Chaya the Shoichet

Chaya the Shoichet [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

I never meant to choose a dog like Chaya. When I first saw her early in the morning, she was still grieving, a long-haired vision of Arctic beauty. A Samoyed husky. I stroked her white, silky hair and talked to her gently. I told her in soft tones how much I needed someone to love. The day went by without even the faintest acknowledgement of my repeated overtures. Several times I walked away, but each time returned.

It was actually an event outside myself that propelled me to seek a dog. I not only needed a companion, I needed a protector; for an ugly episode had taken place in my very own driveway. The sanctity of my comfortable white stucco and terracotta home was violated by a crude, little note, hand-lettered carefully on yellow, lined, foolscap paper:

“This is for the animals who died to make your mink coat.”

The four tires of my car had been irreparably slashed. With malice aforethought. Right in my driveway. The nasty note had been placed under the rear wheel of my car. “Maybe you should get a dog,” the young, blue-eyed policeman had said.

So when I went down to the Humane Society, it was with determination. “Doggie,” I persuaded, as I returned to the cage for the sixth time. “It’s the middle of the afternoon. Open your eyes. I am here.”

This time she responded to my voice, looked at me with her beguiling, velvety-black eyes. Delicately, she licked the tips of my fingers, extended towards her through the cage wires.

That did it! She was everything that was wrong for me, but the moment she kissed my hand, we were a match. It was love at first sight.

I had wanted a sizeable dog that looked fierce, not a pile of black and white fluff, a dog who would ward off would-be assailants with a loud bark. But when I saw Chaya, in her silky-haired mourning attire in the shelter’s cage, it was instant identification. Her name, “Chaya,” was tacked to the front of the cage. She had lost her family. When Chaya was eight years old, her mistress had a baby, and Chaya grew jealous of the baby. It was a choice between the dog or the baby.

So there she lay, mortified, the most beautiful dog in the world, locked in a cage at the Humane Society. “Eight years old,” I pondered. A dog’s age is calculated at about seven dog years for every year of human life. She was younger than me. It was doubtful she would find another home.

“She’s a wonderful dog,” the attendant said. “Well trained. She just got jealous. She’s even been trained not to bark.”

When the attendant told me she had a bit of arthritis in her back legs, I knew that despite the fact she didn’t meet most of my requirements, she was made for me. So what if she looked like a marshmallow, not a fierce protector! So what is she didn’t bark? It was bechert! Destiny!

“We’ll watch our diets and exercise together,” I mused. “Did you come from a kosher home?” I inquired directly into Chaya’s ear. Her eyes remained closed, but Chaya’s graceful upswept Samoyed tail showed the hint of a wag.

“Chaya,” I sweet-talked the dog, “my Jewish name is just like yours. Chaya. Animal. We have the same name.” Did I imagine that the dog’s ears perked up for the first time. “Chayele,” I coaxed, using the Yiddish diminutive. “Little animal, I love you.”

It was at that moment Chaya opened her eyes and kissed my hand. She knew she was loved. She knew she was mine. She had found a good Jewish home.

* * * *

I took Chaya everywhere. To the post office, the drug store, the shoe store, and to my aunt’s for dinner. She had tidbits under the table and shared my morning toast with me.  At the corner bakery, they gave he “pareve” cookies while she waited outside. Everywhere people petted her. I even took her with me to the hairdresser. They brushed her silky hair, too. Chaya loved going to the hairdresser.

So when a friend invited me to attend an exhibit at a native art gallery, it seemed only natural to take Chaya, too. The art gallery was located at the edge of a First Nations Reserve in the Ontario countryside in Canada. The art work shown there was the creation of indigenous artists. One of the artists, a petite, round-faced quilt-maker of some international renown, invited the charming friend who had introduced me to the gallery and myself to dinner.

They had known one another for a long time. Little animal was welcome, too. In the rugged expanse of rural wilderness that framed the reserve, Little Animal was soon to become Wild Animal. Vilde Chaya, as it is called in Yiddish.

The country lake was the first thing to evoke Chaya’s primitive inner voice. She was part husky, after all. She dove into the water in the late day, just as the sun was beginning to dip itself into the lake. Little Animal swam as if the lake and sun and trees belonged to her. She shook her fur when she emerged and frisked happily with the large dog belonging to our native hosts.

“City dog?” one of our native hosts asked, raising a skeptical, busy eyebrow. He was the quilt-maker’s husband and wore a leather, fringed jacket. “I don’t think so. Country dog,” he pronounced.

My friend, an environmental consultant by profession, smiled at me. He was at home in these surroundings. His white mustache quivered with pleasure.

I smiled back. “Like your people and mine,” I answered our host, “Chaya has a long history.”

Then we happily sat down with ten or more First Nations people at long, rough wood tables for a barbecue. The pickerel cooked over an open fire and the roasted potatoes smelled delicious. Green beans from the garden adorned the salad. But in this ecological heaven, we ate on paper plates with plastic forks and knives, and drank from paper cups.

