Filtering the darkest, most dramatic period of modern Jewish history through the naive, often sage, perspective of a remarkable dog, The Jewish Dog offers readers a view of the Holocaust as never seen before.
This bestselling novel in Israel follows the life and thoughts of Caleb, a contemplative dog unusually fascinated with human affairs. Born into a German-Jewish household in the mid-1930s, Caleb witnesses firsthand the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. When events separate him from his Jewish owners, he is adopted by a Nazi family and employed by the SS as a military dog.
Deeply ironic and even humorous, The Jewish Dog presents political commentary on humanity and degradation, as Caleb’s philosophical musings explore loyalty, identity, and the fine line that separates humanity from animals.
About the Author
Asher Kravitz is a wildlife photographer, a pilot, a former detective with the Israeli police force, and a lecturer on mathematics and physics at the Open University and the Jerusalem College of Engineering. He is the author of the novels Boomerang, Magic Square, and Mustafa Rabinowitz. Michal Kessler is a translator of Hebrew literature.
Read an Excerpt
The Jewish Dog
By Asher Kravitz, Shari Dash Greenspan, Michal Kessler
Penlight PublicationsCopyright © 2016 Asher Kravitz
All rights reserved.
From the very beginning, I knew I was an exceptional pup. In fact, my opinion on the matter has never changed. There are countless things that distinguish me from my fellow dogs. The first is my understanding that all good things must come to an end — said end usually being much closer than expected. I envy those who linger carelessly at their master's feet, exposing an expectant belly with the utmost trust. I am not among them. Something in me always keeps me on my toes. Even if I do let myself succumb to the occasional petting, I'm always prepared for the calamities lurking right around the corner. My vigilance is incurable. Acknowledging that everything in life is temporary is a cornerstone of my Jewish identity.
My ability to recognize the transient stems from a well-developed awareness of time. Lodged in my mother's womb, the membranes of my mind winding and entwining in an ingenious molecular dance, I became aware that my existence alongside the placenta would soon come to an end. Crammed inside with so many others, there wasn't much room for doubt; our present reality would have to be replaced with another.
The overcrowding was annoying and frustrating, yet the hopeless optimism of youth urged me to see the glass as half full. The many difficult weeks inside the womb had their advantages. The greatest was that I didn't have to spend every waking moment struggling for food. This luxury left me with plenty of time for contemplation. Muffled echoes from the outside world entered the bubble of my being. For the first time I recognized, albeit vaguely, the cyclical nature of the world: a time of hustle and bustle, a time of peace and quiet; a time of frenzy, a time of rest; a time to feed, a time to digest. I mulled over an impossible quandary: was it worth replacing my current existence with another? My heart said nay. I preferred to stay with the devil I knew.
Bit by bit, my siblings and I took our final shapes. The congestion impeded our ability to move around. With stumps for tails and partially formed extremities, each looming life tried to secure for itself the space it needed. When the pressure from the walls of the womb became unbearable, my fetal mind accepted the decree: against my will I shall be born, and against my will I shall live.
And the birth itself? Cliché dictates that it's an amazing experience, and that everyone should be born at least once. Indeed I was born only once. (As to the number of times I've almost died — at some point I stopped counting.) The compulsion for survival is another building block of my Jewish identity. I'd even go so far as to say that my Jewish brethren would do well to take a lesson from me in survival.
Today, looking back with the 20-20 hindsight of twelve years, I remember my birth as a moment of clarity. Although the birth itself was little more than a jumble of amniotic fluid and chaos, from the very first moment I felt a wonderful lucidity. The voices, a dull echo in the womb, were sharpened tenfold, and they carried with them some of the wealth and plenty that was awaiting me, or so I believed. The wonderful sharpness of sound immediately verified what I had assumed while floating aimlessly: my brothers and I were not alone in the world.
The contact with the carpet, the cold floor below, my brothers tumbling upon me in a maelstrom of body parts, the newfound freedom of movement, the blind attempts to feel my way toward Mother, and the never-ending murmurs of the world — all of these left little room for doubt: being born is an amazing experience, and at its pinnacle — the first experience of sniffing. But it would be some time until I learned to recognize every detail in the wave of scents and odors, the hidden information carried in each waft of air reaching my wet nostrils. An endless concoction of perfumes, disinfectants, animals in heat, tobacco, burning benzene, the oily spreads with which humans polish their shoes, bodily secretions, cut grass, gunpowder, and food. Yes, food. That first scent of food marked the beginning of my passion for nourishment. I made my way head first through the narrow path to my mother's life-giving teats. That was the start of the war of existence.
Indeed, the memories from my suckling days include a lot of pushing and pulling. The food supply was limited, and if you didn't push, you didn't eat. After the battle for food, my siblings and I would make up quickly. We held no grudges. The bitterness was quickly forgotten and we played together good-naturedly. There were no hard feelings.
