Why Jewishness can pop up in unexpected places

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Two and a half years ago we decided to get a kitten.

Since I grew up with a Burmese cat and as a family we know and love their temperaments, the choice of breed was clear. We just had to find a breeder. We have a lovely one close-by who I’ve known for years and who was our first choice, but since she didn’t have a litter expected anytime soon, we took her advice and went with another Burmese breeder in Caledon. The recommended breeder was warm and obviously doted on her furry charges, sending us pictures of our Tortoiseshell kitten, the only tortie in the litter, each week until she was ready to come live with us at 9-weeks-old.

We drove all the way out to Caledon to fetch our new little family member and were met by a friendly Afrikaans couple and a lot of little balls of fluff. But imagine our surprise when the breeder handed me our registration papers and explained our kittens name. “Oh, I name each litter with a different theme, you know” she explained. “This time I decided to go with something Biblical… I named them all after Jewish Holidays”. My husband and I just looked at each other in disbelief. I mean, what were the chances? None of her other litters had Jewish names.

Now, the first thought that crossed my mind was how surprising it was to have Judaism come into a conversation about Burmese kittens belonging to an Afrikaans breeder in Caledon… It was immediately followed by a second thought, a small prayer that my gorgeous bundle of fur and paws had not been named Yom Kippur or Tisha B’Av. Oy.
So there we were, trembling and scanning her papers, praying for a ‘good name’ and then… Shavuot. We breathed a sigh of relief. Shavuot was lovely.

Shavuot has such beautiful connotations. Named for the ‘week of weeks’ (7 weeks) between Pesach and Shavuot, we have just enjoyed a festival that we waited and counted nearly two months to celebrate. We studied Torah, we ate ice cream and cheesecake and other delicious milk dishes and, in my house, we celebrated the delightful, accidental Jewish connection of our cat.

I love it when Jewishness pops up in unexpected places. A few months ago I had a furniture removal guy at our house to take out some furniture and he read me the Hebrew blessing for our home that sits at our front door. I was astonished! It turns out that while he is not Jewish, he lived in Israel on a kibbutz for a few years and learned Hebrew while he was there.

Or the story of my non-Jewish grandmother who, as a young nurse, was thanked for the kindness and care she had given a Jewish patient with a little Magen David and Chai in a purse. She kept them for decades, never having a reason to use them or even knowing that she would one day have a Jewish grandchild to pass them down to. When she gave them to me it was such a special and unexpected gift — this bit of Yiddishkeit from my Scottish Gran.

These unexpected pops of Jewishness remind us that while we are a part of a tight Jewish Community in Cape Town, we also have these beautiful connections to other groups of people around us and as humans our experiences weave in and out of one another’s like a rich tapestry.

As Novelist Chimamanda Adichie explains in one of my favourite TEDTalks The Danger of a Single Story, our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories and none of us fit neatly in one box, or can have just one story.

Sometimes Judaism can turn up in the most delightfully unexpected places, and it reminds us of our connection to, and place in the world.

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