JWR Only in the Middle East!

Jewish World Review April 9, 1999/23 Nissan, 5759

Confessions of
a Cat Lady

By Joan Weinberg

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) PEOPLE SCREAM AT ME EVERYDAY. They call me names, tell me to get off the sidewalk, and to go back where I came from. Which in this instance means right around the corner.

Theyíre angry with me because I feed and water about thirty of the thousands of Tel Avivís stray cats. Previously, I was under the impression that all cat feeders were essential, but a bit loopy. I made aliyah, and for the first time in my life, I have become one too.

It happened slowly. On the way home from ulpan (Hebrew language school) I used to notice the Russian street cleaner drop hard food for the cats along Ben Yehuda Street. I started to carry hard food too. Then the cat living behind my building was pregnant and from my second floor window, I felt naches for her on the morning she suddenly debuted her two babies. I started to feed them, and the tenant downstairs went berserk. She banged on my door, yelled at me from the backyard, telephoned to scream and hang up on me. She demanded I go around the corner to feed them from the other street.

So I did.

I couldnít help but notice the almost three dozen hungry cats spread out over five other locations. So I started to feed them too. Including the irresistible mutant family of three. (Their heads are crooked. It always looks like theyíre cocking them as if about to pose some pithy philosophical query.)

At first I would make my stops twice a day, but another cat lady told me once was enough. She warned me not to take in any cats, aside from the one I already own. She asked what time of night I went out and whether Iíd been busted yet. It worked like a hex. That night, I was caught for the first time.

I have started to go later and later, but no matter what time I go, someone will yell at me. Almost daily. Dr. Galin, the chief veterinarian for Tel Aviv, has implored me to go out during the day and to be proud about what Iím accomplishing. But he doesnít have to face the ostracism and wrath of my neighbors. When I attempted one final daytime feeding in the name of catwomanhood, a neighbor threw water on me.

Last night, a man had to hold back his well-coiffed, silk-dressed wife so that she wouldnít slug me. Tonight, I took along a handheld tape recorder should she succeed one day in assaulting me. I didnít run in to her, but a landlord around the corner just let me have it but good.

Donít these people know about the time when New York City rid itself of all the cats on Park Avenue? The rats had a field day until the city was forced to import more ratcatchers, probably from Hellís Kitchen.

When I go, I make a point of dressing nicely. Most of the time, this includes earrings and lipstick and dresses. I have decided to change the image of cat ladies.

As I began to mention my avocation to female acquaintances, they admitted they were cat ladies too. The press secretary at one of the major embassies. A health ethics lawyer. Two Israel Ministry of Tourism guides. (One of them takes in physically-disabled and blind strays that no one else wants.) A legal secretary and a pharmacist. A fabric importer. An administrator for the IDF. A retired bookstore owner and someone whose father is with the World Bank (both men). I work for a major scientific research institution.

One Shabbat while feeding a litter of kittens, two women stopped across the street to watch me at work. I braced myself for an attack. They crossed the street. I held my breath. Within moments, we realized we were all cat ladies. We communicated in French, English, snippets of Hebrew, Yiddish. (They get their raw scraps of meat from the souk. I buy canned and dry through a pet food wholesaler.) They were covering for the old lady with the cane, a Holocaust survivor, while she was visiting family in Germany. Her territory is Independence Park near the Hilton in Tel Aviv.

A couple of weeks ago, a man came up to me and again, my body stiffened. He finally announced, "Youíre a saint. Youíre doing a mitzvah." I have begun to have my charges neutered and spayed. I watched my salary dwindle while paying for fifteen operations. Then the city came and performed surgery on two more. (That leaves around 20 to go.) And itís free; a City of Tel Aviv program to help cut down on the cat population. Sadly, the programís continuing existence is now in doubt, threatened by budget cuts.

The cats have become my very own Born Free. I have always owned cats or dogs, but they have been domesticated. Watching cats in the wild, all right, the wild streets of Tel Aviv, has been inspiring. Each animal has its own very individual personality. I understand copy cat; if thereís a crier in the crowd, they all become geschriers. If one lets me scratch its belly, a couple of others will roll over too.

Iíve learned about territoriality, and alpha and beta behavior. About runts and resilience while watching kittens, and sometimes mothers, die because of too little water and food, and too much heat or cold. About human cruelty. I know how to dispose of dead cats, poisoned or hit by cars, without becoming ill.

One of my favorite moments: A big, black, scary tomcat, the kind that has scars and pieces missing, that never let me approach it, visited while I was feeding a mother and her one remaining kitten. It walked right between my legs and stood there, immobile. I froze, afraid to move lest it attack me. After a few moments nothing happened, so I bent down and stroked it, gingerly. We stayed that way for minutes. It was as if it was giving me permission to share its terrain. Itís the same feeling I had the time a dolphin swam up to me in a deserted dolphinarium one Hong Kong night and urged me to stroke it with its snout.

Who needs National Geographic TV?

This hobby is not only expensive, it is time-consuming. Never mind. Iíve cancelled my cable. Watching animals at sleep and play is far more entertaining, constructive, and instructive than the remote African veldt.

Other people are beginning to get in on the act. My disabled neighbor used to hate cats. Now sheís a specialist. She comes out every day in her wheelchair to tell me how to feed the gang across the street, especially the white one ("Oy, heís so special") two doors up. She brings along scraps of chicken, or cottage cheese. She yells at me too: "Youíre not leaving enough water."

Last night a British lady from around the corner came by to scream at me for leaving dry food along the sidewalk near her building. Iím innocent, I told her. Today I walked around the corner and saw little piles of food, which tells me that someone else is feeding the families. Better yet, it means I can go on vacation without feeling guilt.

I do not go out with men who are allergic to cats.

And I didnít follow the instructions of the cat lady who told to resist adoption. The two little brothers that started me on this new tack are now mine. And the three black sisters. I know theyíre Israeli cats: My Los Angeles import wonít go near the electric fan; these five sit front row center enjoying the breeze. We are going through lots of cat litter, broken glasses, rearranging of books, Q-Tips and other cat toys, but we are very happy.

New JWR contributor Joan Weinberg is English-language publications editor for the Weizmann Institute and a former LA Weekly columnist.


© 1999, Joan Weinberg