The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Availability: Amazon, Los Gatos, San Jose, Santa Clara County

Our member Diane Goldman writes:

This graphic novel by Frenchman Joann Sfar is beautifully drawn. The stories are told with humor, seriousness, and philosophy. There are sections where you might think of magical realism. I wouldn’t recommend this book for children; it would be okay for older teens.

It consists of 3 loosely connected stories:

1. The Bar Mitzvah

We don’t find out until the second story that the setting is Algeria. Perhaps the rabbi of the title is the author’s grandfather…. Anyway, the cat eats the noisy family parrot and finds he can speak. However, the first thing the cat says is a lie, and the rabbi forbids him from hanging out with his daughter, Zlabya. The cat really wants to be with the daughter and demands to have a bar mitzvah so he can prove he’s a good Jew and so be able to be with his mistress. The cat tells us that he used to have simple dreams but now that he can speak, his dreams are complex and horrifying. It looks like the rabbi has the same dream, about losing Zlabya, but we don’t know for sure. When, in the light of day, she is all right, the cat is allowed to be with her, as long as he doesn’t speak. Finally, the cat tells us about the rabbi’s students, who he doesn’t like, especially the one who talks the most and has “eyes” for the rabbi’s daughter. The story ends in a satisfying and surprising way.

2. Malka of the Lions

Malka is a local adventurer/hero and cousin to the rabbi. He comes to visit, and all the women are excited. The story seems to be mostly about other things: the rabbi has to take a French test to prove his rabbinical credentials (although he’s been the rabbi there for 30 years). The cat wants to help him during the exam, but is not allowed in, so sits in the window and watches. The cat is sure the rabbi will fail the test without his help and says God’s name in hopes of helping. The next thing we know, he can no longer speak, at least to humans.

Malka shows up with his lion and takes some refreshment with the rabbi at a cafe that would not serve the rabbi the previous day (They do not serve Jews nor Arabs). But no one questions the man with the lion and the rifle. A local man comes with the news that an old man is dying, so the rabbi, Malka, the lion and the cat go. The old man is not quite dead, it seems like he is waiting for someone. It turns out that he is waiting for a young man, his grandson, from Paris. The rabbi likes the young man (and even brings him home) until he finds out that he is a rabbi and has just been sent to their village, presumably to take his place after his disastrous performance on his exam. The rabbi takes off (with the cat, of course) to visit the grave of his ancestor, Messaoud Sfar. He tells Malka to keep his daughter away from “that kid.”

On the way, the rabbi (and cat) meet an old Arab singer/dancer (with donkey) named Sheikh Muhammad Sfar. The cat and donkey have quite a discussion about the name Sfar and whether it is a Hebrew name (sfar from sofer, meaning writer) or an Arabic name (sfar from yellow in Arabic). Also, Messaoud Sfar is either a great rabbi or a great Sufi, but an ancestor of both men. The rabbi has a letter from France, that he is afraid to open, so he gives it to his Arab friend who reads it to him. It turns out the exam wasn’t exactly what he thought it was, and he can remain rabbi of the community. They pray together, then dance together.

The rabbi arrives home and finds his cousin and daughter behaving rather strangely. Neither cat nor rabbi approves the impending engagement of Zlabya and the young rabbi, Jules. The cat would really like to be able to speak about this to his master, but you can tell the master is feeling the same.

3. Exodus

Cat and rabbi show their unhappiness about Zlabya and Jules’ marriage in different ways. They end up accompanying them on their honeymoon in Paris, where Jules’ non-religious parents live. Cat and rabbi have several adventures in cold, rainy Paris. Zlabya is unhappy because she wants people to think she’s a Parisian instead of an Algerian. The rabbi finds his nephew in Paris and is disappointed that he is only a street singer instead of being recognized for his beautiful voice. And a dog finds his way to a new master. Eventually, all is sorted out.