Barking up the right tree

Barking up the right tree

Rabbi uses dog naming to launch values dialogue

Above, Wendy Luks looks on as Wayne and Debbie Zeiler cuddle Lucy Loo. Rebecca Zeiler

Really, it’s not as if your dog – or cat, or gerbil, or turtle, or for that matter your hermit crab – actually needs a Hebrew name.

In fact, you probably could make a case for your gerbil, or turtle, or hermit crab not having the slightest idea what its name is. (The cat would know its name – cats know everything – it just wouldn’t let you know that it knows. Cats relish that kind of power.)

But dogs.

Dogs answer to their names, with pleasure and excitement and tongues and drool. Dogs connect people to each other, as well as to themselves – dogs can bond a family – so why not use dogs (and cats and gerbils and turtles and hermit crabs, if that works) to bond Jews to each other, and to shul?

Modern life demands modern solutions.

That’s why I brought my two dogs – Reggie, a shaggy (we try to keep him groomed, we really do try, but he is a mud magnet) Tibetan terrier, and Darcy, a friendly, bouncy, funny-looking part-Jack-Russell rescue – to the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah for the chance to give them Hebrew names, courtesy of the shul’s Rabbi Arthur Weiner and its youth committee.

“We had about 50 people,” Debbie Zeiler, the committee’s co-chair, said. She and her husband, Wayne, the other co-chair, are the proud owners of Lucy Loo, a Shi Tzu-German Spitz rescue. “We are pet people. When you talk to people, you realize that often your pets are your family, so we thought that recognizing that would be a great way to bring people in the door.”

In the door metaphorically speaking, that is. Although service animals are allowed in the shul, both halachah and state law mandate that other dogs must stay out, Weiner said. As the afternoon began, Weiner talked to each family, asking about its pets’ characteristics. Then he gave each pet a name, either to express the family’s affection to it, or in recognition of its traits – Reggie is Ari, for his lion-hearted protection of us, his much larger but still clearly vulnerable family, and Darcy is Gibora, for her fearlessness, as well as her always extended, often-inappropriately-proffered love. (She jumps on strangers’ laps when she’s off-leash in the park, showing no fear in the pursuit of affection.) And the turtle? Its family wanted it to be named Turtle, in Hebrew, so it is Savyam.

But unlike people, the pets are not given patronymics, so, for example, Reggie is not ben and Darcy is not bat Joanne v’Andy. That’s because they are not people, Weiner said.

“This was not a bark mitzvah.” That is, it was not a joke, and it was not an opportunity to be cutesy. Instead, “I had a specific purpose in mind,” he continued.

“This was an opportunity to talk about names – about the importance of names in Jewish tradition – and also to try to build from the connection many people have with their pets to a larger conversation about Jewish values. The truth – or at least my truth – is that it’s often very difficult to start a conversation about Jewish values. So we are duty bound to try to find new ways of engaging them with Jewish values, with mitzvot, with those things that previous generations can take for granted but we cannot.

“This event had no straight lines, no sitting in rows,” Weiner went on. “It was in the shul backyard, and there was a lot of laughter.”

It also allowed people the “opportunity to talk about some of the great Jewish values, which we believe we originally shared with the world, about the responsibility of human beings toward animals. That ethos is now very much part of American values and culture, but it is a relatively new advance in human history. It comes from our Torah and teachers.

“Preventing harm and cruelty seem like second nature to us, but anyone who knows about human history knows they are still observed in the breach today.”

But, he stressed, “even though our animals are so dear to many of us, at a certain level we have to maintain the distinction between human and animal life.

“A lot of people are dismissive of this, but Judaism believes that while all life is sacred, there is a difference between human life and other life.” That’s why the naming did not use any ritual. “To have a ritual would have blurred that issue, when the larger issue was not to confuse but to connect.”

The naming was fun, he said, and “we need ways to connect to the great Jewish vision with where people are right now.”

Weiner got the idea of the dog naming from Rabbi Neil Tow, whose Glen Rock Jewish Center held a similar affair in 2011. The Glen Rock pet naming was in Adar, the month in which Purim falls, and it was meant to be another part of the topsy-turvy-ness of that holiday of masks and unanticipated consequences. “But I found that it was not only taken in that spirit, but that people also found it to be very meaningful to include a member of the family, and to validate their presence there by giving them a Hebrew name,” Tow said.

“Now,” he continued, “I’ve decided that the naming could stand on its own, not just in the context of Purim.”

He feels strongly, too, as does Weiner, that by naming the dogs, rather than blessing them, as some Catholics do once a year, often on the day that commemorates the life of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, who, as Francis of Assisi, is considered the patron saint of animals, we are differentiating ourselves from “our Christian friends,” as Tow put it, whose traditions are unlike ours.

Also, it tends to be cold on Purim; it’s fine to bring dogs like mine, with thick coats and northern pedigrees, but people tend to leave the fish and hermit crabs at home then, and they get nervous about tiny hairless dogs, even after they’ve swathed them with puppy jackets.

Tow plans to hold the next animal naming soon; keep on eye on the Jewish Standard’s calendar or look online at if you’re interested in giving your pet a Hebrew moniker.

As for my dogs, they might have new names, but basically they’ll come when I call them. If they want to. And as long as I don’t ever call them late for dinner.

read more: