A Brief History of the Jewdle

A Purim spiel on one of Judaism’s most majestic creatures

Maxim D. Shrayer
March 17, 2022
Original photo courtesy the author
Original photo courtesy the author
Original photo courtesy the author
Original photo courtesy the author

A jewdle (Middle High German Judel; Old Yiddish Yudl; also known as der Speyerer Judenhund) was originally bred in the Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley in the 12th century. In light of recent discoveries, Jewish cultural historians are finally in agreement that the Rhineland massacres of 1096 had served as the principal motivation for the development of this remarkable breed. In Shina’yim, a treatise known from its 14th-century copy recently donated to Jüdisches Museum Worms, Shlomo Bar Canina of Mainz speaks of the miraculous qualities of the jewdle: “Developed with patience and love from common domesticated wolf-dogs, these Jewish creations embody some of the best qualities of our people: strength of spirit, fathomless memory, great devotion, and a passion for learning.” In the old synagogue of the city of Speyer, a surviving wall of the inner courtyard bears a small statue of a canine with an elongated face and elaborate sidelocks. By the 13th century the jewdle spread across Ashkenaz, and yet its traces had nearly vanished by the time Jews migrated eastward into Polish lands. In the saddle bags of Jewish merchants and traders, jewdle puppies even reached the Far East. Some evidence indicates that the Japanese shikoku (juhoku) ken was bred as a cross of the jewdle and the native island dogs.

In the 2020 edition of Yelpstein’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Civilization, the disappearance of the jewdle from everyday culture of Ashkenazi Jews is linked directly to the Black Death and the decimation of Jewish communities in the Palatinate. Armed with DNA studies, recent sources have demonstrated that by the middle of the 15th century dog breeders serving Archbishop Diether von Isenburg of Mainz claimed to have created a German water dog, which they named pudel (from the Low German puddeln “to splash”)—and which eventually became known in English as poodle and in French as caniche. In fact, this was but a clever cooption of the jewdle by the Christian authorities. To conceal this theft, the German breeders also concocted what is still commonly known as the poodle cut, a supersessionist froofie style that emphasized a lion’s head and deemphasized the shape of the jewdle’s head, nose, and sidelong earcurls. As the breed became very popular, first across German lands, later in France and all across the European continent, some jewdles resisted the efforts of forced baptism and kept Jewish memory alive. Poodle breeders to this day are reluctant to feed poodles pork or add milk products to their meat-based kibble. That poodles were frowned upon by Nazi racial cynology offers further evidentiary teeth in support of the breed’s Jewish origins. In 1938 Johann Schwanz, head of a dynasty of Cologne poodle breeders, was forced to leave Nazi Germany and go into exile. He settled in Wardsboro, Vermont, and founded Mystical Curls, a family dog farm still revered by poodle lovers in America.

The first efforts to take back the jewdle date to the Six-Day War and the subsequent boost of Jewish pride. Yet it took another 20 years to form the Jewish Canine Society of America, headquartered in Philadelphia, and it wasn’t until 2000 that Carla Barks, the first certified jewdle breeder, established herself in Newport, Rhode Island, symbolically the site of America’s first synagogue. Ms. Barks broke with centuries of the distinct poodle cut and began to promote the original jewdle look, which featured long flappy coats and cultivated earcurls. Miniature black, silver, and apricot jewdles became especially popular among enlightened members of the Jewish American community, the dogs’ success owing itself in part to the 2005 Hollywood release of Dovening With Charlie Across America, the rediscovered travelogue by John Steinbark. It’s safe to say that the efforts to recaninize the jewdle as a major part of Ashkenazi heritage have repaid, and the 2010s chimed in a full renaissance of the jewdle. It was then that the first references to the jewdle entered dictionaries of urban slang and American idioms. There were even individuals who falsely claimed to have coined the term jewdle, but Jewish linguists and cynologists demurred at these acts of cultural misappropriation. At the same time, calls have been made to cancel the term “poodle” entirely and exclusively employ “jewdle” in reference to all canines descended from the Jewish Speyer dog. Thankfully, a combination of Jewish common sense and pragmatism has prevailed.

Two sizes are especially popular among jewdle-lovers in the U.S. and Canada: the biggest variety, now increasingly referred to as “the great American jewdle,” and the medium-size dog, which my wife likes to call the “minijewdle.” According to data annually released by the American Kennel Institute, the jewdle now ranks among America’s 15 most popular breeds. In fact, opportunists among dog breeders began crossing the jewdle with other breeds, their efforts resulting in the introduction of the labrajewdle, bernejewdle, and cockajewdle. The latter is sometimes referred to as the “cockajew,” much to the objection of the Anti-Defamation League. The jewdle enjoys cult status among American Jews and is gaining popularity in Israel, especially among French and Russian repatriates. In Brookline, Massachusetts, a near-suburb of Boston with a sizable Jewish community where I’ve lived for the past 11 years, a jewdle grooming parlor recently opened on Harvard Street.

