Any good Tel Avivian knows that in renting a tiny, overpriced “renovated” apartment in the city, their chosen building will inevitably come with its very own “building cat,” or “chatul habinyan” in Hebrew. The building cat, indigenous to Tel Aviv, is one of the multitude of street cats that has been communally adopted by the residents of a building, finding a makeshift home. While your building cat might not be immediately distinguishable from the dozens of others on your street at first, soon you will come to recognize one specific feline that continues to follow you home and wait outside your door, claiming the surrounding territory.
If you think I’m joking about what I called the city’s “cat infestation,” a look at the statistics will confirm your worst suspicions. There are an estimated 39,000 stray cats roaming the crowded streets of Tel Aviv. That’s nearly one cat for every 10 people!
Luckily for them, Israeli hospitality extends even to these mangy felines, who have been welcomed into the homes and hearts of Tel Avivians. The city municipality estimated that over 5,000 people regularly feed street cats throughout the city. Perhaps the building cat represents some sort of need for a pet among one’s urban family. Tel Aviv is, after all, a city of young people, many of whom come here alone to find work, love, and a good party, all while enjoying the bohemian beach lifestyle. As exciting as city life can be, anyone who has moved to a new city before knows that the experience can also be isolating. Some people even joke that the cats are here to comfort Tel Aviv’s multitude of single women, who, according to recent statistics, make up 71 percent of women in their late 20s.
Perhaps they are here to comfort all of us.
When I first arrived in Tel Aviv, I was put off by all the cats, mainly because my first neighborhood reeked of cat urine. Walking down the narrow, derelict alleyways around Nachalat Binyamin, there they were: pairs of yellow eyes following my every move, furry little bodies jumping in and out of dumpsters. I was disgusted. What kind of diseases were they carrying? Would they jump on me and scratch me? Oh well, I thought, at least a cat infestation is better than a rat infestation. After a while, they became less noticeable, blending into the hum and buzz of the city.
When I later moved to a more upscale neighborhood (read: no smell of cat urine) I discovered, to my dismay, that I had my very own building cat
Every time I opened the door to our ground floor apartment, there she was looking up at me with her big green eyes. If I was walking up the stairs to the building, she was waiting in the bushes, mewing. If I was chatting outside with my roommates, she was rubbing up against my legs. We started calling her Tuli – a nickname taken from “chatul,” the Hebrew word for cat. Tuli is a small black and white little thing, with some sort of leg handicap that causes her to stretch her back legs like a ballerina every few steps. In this way, she reminded me of my own dog at my parents’ house, Elvis, who we always say looks like a ballerina when he stretches his hind legs.
Now, you might have guessed that I’m not a cat person, so I of course paid no attention to this street cat in the beginning and “ksshed” at her to go away. But she kept coming back. Eventually my conscience gave way to this being who so wanted to be loved (how could I not?), and I began to appreciate her loyalty. I’m not under any delusions that she comes back just to see us - I know for a fact that the people upstairs also feed her - but I like to think the company is not so bad either.
As we make our way in this city, which is exceedingly more difficult for its cats than its people, a familiar face can make all the difference, and I’ve come to think of Tuli as “our” cat. In my adopted urban family, what could make more sense than to complete the picture with an adopted urban pet?