Julie Seltzer | Nonfiction

HYDROPHOBOPHOBIA 

I’m listening to an archived Radiolab episode in the small desert town of Mitzpe Ramon, Israel, while copying the Book of Numbers onto a piece of parchment. This is my job: Hebrew scribe of sacred Jewish texts. I’ll admit that writing with ink and a feather is tedious, but I like the feeling of connection, knowing these words have been written and read for millennia. Plus, if it doesn’t get ruined in a flood or a fire, the Torah I write will last longer than I will, making me just a little bit immortal, which holds particular significance today, because as I write the verse And they journeyed from the Red Sea, and pitched in wilderness of Zin, I become convinced that I might have rabies.

The episode I’m listening to is about a Jeanna, a high school girl from Wisconsin who contracted the rabies virus. She was helping a wounded bat when she got a small cut in her finger, but no one thought anything of it until a month later when Jeanna was hospitalized with severe flu-like symptoms and strange neurological issues such as seeing double. I examine my inky fingers for nicks, because this is exactly what was happening to me. Instead of writing the wilderness of Zin, I had written the wilderness wilderness of Zin.

I should turn the podcast off. It was the same when I read that book about Henrietta Lacks and got all worked up about cervical cancer: I, too, felt a knot in my abdomen. I, too, sensed that something was wrong.I, too, had pain during intercourse, at least some of the time, if Shmulik went too deep.

My heart thumps faster as Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explain how they finally figured out what was wrong. Off-handedly, Jeanna’s mother mentioned the bat incident to their family doctor. There was nothing to be done. Rabies means certain death.

Certain death, I repeat out loud, though the words I should really be repeating out loud were the words of the Torah, so as not to make another mistake. And they journeyed from Kadesh, and pitched at Mount Hor. I try to recall mention of dogs in the bible. There are definitely donkeys and camels, and hemorrhoids, but what about rabies and cancer?

“Julie?”

Nahum calls my name. He is the ceramicist who runs our shared studio space, housed in an old converted plane hangar. Mitzpe Ramon has several rows of these converted cement studios, rented by artists who left Tel Aviv in favor of expanse and quiet and pure desert air, which is apparently some of the cleanest in the world due to Middle East wind patterns.

“Yes?”

“Someone is looking at your print,” he says in Hebrew, after telling the customers in broken English that I’ll emerge in just a moment. Tourists, I groan, followed quickly by This could be a 300 shekel sale. I press pause and make my way to the front.

“A female scribe?!”

“Yes…a rare zebra.”

“Wow. That’s amazing!”

I nod.

“Where are you from?” they ask. They are wearing matching khaki shorts, which though appropriate to the 95 degree weather, is like having the word “American” stamped on their foreheads.  And they have that way of walking. Slow and meandering, like they aren’t sure where they’re going.

“I live here,” I answer. It’s not like I know where I am going either, but at least my pants fall below the knee.

“No, no! We meant originally!”

Why was I prolonging this conversation? It was waste of precious writing time. What good would 300 shekel do me anyway if I have rabies? What good would any amount of money do me if I have rabies? The vaccinations would be covered by my health insurance, if it’s not too late to get them. All that matters is….holy shit. What does matter? Nothing. Nothing matters if I am going to die. And I am going to die. I mean we are all going to die, but I am more keenly aware in this particular moment that I am going to die.

“Philadelphia,” I respond. Their eyes move from my print to Nahum’s pottery. They buy matching mugs, and I imagine them drinking drip coffee in their matching sweatshirts in New Jersey thinking back nostalgically to their trip to the Holy Land. Would I still be alive at that point? Maybe they’ll lament that female scribe they met, how sad it is that she died, and especially under such bizarre circumstances. Then they’ll shake their heads and take another sip of coffee while it’s still hot.

“Have a great rest of your time here in Israel,” I say, and skip my way past Nahum’s interns, the young female elves who sit at the pottery wheels and knock out ceramic ashtrays and Mezuzah cases all day. I sit back down, put my headphones on, and pick up the writing where I left off. I want to finish work as soon as possible to get home to my potentially rabid dog.

Shusha was something of an accident. I volunteered one Friday afternoon at a dog adoption day in nearby Arad, and no one took Shusha because she just stood there frozen, petrified, so I offered to take her as a foster. Five months later I finally adopted her myself because I was too attached to give her back.

