The Dog With an Ear For Yiddish

The good times from World War I were still rolling along in 1920, when I was five years old. There were no signs of immigrant poverty in the square mile of Jewish dwellings where we lived. My parents, who had come to America in 1905, had bought a new bungalow on the south side of Chicago.

But there were few Jewish white-collar workers like my Pa, a licensed real estate broker who had established an office in the area. Mostly the neighborhood consisted of newly arrived, small-town Ukrainian immigrants. The majority of the residents were junk or fruit-and-vegetable vendors. The neighborhood was still zoned for horses, and most of the houses had barns, for horses and wagons. By 5:30 in the morning, you could hear the clip-clop of the horses pulling their wagons down the street.

My Pa's friend Yankel, a hometown acquaintance, lived nearby. He was a short, stocky man with a weathered, beefy face, and he was a junkman. He lived his life close to his horse, Marty, a trusty nag he boarded in his backyard.

Yankel lived a bachelor's life. He was having trouble getting visas to America for his wife and family in Ukraine. My ma, Bertha, felt sorry for him and befriended him. She would occasionally invite him in for supper or a cold drink. Yankel was very thankful for Ma's hospitality.

One evening, Ma, my younger sister, Mary, my brother, Joey, and I were sitting around the kitchen table, drinking cocoa. The backdoor bell rang, and Ma said, "That must be Yankel; he called earlier and said he had a surprise for me and the family."

Ma, a lady of medium height with a pretty face, was dressed neatly in her favorite blue floral cotton house dress, with an apron around her waist. She opened the door, and there stood Yankel, still in his work clothes, holding a white miniature French poodle puppy in his arms.

"Bruche, Bertha - look what I have for you and the children. I was cleaning out the junk from the back of a basement when I suddenly heard a sound that made me stop. It was coming from inside a closed room next to the coal bin. I opened the door, went in, and found this basket filled with six white crying puppies. When I knelt down to play with them, my customer came in. He asked me if I'd like one, and I thought of you and the children. I told him yes."

We kids rushed over to Yankel to pet the puppy.

Ma, who usually smiled, now frowned, brushed her hair back out of her eyes, and looked at the small whimpering pup nestled in Yankel's arms.

"Yankel, thank you very much," she said. "But it'll be too much work for me. I don't need it."

It sounded as if Ma was going to refuse Yankel's offer.

Mary got into the act. She pleaded with sudden tears, "Ma, we'll feed her and take care of her so you won't have to do nuttin."

"Ma! Ma! Ma! I like it. Can't we keep it? Please, please," I begged. "Remember, you promised me if we ever lived in a house with a yard, that we could have a dog?"

Ma turned to me, her firstborn genuine American boy. Her frown was suddenly replaced with a smile of love. She put her arm around my shoulders, and I knew we were going to keep the puppy.

Yankel, his face heavy with worry about the ruckus he'd started, nervously waited for Ma's answer.

"Thanks, Yankel," she said with a sigh. "God willing, I will now have another baby girl in the family. Jackelle, take the hundt from Yankel to the basement and make a place for her."

In the basement I found a box and made a temporary bed. By this time my sister and brother were playing with the puppy. I made a deal with them. We would all be partners in taking care of the dog.

Our good intentions and promises were soon for-gotten, though. After six months of our bickering with one other about the dog's care, Ma finally interfered in the hundt's lifestyle.

"Jackelle, it's a shame and disgrace to leave the poor little hundt all alone in the basement," she said. "She cries like a baby all night long. Please bring her box upstairs to the kitchen, and put it under the sink."

From that moment on, the puppy became Ma's constant companion, following close against Ma's leg and looking up into her face. Ma changed the pooch's name from Hundt to Tootsie, after her favorite candy, Tootsie Rolls.

Tootsie was now officially a member of the family. Because Ma spoke only Yiddish to us, she talked Yiddish to Tootsie. The only difference between us and the dog was that we spoke English to Ma, and Tootsie spoke in barks.

ALL us kids loved to play with Tootsie, but we thought she was a stupid dog. She never listened to any of our commands.

One evening when Ma was doing the dishes, the little white dog sat snuggled at her feet, staring up at her. Now and then Tootsie ran her red tongue over her nose or shifted an inquiring look at me.

"Ma," I said, "that Tootsie is so cute, but she's so dumb."

Ma dropped her dish towel and with a look of disbelief said, "What do you mean?"

"Well, watch this. 'Tootsie, come with me, I'll take you out,' " I said in English, as I walked to the door.

Tootsie lay motionless.

"See what I mean, Ma? She doesn't listen."

"You're crazy," Ma answered. "She's very smart," and kneeled down and stroked the poodle's head. Tootsie licked her hand.

"Tootselle, should we show the children how smart you really are?" she asked in Yiddish.

The dog looked up with her merry eyes and wagged her tail at Ma, as if she understood every word.

"I will show you who's dumb, my dear children." Without dropping a Jewish syllable, Ma turned to the poodle.

"Would you like to eat?"

Tootsie, ears alert, hearing her name and the question in Yiddish, snapped to attention. She answered with a sharp bark and immediately ran to the icebox. Ma followed, opened the icebox door, and gave her a meat bone.

"Well, what do you think, smart alecks? Who is the dummy?" she asked. Before we could answer, she continued. "Listen to this: 'Tootselle, do you want to go out?' "

Before Ma could turn and walk to the door, the dog dropped her bone, wheeled around, and ran to the door. She waited patiently until Ma opened the door and let her out into the yard.

"Anything else? Do you want more proof?" Ma asked smugly.

Amazingly, our French poodle had learned all her commands in Yiddish. I remember once hearing Ma talking Yiddish in the dining room, when I knew she was alone.

"Ma, who are you talking to?" I asked. "Yourself?"

"It's nothing. I'm talking to Tootsie."

But it wasn't just Ma's voice that our dog understood. When I gave her a command in Yiddish instead of English, she would also obey.

Ma had said, when we first got Tootsie, "We have a new baby in our family." The big difference was that we kids had become Americanized, but the poodle remained a greenhorn.

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