His name is Mr. Zucker, and he is a 94-year-old widower, private, soft-spoken and fiercely independent. Although hard of hearing, he is in excellent physical shape for a person his age — some might say for a person of any age. Rumor has it that he lives with his daughter, although I have yet to see her in the 14 months since I made aliyah.
Dressed neatly in a plaid button-down shirt, khakis and a taupe baseball cap, he resembles a taller, thinner version of the Monopoly Man in appearance, with a refinement that belies what I used to think of as his rather unsavory pastime.
He is the Cat Man of Katamon, and in a world gone mad — where unspeakable horrors have been carried out against us here in Israel — he is my beacon of light.
Mr. Zucker has been feeding the neighborhood’s felines for years in the little garden at the rear of our apartment in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. The private, tree-lined spot for residents to relax and decompress would otherwise be an oasis of serenity were it not for the dozens of colorful food bowls and paraphernalia, including a weathered, once-plush Winnie the Pooh doll and shape sorter toddler toy, belonging to some 22 cats (at last count) who lay claim to this coveted territory. The irony is not lost on those of us paying exorbitant rents in exchange for the privilege of living in one of Jerusalem’s most upscale neighborhoods.
Jerusalem apartments are in high demand, especially in Katamon. In an effort to secure one before I made aliyah, I rented mine sight unseen, long before my move. The previous tenants were eager to vacate early, and I took over their lease. While they sent me a video of the inside and spent considerable time reiterating my obligation to take over their municipal, hydro and electric bills, they somehow neglected to mention the swarming cat colony outside my window. Perhaps they considered it an added bonus and imagined I would appreciate the surprise.
For months after I moved in, I couldn’t stand Mr. Zucker, let alone his creepy cats — cats who meow and cry out day and night like newborn infants, get into frequent brawls and sometimes seek refuge in my building’s stairwell, startling me at every turn. Cats who dine on fresh meat, chicken and salmon, among other delicacies; luxuries that some Israelis can scarcely afford.
I used to cringe upon hearing Mr. Zucker call out to his precious kitties at mealtimes, which, incidentally, were, and still are inconsistent, especially these days when looming air-raid sirens necessitate being close to bomb shelters.
I often rolled my eyes upon opening my front door to find soda bottles filled with water, standing at the ready outside Mr. Zucker’s apartment for use in the backyard (to hydrate the cats, perhaps? Clean their utensils?). I’d half chuckle in exasperation when I’d see him pulling his portable shopping cart down the block on a cat grocery run or digging for discarded boxes at the corner recycling bin, which he saws and repurposes as expansive mats to protect his and the pets’ feet from the garden’s muddy patches.
But like a devastating accident drawing curious onlookers, I could not look away. Often, I would watch him from my window with simultaneous intrigue and revulsion as he’d don disposable latex gloves and tenderly cut up the kitties’ food while they patiently waited for their heroic Pied Piper to give them the cue that it was OK to dive in. Still, I wished that he would leave, and even considered reporting the cat sanctuary to the city as a health hazard.
Then one afternoon, about six months ago, I came face to face with Mr. Zucker for the first time on our walkway.
“You’re the man who feeds the cats,” I said, smiling, and introduced myself as his new neighbor. It was then that he confided that he is a Holocaust survivor.
“I know what it means to be hungry,” he lamented, with tears in his eyes. “There is no one to feed them except for me.”
Then he poignantly added, “Everyone has a name,” echoing the maxim of Holocaust remembrance popularized by Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky.
There’s Bracha, the Abyssinian. Gavriel, the one-eared Burmese. Serena and Sasson, the Turkish Angoras. Simcha, the tabby whose name radiates happiness even though he is missing an eye.
Naftali. Rani. Booyo. Adina. Sasha. Nechama…
And then there is my namesake, Aviva.
“The cats are my children,” he shared.
I asked Mr. Zucker whether he accepts donations for his feline food reserve. He declined my offer and relayed that he has plenty of money from his Holocaust Victim Compensation Fund.
I imagined Mr. Zucker in a concentration camp, a starving child, robbed of his family and youthful innocence. And it was then that I began to appreciate the extent to which his small acts of kindness to these vulnerable creatures represent a grand victory over his oppressors then, and our oppressors today.
In the face of ineffable memories and trauma, which Mr. Zucker still bears from his past and which have only been exacerbated by Hamas’ sickening barbarity, Mr. Zucker reaffirms the potential of humanity to choose good over evil, every single day.
Earlier this week, I peered out the window during a deceiving moment of relative calm and noticed a new litter of kittens in the garden. A new generation of children for Mr. Zucker to coddle.
I wonder what will become of these now dependent cats when Mr. Zucker ultimately meets his maker?
I find myself praying for his safety. I pray that God watches over and protects him, and that he be spared further sorrow. I pray that God continues to bless him with good health and the strength to continue to pursue his passionate acts of loving kindness for years to come.
Because I can’t imagine life in Katamon without him. I hear Mr. Zucker scolding Gavriel and Simcha, telling them to stop fighting, and I know that ultimately everything will be OK.