The Cat Lady

by Brian on September 7, 2006

in Only in Israel

I had just started my morning run on what was shaping up to be a scorcher of a summer day when I spied Ora, the Cat Lady, hobbling with a cane towards our apartment building. I hadn’t seen Ora in ages, so I decided to slow down and stop for a chat. I pulled my iPod headphones out of my ears.

“Where have you been lately?” I asked Ora.

“I can’t walk anymore,” Ora said. “I haven’t been to visit the cats in over a year.”

Now, Ora is definitely what you’d call a character. A squat, eccentric and opinionated woman of 71, the neighborhood cats adore her even while she can, er, rub the human beings in the area the wrong way.

For years Ora has been taking care of the stray cats that live near our garbage bins. Israel has an enormous problem with wild cats. They can scare the dickens out of you when the dart suddenly out of some forlorn trash can. Most of them are hungry, sick and desperate. They also reproduce like rabbits. Well, cats, that is.

Not so the kitties in our neighborhood. For twenty years, Ora has been out nearly every day to leave food and water for the little critters. She’d take care of them if they hurt a limb. Some she had spayed. Others she fed birth control pills in their cat food.

Not so in the last year. The kitten population has exploded as the hungry cats have been left to fend for themselves.

Now Ora was back. At least temporarily.

“I need a hip operation, but I don’t want to do it,” Ora said, telling me she feared that she’d be laid up even more.

The neighbors have not necessarily been waiting in anticipation for her return.

“They’d rather the cats were gone entirely,” Ora said, acknowledging that her good deeds could be seen in another light.

Or maybe it’s just Ora they wanted gone. As we continued to talk, she began complaining about changes in the area, in particular her not-so-supportive neighbors.

“These newcomers, they haven’t done anything to help the state. They come here and all they care about is money,” Ora kvetched.

I wondered if she realized that she was talking to a relative newcomer.

“I served in the army, I was here for every war since ‘48,” she continued, referring to Israel’s War of Independence. “And I was never too proud to do any kind of work. No unemployment for me like these people.” She motioned towards a fancy SUV.

“I worked for 16 years in insurance and then when I realized they didn’t want me, I washed floors and worked as a housecleaner. I never took a penny from bituach leumi” (Israel’s version of social security), Ora boasted.

While we talked, three tough looking cats circled around us, rubbing their backs against my legs (I guess I was considered acceptable simply through association). Normally I wouldn’t go near a street cat, but this time I reached down and petted one which purred contentedly.

“That’s Brutus,” Ora said. “He’s getting old. He lives with me most of the time now.”

Ora told me more about her history. She lost both parents in the Holocaust; they were sent to Auschwitz while she was hidden with a Catholic family in France. She has been in Israel for 55 years, never married.

“Oh I had lots of lovers, believe me,” she strained a smile. “And we always parted on good terms. I see them now sometimes when I’m in the center of town. They always invite me back for a cup of tea.”

No children either. “I never wanted to bring children into this world. I am happy with my cats. Just my cats.”

An iconoclast to be sure, but a pioneer, and not the sort of person you meet every day while shopping at the mall.

Having Ora in our lives, with the history of the Holocaust hanging over her; her big heart for cats and crusty contempt for people, is part of what makes being in Israel so full of surprises and that gives it that extra does of meaningfulness that gets us through war-torn days like we’ve had over the last couple of months.

The sun was now burning down on my back and I feared my window for running had closed. We said our goodbyes and I plugged my ears again with my headphones and continued on my way, glad that I had taken the time to chat.

Because you never know who you’ll meet if you stop and stroke the stray cats.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous September 8, 2006 at 7:56 pm

I had a similar experience about ten years ago. I find it's always interesting to stop and say hello, espcially to an older person. You never know when you will have a truly memorable conversation.
I live at the downhill end of a 1/4 mile long dead end, in a development that was built in the mid 1950s with wonderfull old trees. One Saturday morning (while walking to shul) after a big storm, I saw an old man standing in front of his house assessing if there was any damage. Mr. Fisher was in his late 80s. I stopped to say hello and Mr. Fisher was happy to talk. In the 15-20 minutes I chatted with him, I found out a tremendous amount about my neighborhood. He had lived on the street and in the neighborhood his whole life. I found out that the beautiful trees on my street are there because the land used to belong to a local Nursery and was used as a tree farm by them. Before my area was developed a low area (where four houses are now located) was what he called a pollywog (frog) pond. It seems in the fifties they put pipes underground to drain the pond to a nearby lake. He also told me that before the houses were built our street was a lovers lane. Which explained all the carvings in the trees around my house. It was a most interesting and informative conversation, that I still remember after ten years.

2 Anonymous September 11, 2006 at 2:40 pm

We've recently met an older lady in our neighborhood as well. Today she was very proud of her “Tribute to America” printed dress, and made sure to point out the pictures on it…..of the NY city skyline, with the Twin Towers, of the capital bldg in DC, etc. I've enjoyed the few times we've spoken, and now you've sparked me to delve more into her history the next time we meet. 🙂 I agree though, it's people and stories like this that make living here special!

3 Anonymous September 21, 2006 at 9:35 pm

Ah, yes, Ora and her Magic Garden. She and I have had lots of chats over the years. She is a very special lady.

4 Anonymous November 18, 2006 at 8:27 pm

We often talk to the cat lady, but only about cats. The other day I got I hint of her past, though. I mentioned that the cats are very nice, except maybe to birds. She said, “Oh, no, cats will not hunt birds as long as they are not hungry. They never kill for fun. Only humans kill for fun. Not cats.”
– strangerinstrangelands

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