If you’re in shul enjoying a sermon by Jonathan Wittenberg, you probably won’t find yourself musing distractedly on his kippah.
But if you did, you might ask yourself whether it was one of several that were gobbled by his first dog as a puppy – a fact that went unnoticed until their later reappearance in the garden “in the middle of unpleasant heaps”.
The rabbi tells the story without revealing the outcome of his dilemma: to put them through the wash or dispose of them.
At times humorous and always deeply personal, this book will resonate with dog owners of all faiths and none, who will surely form the majority of its readers. Perhaps the most touching chapter is ‘Love’.
The rabbi’s wife, Nicky, is not the only long-suffering partner who has heard at four in the morning the words ‘I love you so much’ being addressed to the canine lying at the end of the bed.
Trying to understand why so many people love their dogs so much, Wittenberg points to the absence of ambiguity and conflict that can trouble human relationships.
His two dogs, first Safi and now Mitzpah, have understood, he says, how to restore his soul. They have also brought him and others joy, and – to quote the book’s subtitle – made him ‘a better human’.
He tackles with affectionate eloquence the task of putting his relationship with his dogs into words: their companionship, forgiveness and acceptance, and their skills of asking, listening and healing; each word becomes a chapter heading.
It is a relationship bound up with his faith. He reminds us that in Exodus, on the Jews’ departure from Egypt, the dogs did not bark.
In a dog there is something divine: Mitzpah plays hide-and-seek, as God has sometimes been said to do. And very often Mitzpah is, as Wittenberg touchingly describes, his companion in prayer.
He tells us that as a rabbi he never volunteers the idea of dog ownership to someone who’s been bereaved, but if that person says he or she’s been considering it then he gives hearty encouragement.
Readers at any stage in their lives uncertain about taking the decisive step will find in these pages all the inspiration and doggy affirmation they need: just as dogs don’t do regret (or bear grudges), with their new companion neither will they.
Things My Dog Has Taught Me by Jonathan Wittenberg is published by Hodder, priced £16.99, and available now