Jonathan Wittenberg is one of Britain’s most humane and thoughtful rabbis. He is also a gifted writer, author of a number of books about Judaism and the Holocaust, most recently Walking with the Light (2013) and My Dear Ones (2016).
If you have read Walking with the Light, you will know that Rabbi Wittenberg is inseparable from Mitzpah, his dog and companion. So, it is no surprise that Mitzpah has finally moved centre-stage in Wittenberg’s new book, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Jackson, about what his dog has taught him about being a better human, kinder, compassionate and wiser.
For dog-lovers this is the perfect book. It is a moving account of the author’s two animals, Safi and Mitzpah who both became part of the family, canine Paddington Bears to the rabbi’s family “Brown”.
Things My Dog Has Taught Me is full of fascinating nuggets, including learned literary quotations about dogs, from King Lear to the Israeli writer, Aharon Appelfeld.
One interesting chapter is on Healing. We all know about guide dogs for the blind, but did you know about medical alert assistance dogs who are taught to warn someone suffering from diabetes of an imminent high or low in their blood sugar? Or cancer detection dogs who “learn to recognise the possible presence of cancer, especially prostate cancer, through its distinctive smell in urine or breath samples”?
Most interesting of all, though, are the reflections on what the author has learned from Safi and Mitzpah about companionship, love and trust. The book is structured around a set of short, very accessible chapters about the relationship between the rabbi and his dogs which often leads him into moving insights into human relationships. “It’s sad,” Wittenberg writes, “when someone goes to his grave with his capacity for love unfulfilled.” Why do people often die alone, waiting for others to leave their bedside? Maybe, he writes, “there are certain experiences which cannot be shared and which the spirit understands that it has to experience alone.” The mood of the book darkens and the most moving chapters are at the end, on mortality and grieving.
For those who are not dog-lovers there are still fascinating insights into the daily life of a rabbi. “I visit the sick,” this rabbi writes, “endeavour to support the bereaved, and study and teach our sacred texts.” But it is the details of his pastoral care that are most interesting. “When I go to the home of a family in mourning,” he says, “or when someone in pain comes to see me, I tell myself: be as present as possible; make yourself as small as possible.” What starts out as a book about dogs becomes a moving book about what makes us human.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer