Thursday, July 30, 2015
"The business, for me, is 30% rebellion, 30% comedy, and 30% for money," said Gedalya Gottdenger. He was wearing a yarmulke, peyos, and a t-shirt screenprinted with an ostentatious cat in mirror shades. Gottdenger stroked his client for the day, a shy red-hued Retriever named Tuppance, and reconsidered his math for a second.
"I want to say the remaining 10% is my love of dogs, but really that's the overarching reason, much more than 10%."
An Ultra Orthodox gentleman with a giddy pup in tow may not be an odd sight to everyone, but for those aware of the cultural taboo and relatively benign stereotype that religious Jews fear dogs, Gottdenger sticks out like a bagel at a Passover seder.
A column in the Jewish Daily Forward, a recent book of essays, and even the FAQ section of the website for Hasidic sect Chabad describe the phenomena and offer some explanations from a Kabbalah assertion that dogs have demonic powers to a simple fear of the unfamiliar, to its origin.
"There's a lot of theories as to why. I'm not really satisfied with any of them," Gottdenger, 23, says. "The most common suggestion is usually about Nazis and their German Shepherds, but I don't buy it. We were bred to be afraid, any kind of non-human animals give us the shits."
"Even cats?" I ask.
"Yeah, even cats," he says, adding, "but to be fair, cats are assholes."
Like most of his peers, Gottdenger avoided dogs altogether until his early twenties. The belief that they can "smell fear," some trainers say, can lead to a negative feedback loop of anxiety between dogs and humans.
He was able to break this pattern through prolonged exposure with his secular friend's affectionate and clingy chihuahua who demands endless games of fetch and occasionally demonstrates affection through urination.
"The more time I spent with her, I realized that not all dogs are scary and want to kill me," Gottdenger said.
Unable to have a pet himself, he began to walk the chihuahua for fun, and enjoyed the interactions that followed.
"I usually get comments from Latino men. They say, 'I never saw a Jew with a dog before!'"
While we sat on a bench outside a shop on Myrtle Avenue, a young African American employee of a shop came out with a cup of water to offer to Tuppance. He and Gottdenger had a brief chat about the dog's age, shyness, and the weather.
As for other Hasidim, sometimes they'll laugh or furtively snap a camera phone photo, but are too scared to approach.
Tuppance's "Mom", Nitza, met Gottdenger through the Jewish community in Williamsburg. They are both working towards careers in social work, and Nitza agreed to hire to him to walk Tuppance several times a week while he saves some cash for school. Two years later, he's turned his neurotic hobby into a burgeoning career.
"He has a foot in both the Satmar community, and in the whole yuppie, hipster, whatever you want to call it community," Nitza says.
Although she admits that what he's doing is unique, it's all part of the cherished melting pot character of New York. "I couldn't give a crap about the novelty of it," she says. "He genuinely loves dogs, he's very calm, very reliable. She's not easy to get along with, but she really does like him."
Recently Gottdenger has expanded the business by walking more dogs each day and offering to watch pets while their owners are on vacation, promoting himself with business cards and social media as "The Hasidic Dog Walker." His card shows a traditionally dressed Hasidic man looking down, perhaps with trepidation at a dog with a leash in its mouth."
"I love that as a business mantra," says Erin Mathieu of Bed-Stuy, whose self-described "jerk chihuahua" Reno was the first dog Gottdenger walked. "It's a wonderfully snarky response to the pigeonholing that New Yorkers tend to participate in when it comes to the Ultra Orthodox."
Dog-walking is a standard job for those who appreciate the flexible hours, ability to work outdoors, ease and informality of working for oneself, and occasionally, the animal companionship. Hasidim, on the other hand, live a life where every minute detail is dictated by religious law and customs, and likely see the precarious profession itself, let alone its proximity to fearsome dogs, as opposite their rigid lifestyle.
Some attempt a difficult transition out of Hasidic life, but Gottdenger, who is part of a sect that he describes as "no more open than any other," prefers to remain religious while testing cultural boundaries. He notes that like cycling, socializing, or attending secular functions, having an animal companion is not prohibited by religious laws.
"But while it's 'only culture' it's still culture," he says, emphasizing the extreme centrality of tradition as a supplement to religious life. "It's not a revolutionary thing, I'm not walking around Williamsburg naked, but for some people, somehow, it's enough."
Hoping to bridge the divide in more direct ways, he encourages gentile and secular friends curious about Judaism and Hasidic philosophy to try Torah study with Pratt's Chabad Rabbi, and interns for a new organization called Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), which promotes the expansion of secular education amongst Ultra Orthodox children.
"I am angry for not having a well-rounded mathematical or linguistic education," Gottdenger says. "I'm not upset about not being brought up with Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Baseball, but it's hard to make it, to become independent, without a well-rounded education."
Gottdenger's parents and most of his religious friends don't know about his new profession, and he doesn't know how negatively they will react, but perhaps compared to others who more radically transgress cultural norms—such as queer or atheist Hasidim who are forced to either give up the communities in which they were raised or to live double lives—he isn't too worried.
"People are ultimately going to live the life they want to lead," Gottdenger says. "And even if it contradicts Judaism or Christianity or Islam or whatever, we have to let them be able to do it."
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