Saturday, February 21, 2015

Who Owns Jerusalem? The Cats

Those of you who follow me on Facebook may have noticed something about my feed since I moved to Israel:  I take a lot of pictures of cats.

On the surface, this isn't that unusual--cats are adorable.  I am certainly not alone in this observation. There is even an Internet Cat Video Festival held in Minnesota and Brooklyn every year.

Still, I've gotten a bit of strange looks from some people here over my fixation on Israeli street cats, which are after all as common as rats or squirrels in the U.S.  On many levels, these are hardly the cuddly house cats people keep as pets.  Frequently they can be seen foraging in dumpsters.

And yet I find them irresistible.

At a basic level, I really miss my roommate's cat Billie Jean in Queens, who has been a shining light in my life for the past year and a half.  When I come into my apartments here in Israel, for a moment I am waiting for Billie Jean to run up to me for love.  Though no longer a kitten, Billie Jean is still extremely playful and friendly, the kind of cat who will let you pick her up and turn your foot into a cat toy if you dangle it over her.  In my first few weeks here as adjusted to a new environment, the local cats here reminded me of something warm, soft familiar.  And while most cats here are pretty skittish and standoffish, a couple of times I make a friend and I feel like the most special person in the world.

Another factor is variety.  Though cats here are as common as pigeons or squirrels back home, there is absolutely no aesthetic unity to their appearance.  Here I see everything from orange tabbies to long-haired princesses to graceful tuxedo kitties.

But I think the main attractive quality these felines posses that draws my gaze is their independence.  In a country divided by class, history, nationality, and religion, the cats move freely between worlds.  In the Jerusalem's Old City, their nimble forms slither between gates that separate the different religious quarters.  On Saturdays they have no qualms about letting laws of halakha interrupt their daily business. I envy them the same way I once envied a little prepubescent girl who had the freedom to move between the men and women's sides during an Orthodox service.  It makes no difference to them who owns the city or can visit on the Temple Mount.  And it makes no difference to anyone else if they are there either.  No soldiers will stop them at a checkpoint and ask for their passports or tell them they can't pray at a place because they aren't the right religion.  When the cats enter into a new environment they don't have to worry about taking off a kippah or speaking the right language.  They speak in the language of food and cuteness and can easily vanish if needed. They can make their homes in a tree or the walls of a building and can make their roads out of railings. They are survivors who are unaffected by changing demographics or rising housing prices.

I think about the Sara Teasdale poem that Ray Bradbury takes for the title of his short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains."  In the short story, some kind of radiation explosion wipes out all life, and humanity is only survived by the preprogrammed technological devices we have created.  In her poem, Teasdale writes of nature eventually overtaking all of the civilization we have built once we have destroyed each other.  She writes of birds and frogs and trees pushing through:

"And not one will know of the war, not one  
Will care at last when it is done."

I doubt the cats will care either.

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