Fido Judaeus.

Author:Mendelsohn, Adam D.
Position:A Scholarly and Literary Symposium - Jews and their pets

The coiffed and dainty dog at the center of this tableau is a breed apart from the spaniels and hounds that appear in a handful of paintings of early American Jews. (1) Those dogs connote vigor and virtue in formal portraits intended for display; the presence of this dog--standing upon a chair at the center of the silhouette between her two doting owners--bespeaks a playful domestic intimacy we rarely see in visual depictions of Jews from the antebellum period. A skilled artist could produce a cutout within minutes--how long could even the best behaved pet resist the proffered treat?--allowing silhouettists to capture informal scenes of this kind. This was one of at least two images of the Tobias family produced that day by Augustin Edouart, an artist who practiced in a field that had already peaked in popularity by 1844 because of the rise of the daguerreotype, but who still found eager customers during the summer season in Saratoga. (2) The second excludes Mrs. Tobias, but the dog, which had traveled with her owners from New Orleans, appears in both images, and tellingly faces her master rather than her mistress. (3)

We might divine several stories other than those relating to pets and domesticity from this scene. But even as the Jewish household has been explored as a site of change and negotiation in the nineteenth-century--as an arena where new ideas about gender, work, and education were played out--we are still relatively unfamiliar with what went on under the stairs, in the kitchen, and behind the scenes. When writing history from below, there is good reason to include those who were literally down at the heel along with those that were metaphorically so. Household pets may have left few permanent markings on the historical record, but their presence points to changing mores, gender norms, fashions, domestic routines, and rituals. They point to shifts in the size, composition, and dynamic of the household, as well as to new patterns of consumption and leisure. (4) Yet several recent surveys of American Jewry list Peretz, but not pets, in their indexes.

Companion animals were cherished members of many households in the nineteenth century, a period in which a "more intense emotional involvement with pet animals became more common." (5) There are few indications that Jews strayed from this burgeoning pet culture. Certainly, the silhouette is a statement about the Tobiases' feelings about their dog's place in their home and family (as...

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