The Literary Canine

The porch of our apartment overlooks a dog park where the neighborhood dogs run around at all hours of the day, to my children’s delight. I’m not sure when they became so dog-crazed, though it surely began with Matan, who spends countless hours sitting on a bench inside the enclosed fence of the dog park watching the various dogs chase one another, petting any who come near and chatting with their owners. Now the other kids have begun joining him, and even Yitzvi, who still doesn’t say a word, will bark “hav hav” whenever he spies a cat or a dog or anything with four legs and fur. At dinner, when I finally manage to drag the kids home—sometimes I wish I had a long leash I could yank on to pull them up from the park directly into our third-story apartment—they are often too excited to eat, regaling us with stories about how Eva is being trained, and why it’s not safe for Patat and Joy to be in the park together, and how old Skye was when his owner first brought him home. I try to turn the conversation to matters of Torah or literature, but to no avail. The literary canon cannot compete with illiterate canines, and the best I can do is read to them books about dogs.

A few weeks ago, when I asked Liav to choose a new book to read together, I was surprised when she picked Henry and Beezus – another novel by the author of Beezus and Ramona which features many of the same characters. I had read the kids the entire Beezus and Ramona series during the first Corona lockdown, and I assumed that Liav just wanted more. But now I wonder if perhaps she was drawn to the book because of the dog on the back cover – the book is not just about Henry and Beezus and the neighborhood kids, but also about Henry’s dog Ribsy, who is responsible for most of their adventures. Liav, for as long as I can remember, has been petrified of dogs, but now that is changing. She is becoming a dog lover too, to our astonishment.

I used to think, back when Matan was two and the twins were just learning to walk, that I could tell my children’s personalities based on the way they greeted dogs. Every day, on our walk up the railway track park coming home from Gan, we would pass several. Tagel would bound forward and pet them. Liav would burst into tears if any dog came close, even a tiny puppy on a short leash. Matan would eye any passing dog circumspectly and reach for my hand, checking to see if the dog was friendly. In some ways they haven’t changed: Tagel is still exuberant, Liav remains terribly sensitive, Matan is just as guarded and methodical. But Liav is finally overcoming her fear of dogs, thanks to Matan, who takes her to the dog park at least once a day and insists that she sit by his side. He tells us he is “training” Liav to get over her fear, in the hope that we might then get a dog of our own. The truth is that we won’t get a dog regardless—Daniel and I are of one mind about that—but we’re happy for any activities the kids do together. And so Matan is training Liav to overcome her fear of dogs, and I’m training Liav to read more fluently in English, and he is as happy when she doesn’t cower as I am when she doesn’t give up in the middle of a paragraph about Henry and Ribsy and insist that I take over.

Ribsy is always getting Henry into trouble. He runs off with the meat the neighbors are preparing to grill on their barbecue. Then he steals all the newspapers and risks Henry’s chances of getting his own paper route. And then, when Henry ties him to a parking meter outside the supermarket, he lands Henry with a ticket from the police. Matan, who often comes in to curl up at my feet and listen when Liav reads aloud to me, assures me that when we get him a dog—it is always when and not if—we won’t need to worry about any of that, because he’s going to train it all by himself. “You know that to train a dog, you need to wake up very early to take it out for walks,” Daniel informs Matan, who generally rolls out of bed and staggers into the kitchen fifteen minutes before the school bell rings. Sure enough, the next morning, Matan set an alarm and was up by six to play with the dogs before school. On Purim morning, when one of the dog owners informed my kids that she’d be walking her dog at 5:30am, Matan managed to set an alarm and get himself out in time to join her – in costume. Not surprisingly, e dressed up as a dogwalker, dragging around Yitzvi’s stuffed talk on a leash he had made by looping together all our rubber bands.Matan would love to be a professional dog walker, but for now, he’s content taking out the neighbor’s dog every few days. I insisted on coming with him the first time, because I felt responsible for making sure everything went smoothly – what if the dog stole meat off a grill, or ran off with someone’s newspaper? But I didn’t stay for long. As soon as soon as I saw Matan confidently scoop up the poop and discard it neatly, I realized that he didn’t need me.

