Book: The Rabbi’s Cat
Author: Joann Sfar
Year: 2002
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

This is Bookhad’s second graphic novel this year. If this is an acceptable place to write about the quality of paper, I must say that my mind was practically blown when I opened the novel – so smooth, so full of colors, and smelling like a dream. The Rabbi’s Cat was recommended to me by Marjane Satrapi when I read her interview while researching Persepolis, which I read earlier this year. An online review said that The Rabbi’s Cat is Joann Sfar’s Persepolis. It’s just that in his book, the anthropomorphic cat could well be Sfar himself. However, in reality, the cat is inspired by Sfar’s own Siamese.

Set in the Algeria of the 1930s, this graphic novel is a collection of Sfar’s previously published three stories. A rabbi owns a cat which, after eating the family’s parrot, starts talking. Moreover, the cat tells only lies, the first one being that it didn’t eat the parrot. Divided into five chapters, the story is that of this unnamed cat belonging to Abraham Sfar, who demands to have a Bar Mitzvah and study the Kabbalah as soon as it starts talking. In the first chapter, the rabbi teaches the cat in order to get the cat to behave around his young daughter Zlayba. However, the cat always counter questions the rabbi on what the text says and demands a Bar Mitzvah, which the cat is refused. Since one cannot argue with cats, the cat is taken to the rabbi’s rabbi to check if cats can have a bar mitzvah. Here, the cat presents his own defense and demands to know the importance of animals as per the holy books. The rabbi is secretly impressed by his cat and continues to teach him how to be a Jew.

IMG_20160523_165117350-02Since Algeria is still under French dominion, the rabbi is asked by the French to appear for a test to keep his position as rabbi. Knowing that the rabbi is anxious and does not want to lose his position, the cat accompanies his master to the test center in order to help him, only until it realises that cats are not allowed inside the hall. The cat follows his master everywhere to help his master as he thinks he knows better and always ends up as a spectator. But through the eyes of this spectator, the readers glimpse into the life of a Jew and the times when all religions and people coexisted with much less animosity and fear than now. There’s a scene where the rabbi travels to the grave of a saint and bumps into an Arab going the same way. The cat accompanying the rabbi gets into an argument with the Arab’s donkey about the origins of the saint. While one professes that the saint is Jewish the other says the saint is Arab. It’s this absolute dissolution of the source of truth that I love about such stories.

The book jacket will tell you that this is a story of the rabbi’s talking cat and their visit to France when Zlabya falls in love with a Parisian rabbi. Through this overarching story, this is a portrait about the Jewish way of life and a glimpse into a world that we would have otherwise never known. Sfar said that since his family was forced to flee the country, he imagined the visuals of the novel. As admitted at the outset, they’re beautiful. The streets, the houses, the overall scenes are wonderful to look at. The novel also has a sequel, titled The Rabbi’s Cat 2, which continues the cat’s journey when the rabbi receives a mysterious crate, which contains a Russian Jewish painter who has tried to ship himself to Addis Ababa to find a rumored Jewish homeland in Ethiopia. Joined by a rich, arrogant local Russian man and the rabbi’s cousin, a sheik who’s also part of the Sfar family, they drive off to find Jerusalem in Africa. Now that is something that catches my attention.

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The Rabbi’s Cat is quite entertaining in its excursions and the meditation on what it means to be a Jew, but also to live in a world where there are mysteries aplenty and not everyone has the capacity to encompass them. The climax of novel when the rabbi declares that he doesn’t entirely know what is punishable and what is not, but knows what it means to be happy is so refreshing. Like a dear friend once told me, “Have you ever been to the synagogues in Byculla and spoken to the Rabbis?” I shook my head. “They’re amazing to talk to,” he said, “they argue instead of preach. And that’s why I like Judaism. They’re oldest so they’ve made all the mistakes there were to make.” 

I didn’t make it to Byculla. I got myself a graphic novel.

It has been fun.

Bookhad
(20.06.2016)

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