"Mother, Mother, come!" Reizel called eagerly. "Bruriah gave birth. Six puppies!"
Herschel and Joshua also urged their mother to come see the marvel.
Herschel, Joshua, and Reizel's calls of excitement were the first utterances, the first words I heard in the human tongue. Without attempting to rewrite the past, it was clear to me that my new state — this so-called "life" — was closely tied to the children whose voices I heard then for the very first time. Though my eyes were still closed, I saw this basic truth clearly.
* * *
From man's confident voice, I learned that he holds the position of strength. His scent of authority was so absolute that I entertained the possibility that dogs and humans are not the same species at all. The voices emitted by these creatures — who smelled strongly of mastery — contributed to the notion that sprung into my mind ever so early, developing and growing over the years into a well-defined hypothesis: dogs and men are not the same.
I experienced a restless urge to understand the language of man. In those days, I had not yet deciphered the meaning of my mother's barks, but it was easy to find some rhyme and reason in them. However, the muffled grunts of the two-legged seemed incomprehensible. At this point, I could barely understand the children's speech. Listening to them contributed little to my budding vocabulary, as their conversations were boisterous and their diction poor.
But I wouldn't throw up my paws. I was firm in my decision — I would find a way to decipher human speech. My thirst for knowledge even eclipsed my hunger for food.
Only a handful of days passed, and I already acquired my first three words. The first three treasures in my hoard. A heap of words that has multiplied at an impressive rate since those days of yore, if I may say so myself. My first three words were related, and yet I was unable to put my finger on the nuances. The words were "eww," "yuck," and "gevald." All three were said in a reprimanding tone and were associated with the relief of emptying my bladder on the kitchen floor.
"Kitchen" was the magical, mysterious name of the place from which intoxicating scents wafted day and night. Several times a day, I would arise from my mother's resting mat and toddle toward the source of the appetizing odors. The scents emanating from the kitchen, especially when Shoshana's friend Marta came to cook with her, put me in a stupor. With utmost concentration, I would take in the smells of Shoshana's marvelous cuisine.
Even after being rebuked, I would relieve myself on the same spot on the kitchen floor, time and time again. But then, relief was joined by guilt and embarrassment. I felt like a criminal, unwillingly led by his legs once again to the scene of the crime. Later, the word "NO" joined the party. This word was hurled at me over and over, when chewing on what I later learned to be a "rug," or upon resting my paws on the elevated throne of man, which came to be known as a "couch."
Building my vocabulary was, to me, the most pressing matter. During my first days upon this earth, when I still had little idea of what was actually going on around me, I was careful to listen closely to the speech of man, and file every utterance he made in the recesses of my mind. Many sentences were seared into my memory even though I didn't understand them. Later they would surface, their meanings clarified. Thankfully, I was blessed with a sharp memory — I am a dog who never forgets. This too I attribute to the Jewish blood flowing through my veins. "Thou shalt not forget!"
It is important to note that even when I could only count the words I knew on two paws, I was able to understand the gist of what was being said according to both the intonation and the scent wafting from the speaker's body. I recognized without difficulty whether they were growls of joy, words of love, or snarls of anger and derision.
The first time I heard cries of disgust was when, much to my embarrassment, a tick was found in my fur.
"What is this ugly thing? Eww!" Reizel cried.
"A tick!" Herschel declared.
Joshua, who also wanted to see the despicable creature sucking my blood, called for help. "Daddy! He has a tick on his ear!"
Kalman, the father of the three, touched the tick with the edge of his cigarette, and it shriveled and died instantaneously. That was the first I learned of the health hazards associated with cigarettes.
The ticks were unbearable, but my true nemesis has always been the flea. Every time I think about these low organisms, a shiver runs down my spine. Imagine tiny, despicable creatures crawling across your skin, and you have no way of stopping them. The feeling is ten times worse during your first few weeks of life, when you're still cast in darkness. Until this day, I wake with a start when my puppyhood returns to me in my dreams. The children pinch my skin and taunt "flea, flea...."
The fleas helped me mark an important distinction — the body is divided in two: the places you can reach with your teeth and tongue, and the rest of your body. When the fleas roam the areas beyond the reach of my tongue, I lose my mind.
A more pungent odor than that of disgust is the odor of termination. Through my shut eyelids, I first encountered death. One of my brothers, a nameless pup, didn't have enough strength to make his way to Mother's milk. As we raced to her teats, my siblings and I disregarded any fraternal considerations. The weaker brother was left behind. As he lost strength, his chances of gaining his daily portion diminished. His fate was sealed. Mother stopped feeding and licking him. I realized that the improvement in my own condition was a direct result of my brother's misfortune, but I was amazed at how easy it is to bear the suffering of another when extra milk, extra space at my mother's side, and extra quality time under her tongue are blinding your conscience.