“L’chaim,” I offered a toast over the bush tea, strong-brewed over the fire. In response, they taught me some words in Ojibway, almost a lost language.

As home-baked apple and blueberry pies were brought to the table, one of the native men laughed happily. “Whenever we had dessert, my Mama always said, “Just turn over the plates, kids, and eat on the other side.” Everyone giggled and turned their paper plates upside down to receive the slices of pie.

I looked at my food-stained plate squeamishly. “I don’t eat dessert,” I excused myself. “Do you want a little piece of pie, Chaya?” I reached under the table to give my slice to the dog. Chaya had taken her place under the table as the meal began, her nose close to my feet, so I could slip her little tid-bits from time to time. This time there was no receiving, moist dog tongue. Chaya wasn’t there. During all the merriment, she had slipped away.

Hurriedly, I began to look for her. Here, in this country setting, amongst aboriginal people with a past so closely connected to the land, had my eight-year-old, Jewish husky responded to some primeval urge and returned to the wilderness?

* * * *

“Chaya,” I cupped my fingers to my mouth to enlarge the sound. “Chayele,” I called. “Where are you? This is your Jewish mother asking. “Come back.”

I remembered how my grandmother used to tie a horsehair ring around her finger to keep away the evil eye. In these strange surroundings, had an evil spirit overtaken my Chaya? Would I ever see her again? I wished that I had a horsehair ring or a five-fingered hand on a little gold chain around my neck, or an Indian dream catcher, or…at least I was wearing my Mogen Dovid (Jewish star).

Just then I caught a glimpse of her white tail soaring in the air amidst the tall grass. She hadn’t run far away at all. There she was in a fenced enclosure behind the large, rambling house. “Oh,” I sighed in relief, “she must have leaped over the fence or burrowed under it. Then the moment of relief ended as I saw what was at the front of Chaya’s tail.

A chicken. Chaya had it in her mouth.

As I screamed, “No, no, not the chicken, in one fell swoop Chaya became a shoichet (a ritual slaughterer who koshers the meat). She had slaughtered the chicken.

Shaking the dog by her collar, I made her drop the chicken, uneaten, but it was too late. The chicken was dead.

The banqueting natives heard  my screams, and all ten came running. “Are you all right? Are you all right?” They gathered around me protectively, and then suddenly there was silence. Everyone stared at the chicken lying on the ground.

“I’m awfully sorry,” I said unhappily, “but my dog has slaughtered one of your chickens. I’ll replace it.”

“Oh no,” my native hostess gasped. Her quilter’s hands flew to clasp her round cheeks. “I hope it isn’t Goldie. Oh, I bet it’s Goldie. I forgot that she was loose. I forgot to put her back in the hen house.” Now the hands clutched her bosom as if in prayer, as she moved forward to identify the chicken.

“Goldie,” her husband cried in dismay, bending down to look at the chicken. His bushy brows knitted together. “Goldie is…was out pet. Most chickens only live for three or four years, but Goldie was ten years old.” He looked away, his eyes almost, but not quite, misting over. “I guess it’s dumb to have a chicken for a pet.”

“I guess your Goldie is irreplaceable,” I rejoined sadly. “Oh Chaya,” I thought. “We have spoiled such a nice invitation. At that moment, I felt like…Christopher Columbus, as he has been portrayed in recent ties. I felt like all the other exploiters of aboriginal people. We had come, my white city dog and I, in presumed good will to their welcoming feast, and we had destroyed their animal.

At least not with malice aforethought. At least not like the kind of people who intentionally slash tires. At least….

“Next time I’ll call and say the whites are coming,” I made a bad joke. Nobody laughed.

“Come with me,” I snapped to my dog the Assassin, and I tied her to the lef of one of the wooden banquet tables. And now Chaya, the gentle dog who never barked, found her voice. She barked and whined and whimpered.

“Be quiet,” I commanded. In response, she howled non-stop like a timber wolf. “Aah-ooooh!” Or an Arctic husky reclaiming her land. Until finally, we prepared to take our leave.

“I hope you will invite me again,” I ventured. Chaya, now sweetly on her lead ready to go home to the wilds of suburban Toronto, wagged her tail. My friend, the environmentalist, gave me a hug.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s just a chicken,” they all assured me sadly. Everybody looked at Goldie still lying on the ground. Then my host gathered up Goldie’s remains and brought them to the kitchen. He put them on the wood block beside the stove. He was a practical man. Goldie would soon be ten-year-old chicken soup.

I picked up my forgotten cup of bush tea in the paper cup and made a parting toast. “L’chaim, Goldie. To life! May your spirit sleep in protected bays.”

[1] A shoichet is a ritual slaughterer who kills animals humanely. I first narrated this story to a large assemblage of Jewish performing artists and writers in Toronto and have told it many times since.

©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1990; Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.