On Shabbat mornings, when we return from shul, we often find Matan dressed in nice clothes but out in the dog park. I’m glad he’s finally managing to get himself dressed for Shabbat—we used to come back and find him still in pajamas, reading in bed by the light streaming in through his window—but I wish he would come with us to shul. “You don’t have to spend the whole day at the dog park,” I tell him when he doesn’t even want to come home for lunch. “It’s bitul zman, don’t you think?” Bitul zman, wasted time, is a phrase I use often with my kids when I question the activities they choose. (Do the twins really need to spend two hours trading items in their Mishloach Manot packages of Purim candy? Bitul zman! Will I let them run off with the Ipad to watch an inane Youtube video? Bitul zman!”) I’d like instead to use the phrase Bitul Torah—implying that they are wasting valuable time that might be spent studying Torah—but my kids are not there yet, and I’m content with any number of other more wholesome alternatives. And yet Matan can’t imagine a better use of his time than getting to know the dogs. “Ima, go away, you’re being like Tock,” he dismisses me, reminding me of another favorite literary canine, the watchdog in The Phantom Tollbooth – a literal watch-dog with a head, four feet, a tail, and the body of a large ticking clock. Tock spends his days sniffing around to make sure that nobody wastes time, and in a way, Matan is right — that’s me. “Do you know how much time you’d have to spend caring for a dog?” I ask him, and when his eyes light up, I realize I need to try another line of argument.

“We don’t need a dog because we have Yitzvi,” I venture, trying to convince him that his little brother comes close enough. Need someone to take out for a walk? Yitzvi is always happy to toddle around the park holding on to someone’s hand. Need someone to get you out of bed early? Yitzvi’s generally ready to rear by 6am. Need someone to eat the leftovers? Yitzvi is generally content to eat the sandwich crusts and browned apple slices that the kids return from school in their lunch containers. Every evening I defrost four pitas so the kids can make themselves sandwiches in the morning. They slice off the tops so as to make an opening through which to fill the pocket with chumus or cheese or peanut butter or tuna. The four sliced-off tops are deposited on Yitzvi’s plastic yellow plate, and he gnaws at them while the other kids rush around packing their schoolbooks and brushing their teeth. Then he makes off with their toothbrushes and hides them in the most unexpected places – under the sink, in the washing machine, inside the chicken soup pot. He reminds me of Harry the Dirty Dog, who hides his brush so no one can wash or groom him. Yitzvi,too, hates baths and hates being groomed, though he was born with a full head of hair. He is hirsute and cuddly and he follows his siblings around adoringly. With him around, who needs a dog?

A few nights ago, after the dog park had emptied, the kids had eaten dinner, and Yitzvi was asleep in his crib, I started reading the older kids from my childhood copy of Bridge to Terebithia, a story about a lonely twelve-year-old boy named Jess who feels adrift in the world – until a new girl named Leslie moves in to the farm next door and they build an imaginary kingdom together. Last night I read the Christmas chapter, in which Jess struggles to think of an idea of a gift for Leslie. He is riding the bus home from school one day when a sign out the window catches his eye, and he asks the driver to stop and let him off. “Free Puppies,” said the sign, and so Jess brings Leslie the furry gift of Prince Terrien, heir to Terebithia. “Free puppies?” Matan exclaimed when I got to that part. “People really give away free puppies? That’s what I need. Who gives away free puppies in Jerusalem? Then you and Abba can’t say no!” The book has very few black-and-white illustrations, but one of them is of Prince Terrien when he is still just a puppy. I pass around the book for all the kids to take a look, and Matan really seems to be salivating as he pores over the floppy ears, the pleading eyes. “Here’s a puppy you can look at for free whenever you want,” I say, pointing to the illustration. I fold over the corner of the page so he can find it easily – I don’t like damaging my cherished books, but this seems like a page to dogear.

3 thoughts on “The Literary Canine

  1. Sally Buffington says:

    This is such a winning post! Thank you for it. I agree with Sharon’s comment, though I entirely see your parental side with all of you in an apartment. Having had a grandson who’s had to overcome some fear of dogs – and I love them myself –I read this with great pleasure. Also, have you read Beverly Cleary’s own childhood and college memoirs? “A Girl From Yamhill” and “On My Own.” If not, you have a pleasure awaiting you – though I realize you probably have little spare time. Again, thank you for this one! Your love for your kids shines through.


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