"Mama, look," said Joshua. "I think one of the puppies is sick."
Joshua's father came and lifted my brother. "Yes," he said. "He looks very weak, and his nose is completely dry."
"Oh no," Joshua said. "Look. His head is dropping...."
Kalman did not respond.
That scent was seared into my mind forever. The scent of death.
After the evening feeding, we curled up, exhausted, deep inside my mother's thick fur to sleep. In the still of the night, I had my first dream: huge teats filled with milk just for me, no struggle required. The sounds of the passing day also resurfaced in my mind. It was during sleep that the slurred sounds were formed into an initial understanding.
During the first weeks, I heard Reizel, Joshua, and Herschel's mother, Shoshana, repeat to them, "Don't give them names! If you give them names, you'll become emotionally attached and it'll be ten times harder to give them away."
The matter of giving names contributed to my gut feeling that humans and dogs were separate beings. It was hard for me to understand the deep human compulsion to name every object and creature.
Even Matilda, whom I eventually identified as the housekeeper, was asked not to name us. Despite my temporary blindness, I could tell that Matilda had a different and disorienting scent. The fundamental rule that every living being has a scent, either of "belonging" or "not belonging," didn't apply in her case. She gave off a surprising blend of both.
At this point, the children gave me and my siblings temporary nicknames that weren't considered real, official names. My eldest brother was called "the biggest." I was "the white one with the black circle around his eye and brown patch on his chest." We shared our cushion with "the female," "the cross-eyed one," and "the one with the crooked tail."
Without a proper name or the ability to see, my imagination was somewhat poor. The fact that I received the name "the white one with the black circle around his eye and brown patch on his chest" didn't contribute to my sense of self. Who am I? With no name or image, who can guarantee that I truly exist? Who can guarantee that I am not just a figure in another dog's dream?
In my distress, I did what any other reasonable dog would do — I barked.
I bark, therefore I am.CHAPTER 2
And then I opened my eyes.
The first thing I saw was my mother. Things were coming together: the teats of milk, the sniffing snout, and the moist tongue. Everything was set in place, exactly as I had pictured it. But it wasn't just that; I couldn't look away. I stared at her, mesmerized. Mother was beautiful. Her looks made a deep impression on me: a magnificent tail, speckled fur, broad shoulders, and paws large and stable.
The rest of the world — which at this point amounted to the living room of the Gottlieb house — also suddenly took shape. From east to west, from north to south, and up and down — all was ruled by the Gottliebs. At the time, the Gottliebs seemed to me — an innocent puppy who barely reached their ankles — like giants, able to stand on their hind legs by the grace of some divine power. Their ability to stand for such a long time without leaning on their front legs reinforced my hypothesis that dogs and men were inherently different, and did not only differ in the density of their fur.
In retrospect, I believe the Gottliebs also knew very early on that I was different from my siblings. Our playing habits revealed that immediately. My brothers would play to the point of exhaustion. I would act in a more thoughtful and reserved manner. At the end of play time, my siblings would collapse, exhausted, and while away their days sleeping. I wasn't like that. I preferred pondering to playing. My brothers played like there was no tomorrow, suckled beyond their capacity, and slept endlessly. I played only to appease my mother. Mostly, I would sit in a corner and muse.
The subject of my brooding was usually the human being. Listening to their speech and watching their actions gave me new insights every day. I scrutinized every movement made by a Gottlieb and examined their body language: a nod of the head, a wrinkling of the eyebrows, every flutter, subtle as it may be.
The Gottlieb children enjoyed lifting me up and shaking me in front of their faces, squishing me affectionately, and murmuring sweet nothings. Frankly, I didn't enjoy being lifted, and it usually made me need to pee. However, being held with my nose just an inch from the children's gave me a great opportunity to observe their faces from licking distance. Their sparse fur was distributed illogically, most of it placed at the top of their heads. How odd these creatures were. Their noses were but a tiny pyramid, barely protruding, and their mouths just a horizontal slit, dividing their flat elliptical faces. Inside their mouths was a short tongue, much shorter than my mother's, and their teeth were laughably dull. Bit by bit, these observations bore fruit. I was astonished to discover that humans wouldn't hang their tongues out, even if they were very hot. I learned that the Gottliebs were able to use their front paws to pick fleas and ticks, open the pantry, place records on the gramophone, and attach a leash to a collar.
Excerpted from The Jewish Dog by Asher Kravitz, Shari Dash Greenspan, Michal Kessler. Copyright © 2016 Asher Kravitz. Excerpted by permission of Penlight Publications.
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