On our walk by the Mitzpe Ramon visitor’s center this morning, as we scampered through rocks up to the vista, Shusha started nipping unrelentingly at my ankles. I had initially assumed it was to get at the nuggets of chicken stowed in my bag for training purposes, but now I’m concerned she could be rabid and the nipping a symptom of abnormally aggressive behavior. For all I know she is foaming at the mouth at this very moment, her face in a snarl. There would be no way to reverse the trajectory; the virus would slowly but surely attack my brain to the point of certain death. Not even probable death. Certain. Death.

I recall a recent weekend with my friend Efrat in Tel Aviv. Her Saturday morning tradition is to answer Haaretz Magazine’s 20 Questions, reading each one out loud.

What is hydrophobophobia?

Most of the 20 questions require knowledge of Israeli history, culture, or politics, putting me at a significant disadvantage, given that I am an expat American. This one was different. I did not know what hydrophobophobia was, but I could certainly identify its component parts.

“Fear of developing the fear of water,” I proclaimed with the confidence of a native English speaker. “Because break it down. Hydrophobophobia: phobia of hydrophobia.”

The answer key informed us that hydrophobophobia has nothing to do with water at all, at least not directly. Hydrophobophobia is the fear of rabies.

I tune back in to my podcast and learn – miraculously, given that she was already symptomatic – that Jeanna doesn’t die. That’s why there is an episode featuring her story. Jeanna’s Wisconsin doctor cured her by inducing a coma, allowing time for the body’s natural immune response to kick in. I listen with hope about Jeanna and the “Milwaukee protocol.” But although she and five others in recent years survived, I doubt that I would. The chances are one in a million.

I need the bathroom. Is diarrhea a symptom of rabies? It’s definitely a symptom of something. Maybe I don’t have rabies after all. Maybe I have colon cancer. I need to be vigilant. My mother, because she was vigilant, was diagnosed with lymphoma early enough to treat it, whereas my uncle ignored his symptoms and died at age 28. Not that being vigilant is a guarantee, as my mother learned thirty-five years later when a mild winter cough turned out to be late-stage lung cancer. And we’ve all heard of cases in which doctors dismiss the most obvious early signs, and a treatable disease goes undetected for years until it’s too late. The thing with rabies is that 72 hours after exposure is already too late.

Nahum stops me.

“Julie?” His hands are full of clay. He’s forming an enormous vase on the wheel.

“Yes?”

“I have an idea.”

“What?”

“Here, come with me.” Nahum leads me around the bend to the narrow hall without bothering to wash the clay off his hands, and tells me about Shimon.

“From Argentina?”

“Yes. Your age.” I am a 40-year old unmarried woman, another way in which I am a rare zebra. Or perhaps in this case the most apt metaphor is an odd duck.

“He lives here in Mizpe Ramon?”

What kind of person would choose to live in the middle of nowhere? I then remember with some degree of shame, that I am the kind of person who would choose to live in the middle of nowhere, and that I shouldn’t judge him, or myself for that matter, merely on this point.

“Yes, he moved here now. To give him your number?”

“Yes, to give him.”

My sentences are always short in Hebrew, like text messages. I keep them short because the fewer words I use, the fewer opportunities there are for making mistakes. Perhaps to connect, or perhaps because of the nature of the Hebrew language, Nahum also uses short sentences.

“I will give.”

I squat back in through my makeshift door and listen to Radiolab long enough to learn that Jeanna now loves bats and studies them at the university. I pause and start several times before finally succeeding in turning it off, knowing it is unhelpful for my anxiety to listen, but waiting for evidence to confirm or deny my own case: do I or don’t I have rabies? I need to calm down. I am being ridiculous. Cancer, maybe. People get cancer. But rabies? No one gets rabies.

On the other hand this girl Jeanna got rabies, and so did all those other people that weren’t given the Milwaukee Protocol and a subsequent Radiolab episode about their recovery. I scan my empty Torah room, white cement walls decorated with the same print those Americans didn’t buy, the floor covered in a fine layer of sand. Why did I choose a line of work that requires this kind of isolation? Why did I move away from everything and everyone I know, to the middle of a vast desert, in a foreign country, where there was no one to talk to except for Nahum, Shusha, and the personalities in the Torah?

