Stow excavates the inner meaning of the hurtful children’s game: “[W]hat it recreates, of course, is the Host Libel, the charge that Jews attempt to purloin and destroy the consecrated Eucharistic Host.”
Jews may have been scorned as dogs in the Diaspora, but it should come as no surprise that Zionism sought to remake the relationship between Jews and dogs. “Here in the Eretz, our people found their way back to the earth and it is time we found our way back to the dog,” wrote Rudolphina Menzel in a 1943 appeal to her fellow chalutzim in Palestine. “Working with dogs is pioneer work…Help us reclaim the dog for our people… He who has not overcome the fear of the dog from the ghetto is not a renewed Jew, even if he was born here.”
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Menzel, in fact, pioneered the breeding of the so-called Canaan Dog, an indigenous dog whom she regarded as a “living fossil” and a good candidate for military and police service. Ironically, she was successful in inspiring a “dog culture” in Israel, but “it turned out that as Israeli Jews became lovers, they spurned the breed as a local, Arab dog,” according to Susan M. Kahan, so the Israelis “zealously imported more elite, established European breeds like Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds, despite their poor function in the local climate.”
One of the achievements of Zionism, in fact, was to elevate the dog to a privileged position in the Jewish state. “Today, Israel is at the international cutting-edge of service-dog training,” writes Kahn, “in which dogs perform a variety of life-maintaining functions for the blind, disabled, and wounded, and Israeli therapy dogs provide immeasurable solace to the infirm and elderly.” Not coincidentally, as Zalashik explains, a female German Shepherd called “’Azit the Paratrooper Dog” is the hero of a beloved children’s series that includes books, movies, and board games.
“The shift from the German Shepherd as the servant of Nazism to the German Shepherd as a member of the IDF, protecting the borders of the Jewish state, must not be overlooked,” writes Zalashik. She points out that Mordechai Gur, a celebrated hero of the Six Day War and later chief of staff of the IDF -- and the original author of the saga featuring ‘Azit -- may have chosen the breed “to transform the historically negative image by having this symbolically charged dog serve the IDF in its missions, protecting Israeli and killing Arab terrorists.”
“A Jew’s Best Friend?” carries the weight and authority of academic scholarship, but it is wholly user-friendly and full of fascinating detail. Jewish dog lovers, of course, will love this book, too. Above all, the contributors manage to sustain a certain wry sense of humor throughout their work. “As dog lovers,” the editors conclude, “we also hope that this volume will invite a revised look at the history of the relationships between Jews and dogs,” the editors conclude. “We encourage you to follow the popular adage, ‘Wag more…bark less.’”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.