On a cold and damp Shabbat afternoon I curled up on the couch with my cat to read Joann Sfar's delightful graphic novel The Rabbi's Cat 2.
Both Rabbi's Cat books are set in 1930s Algiers. The narrator is the eponymous feline, who eats the rabbi's talking parrot in order to shut it up and is thenceforth capable of human speech. Hijinks, as they say, ensue. The cat is in love with the rabbi's daughter Zlabya, and the rabbi decides quickly that a cat who can talk circles around him is not appropriate company for an unmarried Jewish girl. Majrum's solution? He asks to become bar mitzvah. (You can read that story in Volume 1: The Bar Mitzvah, which Pantheon graciously put online.) He asks not because he cares about God or Jewish tradition, but because he wants to be able to hang out with Zlabya, which would be more proper if he were, well, a nice Jewish cat. Meanwhile, there's a new rabbi in town, who is young, and smart, and French. Will he steal our rabbi's job -- or our cat's owner -- away?
I won't answer that question for you. If you haven't read the first book, it's worth picking up, and I don't want to spoil its twists and turns. (It's one of my very favorites.) Anyway, book two begins where book one left off.
Part of what makes these books good is the narrative voice offered by the lanky grey cat (in script at the top of this frame):
Majrum is smart, but also lazy. He's fundamentally pleasure-seeking, he's snarky, and he's endlessly curious. In short, he's cat-like. It sounds simple, but that's actually one of the hinges on which the books hang. If Majrum were in any way cutesy or twee, the project would fail. But he isn't. He hunts, he pesters his rabbi, he pines for Zlabya. He's self-centered, except at the rare times when he isn't. Human nature occasionally confuses him, but that's okay; his feline nature occasionally confuses us.
I like these characters a lot, from Rabbi Sfar to his distant cousin who's a Muslim sheikh to Zlabya's bevy of Arabic-named friends. But where these books really shine is in their visuals: the rabbi in his flowing trousers and pillbox kippah, wild-haired Malka with his rifle and his old lion, café scenes featuring Turkish coffee and glasses of anisette, Zlabya's pouty face beneath her riot of curls.
These are not the images I habitually associate with Jewish life. But Sfar does a gorgeous job of teaching me about the Jewish community in Algeria without making me feel like I'm being lectured-to. He doesn't editorialize or explain, just opens the window into that world and lets me peek inside.
Volume two broaches new narrative territory. We learn more about Malka and his lion, and get a taste of local politics. Ultimately the rabbi and cat accompany a very lost young Russian man to a fabled Jewish homeland deep in the heart of Ethiopia. Well, they try to, anyway. The journey isn't quite as simple as the characters might have expected.
These stories tackle some difficult material: insularity, tradition, translation, common ground. And yet they're also subtle and quirky. This volume gives us stories about the rabbi fishing for sea urchins (which he won't eat), cousin Malka's mysterious love life, and the golem in the book crate who came surprisingly to life. This is good stuff.
"He draws faster than his shadow. He comes up with new stories as if he were drinking a glass of water. He talks more than anyone I've ever known. He's extremely talented, extremely funny, extremely smart. I guess this is the description of a genius. And I don't say such things because he's my friend. Joann Sfar is not a rabbi, but he describes better than anyone the religious dilemma with a tenderness, intelligence, and humor. The Rabbi's Cat is a book that everybody should read."
Nu: if my recommendation doesn't carry enough weight, listen to her.
You can read an excerpt from book 2 here at New York magazine; the book's available from Amazon, and presumably also your local comics shop and everywhere else that sells good graphic novels. For more on Sfar, check out his author spotlight page at Pantheon Books, or this NPR story (1 page of text; 8 minutes of audio), which is a couple of years old but still offers good background on Sfar and his work.