By Mordechai Schmutter
My son Daniel came home with a gerbil the other day. These kids pick up the weirdest things in school. (Yes, his morah sent it home.) It turns out that if you’re in second grade, sometimes the teacher keeps a pet of some sort in the classroom to teach the kids about life. And also death. Mostly death. But also for teaching them about life, the main lesson being that someone has to bring life home every Shabbos. They’re also useful for teaching the kids about responsibility, parenting, washing their hands, and a very specific area of science.
I don’t know why it just has to be the younger grades, though. I teach high school and I’d love to have some kind of pet. Like maybe a nice gorilla. That way I can say things like, “Look! Even the gorilla is getting it!”
My wife’s not too thrilled about the gerbil. She keeps calling it “the rodent.” I keep accidentally calling it “the hamster,” and my two-year-old son, Gedalyah, keeps calling it “the mouse.” It doesn’t help that I never really learned the difference between a mouse and a rat and a gerbil and a hamster and a guinea pig.
So the way my wife explained it to me was that a gerbil looks something like a mouse, while a hamster looks something like a mouse. Her feeling is that either way, if we would see this animal crawling around our house, uninvited, we would try to hit it with a broom. My argument was that she could technically say the same thing about a dog.
When I was a kid, I was always asking my parents for a dog, mainly because I didn’t really know anything about dogs. But what I did know was that the people in town who had dogs were always parading them around on the streets, like “Look at me! I have a dog!” Sometimes they did this several times a day. And I imagined how wonderful it must be to have a dog, that you want to show it off to your entire neighborhood basically all the time. I didn’t realize that the main reason you walk a dog is that sometimes you need it out of the house.
But I never got to find that out, because whenever I asked for a dog, my parents told me that they had enough mouths to feed. They also explained that with dogs, it wasn’t just about feeding it, but about replacing the things it destroys, having an extra fight at bath time, and taking it to the doctor every once in a while so he could put a traffic cone around its neck so that it’s basically barking out of a megaphone. Alternatively, you have a medical system where, if the dog gets really sick, you get another dog that looks reasonably like the first one. (Sometimes with my current health insurance, I feel like I’ve got the same plan going with me.)
My parents did buy me a goldfish. I had a lot of goldfish growing up. Fish are easy to take care of, although they’re definitely not as fun to take for walks. You’re not even entirely sure they’re aware you exist. Aside from occasionally cleaning the tank, there is no maintenance involved in goldfish except remembering to feed them, which is not easy, because they don’t say anything. They just float on top of the water. That didn’t happen often, because my mother is very responsible. She has never forgotten to feed anyone, ever. I think the fish were more likely to die from overeating.
My wife’s feeling on gerbils is that they look exactly like the mice that people keep setting out traps for, except bigger. And when it comes to rodents, her feeling is that bigger is not always better.
Nevertheless, I signed the permission form, because I wanted my son to have a turn, and I wanted to have a turn. My compromise was that we’d tell the kids that they weren’t allowed to touch it or take it out of its cage without me or my wife around, and by “me or my wife,” we meant me. The cool thing was that we didn’t even have to feed it. The teacher had put enough food and water in the cage for the entire weekend.
For a while there, I was starting to think that keeping a gerbil was pretty easy. I was like, “We should get a gerbil. It pretty much takes care of itself!” But then Shabbos was over and I decided that I should try to pick it up at least once over the weekend. As a father, it is my responsibility to pretend that I’m not scared of these things. Also, I figured that if I ever had a gerbil, I might have to touch it once in a while. So I put my hand in the cage, and I chased the gerbil back and forth across the cage for like an hour. My hand was darting around with the determination of wanting to catch it while being absolutely terrified of what would happen if I did. But eventually it occurred to me that if I had such a hard time grabbing it in its cage, there was a pretty good chance that if I took it out of the cage, that would be the end of that.
Gerbils are not hard to feed, though. I looked it up, and it turns out you can feed them basically most things that you would put in a salad. So I gave it some carrots, tomatoes, and a pretzel chip. It loved the pretzel chip. It ate about half the chip, so I left the rest in its cage overnight, in case it would feel like snacking. (I assume most animals have the same basic cravings as I do.)
The next morning I was woken up by my kids knocking on my door:
“Gedalyah ate the pretzel chip!” they announced innocently.
“How on earth did he do that?” I asked. Because there’s no way that he could or would get into the cage.
They shrugged. “I don’t know either! The chip was just sitting on the table . . .”
“Wait. How did it get on the table?”
So it turns out that the kids had opened the cage on their own when we weren’t around. Luckily, they’d inherited my “slightly afraid of animals gene,” which didn’t let them make any more progress than me in the “touching it” department. And my wife said, “That’s it! We’re never getting a gerbil!”
The interesting thing is that whenever I mention to anyone that I had a gerbil for the weekend, they feel the need to tell me their animal stories. Everyone has some kind of animal story. Like one person told me about the chicks that hatched in her classroom. (This was on purpose. They didn’t just have a chick problem like some people have a rodent problem.) Another person told me about the day a dog ran into his school. (This was not on purpose. It was a dog problem.) And my mother told me that my siblings caught a turtle on their lawn, but it escaped the very first night they had it.
Okay, so how does a turtle escape, right? It moves at 0 miles per hour. (“It’s getting away! Help . . . sometime in the next 20 minutes!”)
So she said that they’d left it in a cardboard box overnight, on the porch, with some salad and a bowl of water. And in the middle of the night, the genius turtle knocked over the bowl of water, waited until the box was nice and soft, and then tunneled his way to freedom.
“Wait,” I said. “You let them have a turtle?” v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.