From Latke to Queen Vashti: St. Louis pet names to kvell about

Emma Barg, daughter of  Abby Kelman and Peter Barg, and Elijah the guinea pig. 

Story and Photos by Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Elijah Kelman’s favorite part of the Passover seder is eating karpas. Actually, Elijah could munch on parsley all day, every day. That’s because he’s a “Jewish” guinea pig.

His “mother,” Abby Kelman, adopted the Abyssinian guinea pig on Erev Pesach. She describes him as a bit of a squeaker.

“He loves to be cuddled and to eat herbs,” said Kelman, a lawyer in St. Louis. “The first time we took him in to Bal Coeur veterinary, I told Dr. [Kimberly] Davis we chose his name from the Haggadah and she exclaimed ‘Elijah!’ ”

Jewish St. Louisans love their pets, and it’s not unusual to find households with four-legged family members who have Jewish names. Kelman’s previous guinea pigs were known as Hillel and Shammai.

“We went through a lot of debate on what to name them, but I liked the idea of the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai, who were rabbinic sparring partners,” she said. “Their namesake guinea pigs actually did spar, which was really hilarious. In ancient lore, Shammai was considered the contrarian, and Hillel was conciliatory. And that’s how ours were. Hillel was a very chill guinea pig, and Shammai, well, he was kind of piglike in his manners.”

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A few years ago, Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School had a couple of guinea pigs on hand. They were Moses and Joseph, and came courtesy of Kelman. Now, the school has two chickens, Golda and Laila.

The most common Jewish pets around town appear to be dogs, which are the most popular pet in all American homes, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And like Elijah the guinea pig, some local canines have characteristics that reflect their Jewish names. 

Take Queen Vashti, a Pembroke Welsh corgi owned by Rabbi Rachel Bearman, associate rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth. “The Queen,” as Bearman refers to the furry Vashti, is as independent as the early feminist in the Book of Esther.

“I’ve always loved the character Vashti and, as a little kid, I used to dress up as Vashti,” she said. “I loved that Queen Vashti knew her own mind.”

Vashti the corgi is a retired show dog whose AKC name was Gold Dust Woman, nicknamed Stevie (as in Nicks, who wrote the song of the same name). Bearman has a fondness for corgis. When she adopted Stevie, she made the name change to the first wife of King Ahasuerus. It was a prescient move because, Bearman said, “I think that since she has received the name Vashti, she has become more and more like the queen of the story!”

Some Jewish dog owners find names inspired by their professions. Brad Hartman is a chef and former owner of Pumpernickel’s Deli. He once had a Bernese mountain dog named Natasha Varnishkes.

Hebrew names are also popular. Take Happie Ruach Recht, a female chocolate Lab owned by Rick and Elisa Recht.

“ ‘Ruach’ means spirit, and Happie Ruach is a happy spirit in our house that we hoped she would provide when we adopted her, and she did,” Elisa Recht said. “Her name fits her beautiful spirit and happy energy.”

Kalanit Chappell at various times had three dogs, Motek (Hebrew for beautiful), Morty and Saul.

“We have a longstanding history of having Jewish names for our dogs,” Chappell said. “Morty and Saul were Jack Russell terriers. And then we had Motek. They had to be put down within months of each other due to medical issues. Then we got Rafi. Since Rafael is the angel of healing, it was a dog to heal our hearts.”

Rafi Chappell is an energetic Labrador-German shepherd mix. His stepbrother is Boaz, a mellow Anatolian shepherd and Great Pyrenees mix, who plopped down on the grass as his photo shoot began.

“They’re called Anatolian Pyrenees,” Chappell said. “They’re working dogs on farms, and they watch sheep and goats and chickens. They lay down among them so they’re not seen, and they watch for predators. They don’t herd, but they just protect, and they’re used to just laying around a lot.”

An Australian labradoodle named Shalie got its name when owner Sue Matlof took a Jewish Federation trip to Israel last spring.

“One of the sites we went to was a school,” Matlof said. “One of the older children was talking, and his name was Shalie, and so we thought that was so wonderful. We assumed his name was Shalom and, when I got home, I decided the dog’s name was going to be Shalie.”

Abby Durlester possesses a family recipe for brisket. Now she has a dog named Brisket, too. The Durlester family considered the name Challah as well but settled on the popular cut of beef. The tiny Havanese entered their home as a foster dog. After it was clear that the Durlester’s gentile dog Keelah enjoyed the company of the newcomer, they adopted Brisket. It was a mitzvah on the Durlester’s part, because Brisket was a rescue dog.

“She’s a pandemic rescue,” Durlester said. “We got her in mid-May from a rescue group in Springfield. They rescue puppy mill dogs.”

Some popular choices for Jewish dog names come from the Festival of Lights. Mike Minoff and his family adopted a beagle from the Humane Society last year on the first night of Hanukkah. The Minoffs were discussing names, and their kids agreed the dog should have a Hanukkah-related name to replace its Irish, non-Jewish name, Hennessey.

“He was a little overweight, so the first name we thought of was Sufganiyot,” Minoff said, referring to the jelly doughnuts popular during Hanukkah. “The Humane Society employee walked into the room to fill out the paperwork and there was no way anyone there would be able to pronounce or spell the name. So we decided Latke would be the next best name.”

Another dog with a Hanukkah-related name is owned by the Sabin family. Menorah (also known as Nora Menorah) had that name when she came to the family.

“I had been looking on petfinder.com when I came across Lab mix puppies named Menorah, Dreidel, Hanukkah, Tinsel, Christmas and Kwanzaa, and was immediately intrigued,” MaryAnne Smyly Sabin said. “We made an appointment for a visit and it was beshert. She climbed right into our 5-month-old’s carrier, ready to join our family.”

If your household has a Jewish dog, there’s a useful guide available: “How To Raise a Jewish Dog,” by the [fictional] Rabbis of Boca Raton Theological Seminary as told to Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman. The book suggests that a firm dose of guilt can help train a puppy, including several versions of the command “sit.” 

One option: “What, would it kill you to sit down for one lousy second?” Or when a dog disobeys, it may be useful to employ situational martyrdom: “Fine. Do what you want. I hope you have a nice life.”

Another method works quite well for Andrea Lubershane. She uses Yiddish commands with her rat terrier rescue dog Shprintze, as in Tevya’s oldest daughter.

“Shprintzella, sit your tuches down!” Lubershane commanded, and Shprintze immediately obeyed. The diminutive terrier was running wild on the south side of Chicago when the rescue group New Rattitude acquired her. When Lubershane adopted her, she thought long and hard about choosing the right Jewish name.

“The word Shprintze has two roots,” Lubershane said. “One is Ashkenazic, and one is Sephardic. The Sephardic comes from a Spanish word, and if you take out the vowels, it comes from the Sephardic meaning hope. And I figured that would be a good name, because I have hope that she’ll be a good dog. The other meaning comes from the Ashkenazic Yiddish, and it means a scamp, a rascal, a naughty boy. When I got her she was so perky and wild and I thought that is the perfect double entendre Yiddish name.”