I reach the last verse for today: And Aaron was one hundred and twenty and three years old when he died at Mount Hor. Aaron climbs up the mountain, removes his priestly garb, and hands them to his son, who will take over performing the priestly rituals. Even knowing his fate from the outset, I still cry when he dies. But why should I cry over his death? He lived a good long life, and a meaningful one too.

I roll up the parchment, say a final goodbye to Aaron and a (hopefully) temporary goodbye to Nahum and the elves, jump on my bike, and ride home to my apartment which overlooks the 26-kilometer wide crater that this town sits on. Helmet in hand, I climb the now familiar stairwell, dark and strewn with cigarette butts, and hope that Shusha will be waiting for me at the door when I walk in. Most often she stays in her bed, with seeming lack of regard for my coming and going. But if she is alive and not exhibiting signs of rabies, even if she doesn’t come to the door, I’ll be grateful.

As I climb the stairs, hoping not to run into my downstairs neighbor, I begin feeling that head-face fuzziness that I have been feeling on and off all day. Earlier, I’d associated it with the extreme heat and the fact that I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast and had been copying 4 millimeter-high Hebrew letters from a little booklet in a small enclosed space all day. But it’s the same as with Jeanna. The obvious source for her symptoms would be a cold, or the flu, but in the end, the least likely to be the case turned out in the end to be the case.

I unlock my apartment door and head for the computer to read about rabies, having dodged Vitali. Vitali has been living alone on the ground floor of this building for 14 years, and he is its self-appointed caretaker. When I moved in, he showed me the video camera he set up at the entrance to our building, so that he can monitor our stoop from the comfort of his living room. I worry periodically that he installed a camera in my shower before I moved in, and can now watch me masturbate on split screen. But what does it matter now? A Peeping Tom neighbor should be the worst to happen to me, of all the things that could happen to me.

I open the door and acknowledge Shusha’s presence by casually tossing a quick, flat “Hi Shusha” into the air, in line with training methods I’ve read about online. I am meant to be the pack leader with more important things to do than to go and pet her. This method is pretty irrelevant to Shusha – it’s not like she’s running to the door and jumping all over me. As usual, she’s still in her bed, her dusty white tail not even wagging. What drew me to such an anxious, indifferent creature?

Ready or Not, Rabies on the Rise.

Sharp Rise in Rabies Leads to New Pet Import Regulations: Agriculture Ministry Says Most Cases Found in Domesticated Dogs.

Looking to the internet for reassurance is always a bad idea. Not only is rabies on the rise in Israel, rabies is on the rise in Israel in pet dogs! I am a goner. Infectious disease experts have worked hard to eradicate rabies in wild animals such as foxes, and to a large extent they’d succeeded. But now dogs like Shusha were getting it. Oh God! I am going to die! In Israel, in the middle of the desert, all alone! Not even Shusha will be with me, because the virus kills dogs much faster than humans.

I look over at my wild desert coyote. She is resting her snout comfortably on the edge of the camel-brown dog bed which I bought for the equivalent of $50 while she was still a foster. My neighbor Noa took one look at the bed and said, “Uh-huh. Fo-ster,” with an affect in her voice and her fingers forming quotation marks as she drew out the first syllable of the word.

I try to remain calm as I review the evidence: First, there was her ankle nipping. Second, there are my physical symptoms, which were not worrisome before, but are worrisome now, in light of the Radiolab episode. These, and knowing what happened to my friend Jay’s dog. He drove down last week from Jerusalem to be with me for the yearly meteor shower, when Mitzpe Ramon turns off the street lights and you can watch a cascade of shooting stars against an otherwise black sky.

“He got rabies.”

“Oh my God! How?”

“I guess a fox or something bit him.”

“And he hadn’t been vaccinated?”

“No, no, he’d gotten his shots. Turns out you can still get rabies even if you’ve gotten a rabies shot.”

I would have to watch for strange and/or aggressive and/or overly friendly behavior. The overly-friendly bit I picked up on the internet: one of the first symptoms of rabies in dogs is either overly aggressive behavior, or overly friendly behavior. Of course, every Golden Retriever fits the latter description but I suppose the point is as compared to that dog’s normal behavior. The problem is that there is no normal for Shusha. She is alternately comatose and wild.