Almost three years ago my wife, Karen, our teenage daughters, Mira and Tatiana, and I became the happy human companions of Stella, a silver miniature jewdle with a charming half-smile, the hazel eyes of a sage, and the face simultaneously resembling Rosa Luxemburg, Golda Meir, and Barbra Streisand. Stella was 2 months old when she joined our family, and she is decidedly the dog of our life: boundlessly loving, devoted, brilliant, and something of a trickster. Just as it’s getting harder and harder to raise Jewish children in America, we’ve discovered that raising a jewdle presents the dog lover with numerous challenges. Now that Stella is past her teen years and entering adulthood, I feel ready to share a few practical considerations. They are meant to help the new jewdle companions avoid some of the common pitfalls while also continuing to grow with their chosen canine. To wit:

DIET. While jewdles have an innate predisposition to kashrut, it is essential to allow them to explore different food groups and develop a multicultural Jewish palate. Jewdles have a bit of a sweet tooth and especially enjoy coconut barkaroons and rhubark pies. Word of warning: Jewdles are severely allergic to shellfish and venison.

EXERCISE. Jewdles are neither naturally athletic nor categorically unathletic, basketball and martial arts being the principal exceptions. Judo is by far the jewdles’ sport of choice, and dog trainers have been developing a special variety of jewdle fighting techniques based on both Japanese martial arts and Israel’s own Krav Maga.

EMOTIONAL CONDITIONING. Centuries of living as crypto-Jews have doubtless contributed to the development of the jewdles’ high-strung, anxious personality, sometimes given to bouts of self-doubt and panic attacks. I recommend regular yoga and meditation, especially the series of canine mindful exercises developed for YouTube by Dariene, herself a human companion of a jewdle by the name of Benjew.

EDUCATION. I have yet to meet a jewdle who hasn’t benefited from Hebrew school, so please take your dog’s formal Jewish education seriously. Around the age of 1 1/2 your jewdle may display a rebellious attitude toward going to shul and attending Hebrew school. Don’t worry, this, too, shall pass.

HIGH CULTURE AND POPULAR CULTURE. While many companions of jewdles have lofty cultural aspirations for their dogs, they should temper them with the reality of today’s popular culture. Of course it’s good to thrust a copy of Anna Karenina on your 2-year old jewdle and even point out that Laska, Levin’s hunting dog, is actually a jewdle in disguise. But please don’t smirk when your jewdle listens to Neil Young’s “Old King” or howls a rendition of “Hey, Jewdle.”

IDENTITY AND JEWISH UPBRINGING. In addition to what we said earlier about your jewdle’s education, I would encourage you not to deprive your jewdle of their hard-earned privilege of celebrating Jewish adulthood. Some synagogues nowadays will allow their congregants to hold b’rkai mitzvot in the sanctuary. And don’t forget to take advantage of Barkright trips and give your jewdle a foretaste of Israel.

OLD YANKEE GENTEEL PREJUDICE. When you walk with your jewdle in particularly white Christian neighborhoods and areas of the country, you may encounter a retired lady of the sort that drives a red Audi and strolls her lapdog in a baby carriage. Don’t be surprised if you sense a whiff of old prejudice in the lady’s comment, made under her breath and addressed to you and your jewdle: “Boy does that dog bare its teeth!” You would probably do well by sparing your jewdle an encounter with the less-than-tolerant American past. Don’t take your beloved jewdle into the lobby of that great Cape Cod hotel where a sign “No dogs, no Jews” used to hang above reception.

NEW AMERICAN ANTISEMITISM. Over the past five years, white supremacist dogs have shown their ugly muzzles in the American mainstream. Their calls, “The jewdle shall not replace us,” are as much a sign of our sociopolitical climate as are waves of anti-Zionism coming from the radical canine left and scorching the loopy ears of the jewdle. While the jewdle companions should not overreact by exaggerating the proportions of this new American antisemitism, complacency, too, gets us nowhere. Jewdle companions should teach their jewdles to read the writing on the cans of dog food.

LAST TEETH OF WISDOM: Please remember that raising a jewdle is a process, not an act of challenging the status quo. While I certainly hope that you and your jewdle will enjoy many years of cloudless existence in America, it’s not a bad idea to prepare yourself to a sudden change of fortune. What will you do if one day your jewdle decides to make aliyah and settle in Bnei Bark?

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and emigrated in 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Immigrant Baggage, a memoir. Shrayer’s new collection of poetry, Kinship, is forthcoming.