“I’ve counted 78 cats so far,” my niece, who recently became Bat Mitzvah, told me a few days ago. Three of us, the Bat Mitzvah gal, her eight year old cousin and I were walking back to our temporary Jerusalem “home” from an impromptu swim at the pool.
“Look! There’s more!” she said, her face shining with excitement.
She stopped by a green dumpster, brimming with trash. A slanty-eyed feline with wild fur squatted on a stone wall behind it, equally prepared to pounce or flee. My niece peered over the edge of the bin. An orange tabby shot like a rocket from within. We jumped back. It and the wild furred one scampered over the wall. We walked a few feet up the street and peered through an iron gate into an unruly garden, seeing if we could spot more.
Cats are everywhere, even on the relatively upscale street in the Baka neighborhood where the family is bunking in an airy, balconied apartment with views of Jerusalem’s undulating hills. Our feral, battle-scarred neighbors lurk under cars, peer suspiciously behind fences, perch on stoops. They recoil as strangers approach, eyes widening in fear.
That my niece was counting them, without a loss of enthusiasm and with a keen memory for those she had already seen, zapped me like an electrical current. A grin spread across my face. To her they were not nuisances, eyesores, or bearers of disease, simply fascinating and beautiful creatures trying to survive amidst indifference and abuse. Some locals do feed them and, as I learned from a fellow guest at the Bat Mitzvah, there is even a “cat spa” in the city, where cat-counting adults spay, neuter, immunize, feed and even massage street felines before releasing them to their stomping grounds, the exact blocks from which they were collected.
For her Bat Mitzvah celebration, my niece has been delivering short speeches on topics selected by her rabbi. The evening of Shabbat, she spoke about the meaning of her parshah, the Torah portion of that week. Two days later, in front of the Herzl Museum, she shared words about its namesake, the Budapest born journalist whose Zionist dream and willingness to spend his fortune in pursuit of it planted the seeds for the State of Israel. Standing in front of the Knesset, where Israel’s legislature meets, she spoke about David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Another day, at the City of David, she talked about Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel who, as I learned, temporarily lived with her sister in Denver to rebel against her mother’s wishes that she marry. At the end of each, she expressed the wish that one day she, too, would do something as great as they did. We all applauded, and she basked in our smiles and paparazzi-style camera clicks.
But that reflected glow of family appreciation, or approval, was the equivalent of a 40-watt bulb. Her love of, and compassion for, animals lit her up like a dazzling candelabra. It was a reminder of what we can all look like if we tap into our natural energy and the sparks of life with which we came into the world.
Many things deemed “great” start with an idea, a dream, followed by a small action, or a conversation. Lofty goals take flight with persistence, the constant application of curiosity and unwavering faith that we are meant to follow that which lights us up. That might not line up with parental or societal expectations, but most great figures defied the conventional wisdom of their day, inspired by possibility rather than cowed by fear or duty, with no guarantees that their visions would materialize.
Maybe the key to greatness is, on the most fundamental level, kindness and compassion, towards ourselves and the creatures around us. Maybe it starts with noticing feral cats. The last time I checked, she had spotted 106. I hope she keeps counting.