For months, Shusha was so fearful that she could only take two steps before freezing. If something specific scared her, I would offer a treat and use my happy-calm voice to put her at ease. If another dog was passing I would say, “Doooooooooogie!” and feed her pieces of chicken. On windy nights, when the desert sand forms midair tornadoes, I would comfort her by cooing, “plastic baaaaaaaaaag, floating in the wiiiiiiiind!” She is too anxious to grasp the concept of play. I have offered her bones, squeaky toes, smelly socks, even leather shoes, because all dogs like to chew shoes. Comatose. But then one afternoon just as the sun was setting beyond the crater ridge, illuminating its pink and yellow rock, I took her out and she ran around like a woman let loose after centuries of oppression, in circles.

Shusha has, of course, gotten her rabies shot, but it couldn’t hurt to double check. I open my Important Papers drawer and fish out her vaccination record. The date and vaccine number are recorded on an official-looking card: March 23, 2015 – Rabisin L400028.  I shake my head in exasperation at that way I awfulize – always assuming the worst possible scenario. I glance out my apartment window and see a small family of ibex, the resident mountain goats, snacking on the new garden flowers that Vitali planted. This is an idyllic place. If the ibex could make it, Shusha and I would be just fine.

But what if the animal welfare organization got Shusha’s card mixed up with some other dog’s card? And what if that other dog had gotten a rabies shot but Shusha was still too young at the time to get hers? What if she’d never been vaccinated and then been bitten by a fox when I wasn’t looking? I mean I’m usually looking but anything is possible. Not that vigilance is a guarantee, as I learned from my mother. Nothing is a guarantee. And the trajectory leads to certain death.

I send Jay a text message, sharing my fears while acknowledging my insanity, which, I note privately, is also a symptom of rabies. Maybe I should get the shots just in case. I would have to drive the curvy desert road to the hospital in Be’er Sheva, which is in itself dangerous. Come to think of it, maybe I should take the bus. The bus is also cheaper given the cost of gasoline here. Could I take Shusha with? I’d need to buy a muzzle so that I can take her on the bus. I look at her pitiful face and decide I don’t want to muzzle her, not even for a bus ride. In any case, it would be primarily to save money, which would be cancelled out by the muzzle purchase.

There’s a knock at the door. Shusha lifts her snout off the edge of the bed, and her ears stand at guard. I get up to see who it is, though I pretty much already know.

“Julie, hello, hello.”

“Hi Vitali,” I respond, with about as much enthusiasm as Shusha bestowed on me when I walked in.

“See outside?” he asks, in his Russian-accented, similarly text-length Hebrew.  

“See what?”

“Flowers. Ibex all ate.”

What Vitali doesn’t understand is that I see myself as a temporary resident here. And I empathize with the ibex as much as I empathize with him. They were hungry.

He lingers in the doorway and cranes his neck toward the bedroom, possibly to check on a hidden camera.

“You must feed her vegetables. She needs for strength.”

I lift my eyebrows.  

“Yes, yes. Vegetables.”

“I’ll give her a cucumber later,” I comply, in hopes of getting him to leave.

“And she needs confidence.” Shusha is now under the dining table, hiding from a passing garbage truck.

“Yes yes, more secure,” he repeats.

“Yes. This takes time.”

“Slowly, slowly, she will trust you.”

“With God’s help,” I say, using the phrase colloquially, not as a declaration of faith, though maybe I should try to pray more often. Not that praying helps.

“With God’s help,” he echoes.

“Have a good rest of the day,” I hint, inviting him back to the hallway.

As I listen to his scuffling feet at the bottom of the stairwell, I scan an official government website and find out that the last person to die of rabies in Israel was twelve years ago, back in 2003, when a Bedouin woman contracted the virus from a rabid cat.

Cats? The other day, as Shusha and I were heading back from the edge of the crater, having steered clear of a large ibex family (all other dogs chase the ibex, but Shusha runs away with her tail curled under), we were attacked by a street cat, who leapt out of the bushes and scratched Shusha. Did her skin break? I didn’t see a puncture wound or any blood, but I wasn’t looking for it. Even if I was looking, a small cut could hide under her thick coat. I have no way of knowing. Fuck. Certain death.

