Only in Jerusalem: A dog's-eye view

If, as I wake up on this chilly Jerusalem morning, I need any reminder that it is Friday and that mere hours remain before Shabbat, the necessary cues come from our dog, our six-year-old Canaan named Halva. For as I wipe the grogginess of a well-rested night from my eyes and peer at the clock which indicates a quarter past seven, she is standing silent sentry next to our bed, licking her lips, salivating at the prospect of the feast she knows lies in store. It is atypical behavior, reserved only for this one blessed day of the week. It still amazes me how this gentle four-legged being knows Shabbat from a weekday. But she does. Can she count the six intermittent days on the small fingers of her paws? I doubt it, I'm a realist. Can she sense the imminent upcoming holiness? Highly unlikely. To understand what I believe to be at the root of this phenomenon, I need to travel back, far back in terms of time and distance… back 17 years and 9,000 km.… The year is 1990, the place is West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. It is where I have been accepted and have come to what many claim to be the most behavioral-oriented psychology program in America. If I need any reminder of this, it comes in the form of the name that graces my curriculum, that of a professor, the eldest daughter of B.F. Skinner, the father of modern behaviorist psychology. And if I need any reminder of the perceived dangers of going to school deep in the rugged mountains of Appalachia, in a state where not so many decades ago the Ku Klux Klan held almost complete de-facto rule, it comes from the words of my mother, with the last fretful words that she nervously utters as I begin to pull away in my suitcase-filled Volkswagen, "Please, promise me you won't tell anyone you're Jewish." "Come on, Mom, relax; I haven't been Jewish since my bar mitzva, and I'll probably marry out anyway." So I settled into academia, one of the few Jews on campus, and got down to learning. Sure we went, especially in later years (I stayed for my second degree as well), into counseling theories and later into supervised counseling sessions, but the mainstay of the curriculum was always behavioral. Laboratories, rats in Skinner-boxes learning to press a lever for food pellets, Chinese fighting-fish battling themselves in front of mirrors. And, of course, the "conditioned reflex" of one Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, whose dogs, like ours, salivated at the sound of a bell and the prospect of a tasty morsel of food that awaited, that indicated learning and became one of the unshakable hallmarks of behavioral psychology. It was a world espoused by the teachings of Skinner and found in many of his works including Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a world in which, rather than being controlled by free will, living beings are depressingly relegated to being robot-like creatures that respond to environment cues and feedback. These cues and feedback? Returning to the present… they commence early in our home on any given Friday. It begins with the unmistakable fact that both Ima and Abba are sleeping in. The signs continue as Halva excitedly watches us, post-shower and morning prayers, gathering our "green" canvas recyclable shopping bags and departing for the supermarket. A hearty wag of the tail greets us on our return home from the supermarket, perishables in tow, as it does with no less vigor at the arrival of the delivery man half an hour later as he knocks on the door, holding the overflowing box of non-perishable goods. And it continues unabated as under her watchful auspices my wife, Rivka, lovingly prepares dinner, Halva's warm wet nose continually sniffing at the wonderful plethora of delectable aromas that fills the innards of our apartment. Whether we will be feasting alone or joyfully hosting guests, I know that Halva is looking ahead with great anticipation to the singing, relaxation, lazy series of walks around the neighborhood, whiling the hours away in the grass under a shade tree in our local park… but especially to the savory delicacies she knows she will find in her dinner bowl. Much time has passed, and I myself have undergone two major transformations in the intermittent years since my graduation and subsequent tear-filled departure from the great state of West Virginia. "Come on, Mom, I haven't been Jewish since my bar mitzva and I'll probably marry out anyway" has come full circle in the form of my making aliya, donning a kippa, taking on the mitzvot, and finding true peace and pride in the religion of our patriarchs. And I have long since disavowed the all too confining teachings espoused by the late B.F. Skinner. Instead, I have settled on a more subtle and heartening view of behavior, both of human beings and of our four-legged friends. It is a view that discards the unconscious robotic reaction to the environment and embraces that of living, feeling beings who have wants, desires, needs, and feel the full gamut of emotions. Mostly of joy. I only need look at Halva to reinforce my theories. As we begin singing "Shalom Aleichem," her salivation level will go up a notch. And as she returns from her few minutes of weekly exile in the bedroom, where she is rather unceremoniously escorted while we make Kiddush and Hamotzi, the licking of her salivating lips reaches a fevered frenzy. She makes a mad, bullet-like dash to her awaiting bowl, where on this week she finds, along with her Purina, a heaping helping of turkey, stuffing and pureed sweet potato. Hours later, the meal finished, Birkat Hamazon having been recited, my wife and I both sitting, perusing the pages of the newspaper, I look over and catch a glimpse of Halva, blissfully asleep on her favorite couch. She lies sated, snoring, wearing the typical post-meal smile of contentedness on her face. And I know that, God willing, this entire sequence of events will play itself out, seven short days from now, and hopefully for many, many years to come. The writer's latest work, "Life After Death in The Bronx," has just been chosen for publication in Review Americana, The Journal of the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture.