Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat
Book review by Monica Friedman
Ages: Young Adult
Irreverent Theology, Talking Animals, and Dashing Strangers in Algeria
The setting of this fanciful graphic novel may be foreign to most readers—the 1930s, Algeria, the Jewish quarter, the home of a Sephardic rabbi—but it’s the perfect backdrop for the rollicking romp of a story that casts a skeptical and ironic eye on religion, love, power, ethics, and the metaphysical adventures of a talking cat.
The rabbi's cat in question, while thoughtful and provocative, is probably meant to represent the average feline companion. He enjoys sitting on books while his master tries to read them, cuddling with his mistress (the rabbi’s lovely, impetuous, headstrong adult daughter), drinking milk, and staying out all night, getting up to mischief with girl cats. But the cat has opinions, thoughts that an average cat can never share.
My mistress, Zlabya, says that if cats could talk, they would tell incredible stories. She also says that if the parrot could shut up from time to time, if would give us a break. The riches of the world should be better shared, she says. This bird who has nothing to say talks endlessly. While this cat, who roams the rooftops every night, never pipes up.
Taking matters in his own paws, the cat, who understands everything going on around him, eats the tiresome parrot, thus magically gaining the power of speech, which he immediately uses to start telling lies, beginning with a series of unbelievable stories about what happened to the parrot.
Thus begins a spiritual and circular journey undertaken by the cat and the rabbi together. The rabbi refuses to allow the cat near his daughter, “afraid that I will put bad ideas into her head,” and insists the animal study “the Torah, and the Talmud—the Mishnah, the Gemara,” all the holy books of Judaism, “to put me back on the straight and narrow.” But the cat is no tabula rasa, not a parchment upon which the rabbi can write his own thoughts, but a master debater, a devil’s advocate, and a natural critic who only tells “the truth when it’s hurtful,” not because he is a bad person, but because he is a normal cat.
The cat’s perspective colors all the rabbi’s actions and associations: his relationship with his own rabbi, his daughter, his students, and his congregation, local anti-Semites and the Consistory of French Jews. Eventually, the cat loses the power of speech, but not the power of wickedly funny and sharp observation. Through the cat’s eyes, the reader sees the good-natured and earthly rabbi navigate local politics, his daughter’s lightning fast love affair with a French rabbi whose observance differs from the Algerian rabbi’s, and a trip to Paris, where all his high minded morals are turned upside down.
A crisis of faith throughout a dark night of the soul forms the climax of the story, with the cat following the rabbi through a series of eye-opening adventures in places rabbis are not normally seen. At the conclusion of The Rabbi's Cat, the rabbi admits the transient meaning of belief, having learned that his Judaism is a choice, perhaps arbitrary, but one that he will continue to embrace, despite his lingering, unresolved questions on the subject of faith.
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