I should have taken her for a walk before beginning my internet research – there’s no time now, because I need to get to Be’er Sheva right away for the rabies shots, and I can’t take her with because she doesn’t have a muzzle, and even if she did they probably don’t let animals into the hospital, especially rabid ones, and we can’t drive because it’s too hot to leave her in the car. She’ll have to hold in her poop the whole afternoon. Unless she can’t, in which case she’ll have diarrhea all over the kitchen floor.

Shusha creeps toward the hall door and does a downward dog. Is this a signal? The last time she had a bout of diarrhea, she would kind of hover at the entrance in the middle of the night to indicate that she needed to go. But this could also be pure manipulation to get a walk, the way my friend’s dog Charlotte would engineer an afternoon snack. She’d sniff around a patch of grass as if she had to poop, kind of arching her back to get into position, and then snatch a piece of pita.

But who cares about diarrhea if we both might die? And we both might very well die. I mean, we both will die. So who cares about diarrhea? Who cares about anything? Shusha’s life trajectory, my life trajectory, everyone’s life trajectory, is leading to certain death. And these certain deaths are relatively imminent in the big scheme of things, especially for Shusha, who I hope will die before me (hope is a shameful word here, but accurate). There is no vaccine, no reversal, and we know the essence of the final chapter from the very start. Moses will die at one hundred and twenty and will not make it to the Promised Land. Aaron will die at one hundred and twenty three on Mount Hor. Julie will die of [disease X or accident Y] at the age of [TBD].

So what would I like to do with my life? I consider the options given the potential time constraints. Saving the world isn’t realistic, so I decide that at minimum, as trite as it sounds even to my own ears, I would like to have sex with someone who wants to be with me because he wants to be with me, not just because he feels sorry that I might die of rabies within a month. Who could fit the bill? Not Shmulik. He just wants to be with someone. Maybe Ronit from the kibbutz, or the Argentinian man that Nahum suggested. We could have loving sex, even if just for a week, documented for posterity by Vitali, all before I need to go to the hospital and be quarantined. Come to think of it, rabies must be transferable through semen and vaginal fluid if it’s transferable by a little cut. I would have to let go of my last dying wish.

I try to let go – of this desire and of everything else – and simply ride the wave, the ebb and flow of palpitations in my throat every time I think I may have rabies and only have a month to live. Laying on my couch, staring at the yellow-painted ceiling, I wonder yet again what it is I’m doing here alone at the edge of a crater in Israel, writing the Torah, taking care of a troubled desert stray. Because this is what I am doing with my life, when I’m not thinking about what I should be doing with my life. Is there some poetic relevance? What is the point of it all, especially if I can’t have sex, in the final weeks of my life, with someone who loves me for who I am?

Shusha looks over as I lay on the couch staring at the yellow ceiling being all existential. She takes a tentative step in my direction, but as soon as I reach out my hand, she retreats. We play this game for a little while, her sniffing the table leg while keeping her own hind legs on the hallway carpet, me watching her as I pretend to stare at the ceiling, and just for a moment – I forget about it all. I forget to worry if life has meaning; I forget that I may have a terminal disease; I forget about Shmulik and Oren and that man from Argentina I’ve yet to meet; I even forget to remember to take Shusha out for her walk.

The moment lasts for just an instant though, and then I’m awfulizing again, thinking about how sad I’d be if Shusha escaped from the apartment and chased after a chicken bone and got hit by a car and died. But that’s not even the worst scenario, because how much sadder will I be if she dies at a ripe old age of 15, after all those additional years of bonding? The same way that I’ll be devastated when Moses dies at the end of the Torah, after spending more than a year writing his story. I sigh. Shusha sighs too, or grunts, or finishes digesting breakfast, and inches her way to the sofa. I freeze, not wanting to discourage her with a noise or sudden movement. Still concerned about the danger, but feeling so loved by her subtle sign of affection, I take my chances and let her lick my face.

Julie Seltzer [hyperlink to: https://www.julieseltzer.net/] is one of a handful of female Torah scribes in the world. She is currently writing a memoir chronicling her spiritual journey while writing a Torah on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Julie holds a BA in Theatre Arts from Brown University, and has worked as a baker, a teacher, and for one glorious day, a shepherd. She resides in the Hudson Valley, NY with her Israeli desert mutt, Shusha.
2019-02-27T00:35:23-04:00