A family’s best friend
‘Why having dogs has made me a better father’
Friday evening – with the candlelit blessing of the Sabbath loaves – is a special time in the busy weekly routines of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and his family. And while his three children, now in their 20s and studying or working away from home, can no longer always be present, one member of the household never misses the occasion.
Mitzpah, the family’s incorrigibly greedy border collie, has perfected his timing, always appearing at the table precisely as the ritual handwashing signals the breaking of his favourite challah bread. After almost 12 years at Wittenberg’s heels, Mitzpah’s apparent respect for Jewish tradition – he also proffers a friendly paw at the word shalom – is fitting. Mitzpah and the late Safi, his canine predecessor, have been “an intrinsic part of family life” and, adds Wittenberg, a “life-affirming source of companionship, comfort and love” for the past 30 years.
They have given much more than this, though, he explains in his new book, Things My Dog Has Taught Me. Through them, Wittenberg believes, he has learned to be a better listener, to forgive more readily and to be more accepting and more focused. He has also – over the course of many long walks, totting up about 10,000 miles alongside Safi alone – become a hardened hiker.
“This book is about dogs but, actually, if I had to write a book about the things that matter in caring for people, it would be very much the same thing,” he says. “They have made me a better person. You would have to ask my children, but I very much hope the dogs have made me a better father.”
Although, of course, the love he feels for Mitzpah – “I tell Mitzpah often that I love him” – and Safi before him is different from that for his wife, Nicky, his children and his wider family, he says we should not trivialise the strength of feeling humans can have for their pets or the positive impact that bond can have.
“I often get calls from members of my community [at the New North London synagogue] telling me their dog is ill and asking if it would be OK for me to say a prayer. A lot of people love their pets more than they want to admit,” he says. “A pet is a loving, feeling, sensitive, responsive being who can make us feel needed.”
For those who live alone – he recalls his aunt, who died aged 90 after living for years with her cat – pets might be “the most significant other”.
Even in households such as his own, until recently filled with the bustle of children, a pet can play a central role. “The dog doesn’t participate in family conflicts, is never insincere. It is a confidante for everyone,” he says. “Who else will sleep on anyone’s bed?”
Mitzpah, he admits, is particularly devoted to him. “Border collies are very much one-family and, ultimately, one-person dogs,” Wittenberg says. But his children have grown up with the dogs, their experiences and sense of security intertwined. “Sometimes I come home and our youngest daughter, Kadya, and Mitzpah are cuddled up on the sofa. That is special and humbling to witness,” he says.
Mitzpah’s predeccesor, Safi, an abandoned staffie/labrador/ spaniel cross found on the street by one of Wittenberg’s congregants, came before the children. “As important things often do, it just happened. He came into the room, licked our faces and that was it, really,” he recalls.
A few years later, baby Amos arrived. He and Safi became inseparable. “Mossy’s first word was dog. His second was Amen, so he did well,” says Wittenberg. It was Kadya who was largely responsible for training Mitzpah, who arrived when Safi was 14, teaching him, among other skills, to walk through hoops and navigate a see-saw.
Family holidays were designed to accommodate the dogs. “Virtually all were in Britain, so we could take them. The dogs being there – the walks, the chases on the beach, the games – were a huge part of it,” says Wittenberg. “The dogs feature in so many lovely, happy family memories.”
Despite Kadya’s efforts at discipline, Mitzpah has also provided the family with many tales of mischief. A youthful propensity for chewing led to one scene, outside the synagogue, in which Nicky, with one of the children positioned at the dog’s head, was forced to extract a pair of tights that was proving difficult for the dog to expel from its rear end. “He hasn’t always been brilliantly behaved,” Wittenberg surmises. “Those moments become very funny in retrospect.”
In addition, he says, the dog facilitates conversation and companionship. “Quite often, Libbi, my middle daughter, or Nicky will join me on a dog walk. That might not otherwise happen, especially as the children grow up. It is a time to touch base.”
Mitzpah regularly accompanies Wittenberg about his work, attending the synagogue and meetings with congregants. If his presence isn’t suitable, he waits in the car.
“If something is difficult – and always after a funeral – I take a few minutes to walk with Mitzpah and reflect,” he says. “It is an opportunity not to be alone, but to be alone with your thoughts, to have your internal dialogue.” The lack of questions or conversation can, he finds, be the perfect comfort.
“Human relationships – even the best of them – have corners of ambiguity and complexity, but with a dog it is simpler. They judge us only by how well we love them back. Sometimes it is easier to show emotion in front of the dog than in front of the family,” he says.
“When my father died, I found being with Mitzpah very helpful,” he adds. “Dogs are intuitive of our mood, they understand so much of what we don’t say. When we are sad, they lie down next to us in quiet, unspoken sympathy. That faithfulness can be hugely comforting and, through it, we reflect more on the human relationships that are so important to us as well.”
When he became an almost accidental dog owner, three decades ago, Wittenberg had, he says, no real sense of “how close we would become or how much time we would spend together”.
IThe dog doesn’t participate in family conflicts and is a confidante for everyone
n 2010, Wittenberg walked from Frankfurt to London, following the path his grandfather, a rabbi in the German city, had taken on fleeing the Nazis in 1939. The walk – about 450km over three weeks – was physically and emotionally challenging. “How could I possibly go without my dog? Mitzpah was my companion. He made me feel safer. He was a bit of home,” he says.
Each night, the pair would arrive, exhausted, at their overnight stops. “On a few occasions, getting ready for bed, I would find the dog stretched out on the bed. I got into my sleeping bag on the floor,” says Wittenberg. “I don’t recommend this as good practice.”
After 30 years, has he become even a little hardened to the dog’s pleading eyes?
“No! I have learned nothing!”
Things My Dog Has Taught Me by Jonathan Wittenberg is published by Hodder, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg with his dog, Mitzpah