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August 21, 2014 / 25 Av, 5774
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The Cat from Jerusalem

"In New York I partied almost every night and the next day I didn’t feel good about myself. But here, after spending the night at the Wall, I feel an exhilaration."
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Soon after I established our Hineni organization I started taking a group to Israel every summer. People of various backgrounds joined us – mostly secular.

One year we had a gregarious young woman named Beth with us who was loads of fun and kept everyone laughing. Every day we rose at the crack of dawn to tour and at midnight we would go to the Kotel. No small feat – considering we were all exhausted. But no one complained. As a matter of fact, our nightly visits to the Wall became the highlight of our trip. But why at midnight? There is a tradition that King David would place his harp on his terrace and at midnight as the winds of Jerusalem blew they would caress the strings of the harp and the harp would begin to play, beckoning the king to write his immortal psalms.

David’s harp may have disappeared in the sands of time but the winds of Jerusalem continue to blow, and if you know how to concentrate, if you know how to listen with your heart, at midnight at the Wall you can still hear the sweet music of David’s harp.

At that magic hour there are certain regulars who can be found at the Wall. I guess they can best be described as the guardians of this holy place. Among them was a Sephardic Jew who in an eerie but powerful voice cried out, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.” He drew out each syllable of each word until it penetrated our souls.

And then there was an old man dressed in white who sat on the floor mourning and crying for our holy Temple which is no more. His cries pierced our hearts and we hoped that on the wings of his supplications our prayers might also ascend and reach the Throne of G-d.

Beth had her own way of describing our nightly visits to the Kotel. “It’s strange, but in New York I partied almost every night and the next day I didn’t feel good about myself. But here, after spending the night at the Wall, I feel an exhilaration, a spiritual energy that enables me to keep going the entire day without difficulty.”

Beth was not only a people person, she was also an animal lover. One evening as we dined at one of Jerusalem’s outdoor restaurants she received an added dividend. Jerusalem abounds with multitudes of stray cats and if you are dining al fresco you are sure to be visited by one of them.

There are a variety of opinions as to how these cats came to the Holy City. Some claim they were imported by the British during the mandate to combat an epidemic of mice while others say the cats are reincarnations of souls that were sent to Jerusalem to do penance for their sins. Whatever you wish to believe, the fact is Jerusalem has a huge number of street cats.

That night when we were having dinner outdoors, a little kitten came to visit our table. Beth immediately fell in love. She fed the kitten, held it in her arms, and decided to take it back to our hotel. But as we walked, the kitten jumped out of Beth’s arms and disappeared into the darkness of the night. Beth was devastated. She felt guilty that she had removed the cat from its natural habitat and feared for its survival. After all, it was only a kitten.Rebbetzin-111513-Cat

In honor of the Sabbath our group returned to the Kotel. A multitude of people converged there, Jews from every part of the world speaking a variety of languages and dialects, each singing in his own tune but each singing the same song. “Lecha Dodi – Come my beloved, let us welcome the Sabbath Bride.” Beth rushed to the Wall and among her many prayers she asked for the return of her kitten.

Following our prayers we made our way back to the hotel. We were all immersed in our thoughts and overtaken by the awesome beauty of Jerusalem. After a half hour’s walk, when we finally reached the hotel, an incredible sight greeted us. There, sitting at the entrance, was Beth’s kitten. If we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes we would never have believed it. Overjoyed, Beth took the kitty to her room and fed it.

In high spirits we proceeded to the hotel dining room for Sabbath dinner. I invited my nine-year-old granddaughter, who to my delight had joined us on the trip, to share some Torah thoughts.

It is a timeless tradition that at every Sabbath meal wisdom from that week’s parshah is discussed. Over the years I have discovered that whatever transpires on the world scene, or whatever predicament a person finds himself in, the portion of the week always gives illumination. So it was that my little granddaughter found an allusion to Beth’s cat story in the portion that was studied that week – Deuteronomy 11:15, “And you shall give grass to your cattle and you shall eat and be satisfied” – from which our sages conclude that since the animals are mentioned first they must be fed first and we humans are to satisfy our appetites only afterward.

“This mitzvah,” my granddaughter went on to say, “is so important that when Noah entered the ark, G-d charged him with this responsibility. On one occasion, when Noah was late with the feeding, the lion in his hunger became so infuriated that he bit Noah, and that injury left him limping.” With an adorable smile lighting up her face my granddaughter concluded by saying, “The other night in the restaurant, Beth fed the cat before she herself ate. And so you see, everything is in the Torah portion of the week!”

“This truly made a believer of me,” Beth called out with tears in her eyes. As much as our group chuckled at the story, and tried to laugh it off as coincidence, we were awed by it.

No one had a logical explanation for how that kitten could have known which hotel we were staying in and how it found its way to us. If anyone reading this thinks it must have been another kitten, Beth will tell you she recognized the kitten immediately and identified all its signs.

Should you still harbor doubts, consider that it was on that particular night, as we arrived at the hotel, that the kitten was waiting at the entrance. I have stayed at that hotel frequently but at no other time have I ever seen a kitten crying at its front door.

When our group left Israel, Beth stayed on for a few days to make arrangements for her newfound friend to return with her to America. And so it was that the kitten from Jerusalem became a resident of New York City.

The cat, however, had a difficult time adjusting to its new habitat, so Beth decided to give it to one of our Hineni members who was a psychologist. “Perhaps you could help him to adjust” she told Karen, who willingly took up the challenge.

As the years passed the cat story faded from my memory. Two weeks ago, though, something happened that reminded me about the cat and I asked Karen how it was doing. Was it still alive? Her face lit up with a big smile and she said, “Rebbetzin, you can’t imagine. He’s the oldest cat around and he’s just a sweetheart. I’ll send you a photograph.”

I share that photograph with readers so that you can see for yourselves the cat from Jerusalem. But I’m sure you’re wondering what drove me to write about it.

A cat – a simple cat that has no ability to think or evaluate –changes character, becoming restless, sad and angry when uprooted from Jerusalem. Well, if a cat born in Jerusalem couldn’t bear to leave the Holy City and feels destitute and nervous in a foreign land, how much more does this hold true for the Jewish people? We were uprooted from our land and taken to foreign and hostile soil millennia ago. Of course we must feel the pain of leaving Jerusalem. How can we possibly forget?

But the cat eventually settled in and became fat and comfy. He learned to love his new, good life and being away from Jerusalem no longer bothered him.

Could it be that we, sons and daughters of Jerusalem, are not much different from that cat? Today the cat is perfectly adjusted, happy with his delicious cat chow and wallowing in his pampered life. Jerusalem has long faded from his cat mind.

So what does this cat story tell me? What does it tell you? Think about it.

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One Response to “The Cat from Jerusalem”

  1. I met plenty of really nice friendly cats in Israel and two that I fell in love with. Cats do think and evaluate and they are able to give love. "What greater gift than the love of a cat"

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