What exactly do you tell a charedi (ultra-Orthodox Jew) when your dog has chewed your tefillin?
Dexxy had experienced, it would seem, a troubled first year. When I found her, nearly three years ago, lying on the grass outside my workplace in Or Akiva (Caesarea’s poor neighbour), she was at the doors of doggy heaven.
There was something in Dexxy’s eyes, however, which told me that she was worth saving, that she would make a far more loyal and stable companion than the Turkish woman who had given me the boot earlier that same week. And so it has proved.
But, over the following year or so, Dexxy’s abandonment anxiety would manifest itself in the daily mastication of the contents of my apartment while I was at work. And, perhaps noticing that I was hardly using them anyway, Dexxy one day decided that my tefillin would be next on her bit list.
Even though I hadn’t been taking them out of their velvet bag more than twice a year, for my father’s and brother’s yahrzeits (memorials), there was something about the first sight of those chewed leather straps – with Dexxy looking even more sheepish than usual – that upset me considerably more than the far pricier furniture which she had destroyed.
Following a couple of years’ borrowing the tefillin of my neighbour, Yudah, I decided last week that the time had come to get mine repaired and for a trip to Bnei Brak, the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city bordering Ramat Gan which I visit for religious goods and services (conversely to the journey of many a Bnei Brak resident, for the nightly “goods” and “services” offered in the vicinity of Ramat Gan’s Diamond Exchange).
I had been putting off the shame. After all, how was I going to begin to explain to an ultra-Orthodox Jew – who, even at the best of times (which this most certainly was not), considers a canine far from a “best friend” – the carnage that Dexxy had perpetrated upon my phylacteries?
I had considered quoting the Exodus 13:9 source for the mitzva of tefillin – “that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth” – but thought better of it. Dogs are, after all, only supposed to obey commands, not commandments.
In fact, the only (apocryphal?) story more shameful that came to mind was that of the YU (Yeshiva University, New York) couple who – taking the Deuteronomy 6:8 instruction to “bind them as a sign” perhaps a tad too literally – were caught using tefillin in an act of bondage.
Anyway, I entered the small workshop (recommended by a friend), off Rabbi Akiva, Bnei Brak’s main street, filled with dread. And, having reached the Gerer chossid sitting behind his desk, I gingerly removed the two boxes – one for the arm and the other for the head – from the plastic bag which had provided them a temporary home (the sight of their mauled velvet bag had only prolonged my distress).
The chossid took one look at them, and – instead of the expected roar, followed perhaps by a patsh (slap) and/or yank of my (now negligible) sideburns, Hasmonean style – enquired, in a most relaxed, non-judgmental tone:
“Nu, kelev?” (Well, was it a dog?)
Taken aback and relieved in equal measure, I asked him whether he had ever witnessed such an abomination.
“Yoh” (yes), the kindly chossid replied jovially. The scent of the leather boxes and straps, made from animal skin, he explained, is particularly alluring to dogs.
370 shekels (about 60 quid) later, and they are like a spanking (no reference to our naughty YU friends intended) new pair of tefillin.
Thank you, brother. Not that I visit for such purposes, but, should I ever spot you at night in Ramat Gan, I will be sure to reciprocate your understanding with nothing more than a nod (as good as a wink to a frum Jew).