Miriam wanted a dog for Hanukkah.
Her Hasidic-leaning family was up in arms. The father, a learned man in his 40s, asked: A hoont? A dog? What kind of 12 year-old girl wants a dog? For her pregnant mother, this request came from the very dark side of the moon. A dog! She said it as though the very word were a curse. In the Brooklyn courtyard where they lived, neighbors put in their two cents: A dog!? Who knows what comes from the mouths of children?
A rabbi was consulted.
The rabbi was a man very much of the Old World, famous for enforcing “tradition,” as much as halacha. He was the type of man for whom it was Shabbes even during the week. They were sure he would set their little daughter straight and prohibit such foolishness. Instead, he disappointed them. “It is completely permitted,” he pronounced with the calm Jewish genius for moral judgment.
Now the hubbub built to a boil. Miriam refused to go to school unless her “demand” was met. The father called a psychotherapist—me—and told me, “We need to have a session with you.”
Miriam, petite and adorable, sat with her parents in my office. She took out a photo from a magazine. “This is the kind of dog I want,” she said, and she pointed to a golden retriever.
I looked at the little girl and said, “Good choice. They make wonderful pets, I hear.” The father grimaced at me. What the father didn’t know was that I was no dog-lover. I never had the “right feelings” for man’s best friend; there was something about dogs that trickled downstream the genetic pool from my Polish-Jewish forebears, something that exceeded simple unease and was closer to downright fear. Let’s not even mention the concentration camp dogs that have lodged themselves forever in our collective tribal unconscious.
In any case, Miriam did not seem to need my help. She was spirited and confident, evidently unburdened by the fears of our forebears. She wanted a dog like those happy families she read about in books. But her parents interjected. “No one by us has a dog,” her father said. It’s a modne zach, an oddity. “I want to be different,” Miriam said. She looked up at me as if I had the power to confer on her such a right. Her mother, who had been listening to her carefully, then pointed out that she read somewhere that it was a 10-15 year commitment if they get a puppy. “You could be 25 before this dog dies.” Miriam was silent.
“I don’t think you really want a dog,” her father said in a soft voice, shaking his head. “It’s not a Yiddishe thing.” The mother chimed in. “Where would the dog go? Why not want something more practical? Who would even watch such a dog when you went to school? How would it look for Tatty, to walk the dog in the street? Can you imagine such a thing? I don’t see how … ” Now it was the father’s turn again. He cited sources in the holy books that frowned upon owning a dog. This was somewhat disingenuous, of course, because the rabbi had already permitted it. But I said nothing.
Miriam nodded her head as if beginning to agree. Perhaps it had to be so. It really wasn’t practical to have a dog. (They lived in an apartment building.) Nevertheless, watching this scene, the father in his garb, and the mother wearing sensible shoes but very nervous. It occurred to me—though I will never be sure—that beneath their practical objections, they seemed to be telling her: We are anxious about you wanting something we don’t think you should want. You must not want a dog; your wanting a dog makes us feel anxious. To my mind, we were not talking any longer about a dog, but about the desire for a dog, maybe even the desire for desire.
In a way, as preposterous as it was, I could understand: The daughter through this particular “un-Jewish” (by their lights) desire had become a critic of the family and the family’s Jewish-ness as such was being attacked. What next would she want? Perhaps soon she will want to marry a non-Jewish man!
I got the idea that the parents had hired me to “cure” their daughter of her desire—as though her desire itself were an illness.
Sitting with this family, a memory came back to me: Somewhere around the age of 16, I began to incubate a desire for a different life. Somehow, even though I was a yeshiva bochur steeped in tradition, I got it into my head that I wanted a job at a McDonald’s, a hot-rod muscle car, and a girlfriend named Trixie. Such a thing was absurd for my background, but this desire was very real to me. Do not be led astray by your hearts and eyes, the Torah tells us. Do not wander or even explore strange gardens, our grandmothers told us. I was haunted by these Torah and cultural injunctions: You must want what we want you to want.
It was quiet in my office, quiet enough to hear the cold raindrops outside. It was late fall, getting close to Hanukkah time. Every so often the radiator hissed and clanked.
At first, Miriam was full of strength, but her parents worked her over. She started to slump as though every objection her parents cited was another wave that lapped up and took away another small piece of her sandcastle.
Finally, Miriam came right out and said, “It’s OK. I don’t think I want a dog anymore.” The parents seemed relieved. Their daughter had returned to the safety zone (from their point of view) of Jewish sensibility and rectitude.
There was a sadness in the room, like some life force had evaporated. As they were putting on their coats, the father told his daughter: Maybe we can go to the pet store and take a look at some puppies. “We can’t buy them, but maybe we can look.” She dismissed him: “I am not so interested now,” she said.
I didn’t know what had happened to Miriam, or more accurately, to her desire. My guess is that Miriam wanted very much to be like her parents, to want exactly what her mother and father wanted, but also to not want what they want: to be like them, and to not be like them at all. Of course, at her young age, she could not sustain the guilt at opposing—even in thought—her loving but controlling parents. On the other hand, she could not know the heavy price one often pays when one surrenders one’s life force to culture and tradition.
I never did see them again. Miriam is probably married now, perhaps with small children of her own. Maybe by now she has forgotten about her youthful wish for a dog, or maybe she recognized it as a childhood fantasy that morphed into something else.
Maybe, just maybe, she has a restlessness that goes far, far beyond wishing for a dog for Hanukkah. I hope so.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.