There was a class, more of a book club really, about Jewish comic books. It was at a St. Paul library, in the Highland Park neighborhood, led by a perfesser named Judith Katz from the University of Minnesota. Every week it was a different book:
Will Eisner’s A Contract with God;
Art Spiegelman’s Maus;
Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer;
Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat.
I won’t say I was the only Paddy there, but -- turnabout is fair play -- I was in the minority. The interesting thing is that I was in another minority. I thought that The Rabbi’s Cat was the least Jewish of the bunch.
Sfar’s characters were the least goyische, orbiting the family of a Sephardic rabbi in pre-war Algeria. We attend two temples, listen to daily prayers, bury a respected elder, and sit down to dinner with Abraham, the titular Rabbi, to “witness the least kosher meal in the universe.” The comic fairly drips with menorahs, Stars of David, and Torahs. Nobody’s going to mistake the characters for Lutherans.
Sfar appears to draw directly, no underdrawing, color coming later, probably some markers or watercolor, but largely digital (a nice cool counterpoint to the red-hot penwork). Sfar says what he does as akin to jazz soloing, and a casual reader might say the art is naive. It isn’t smooth, but it’s very sophisticated. (It would be good to note that Sfar is French, but the lettering in the translation harmonizes with the rest of the art; he seems to have re-lettered this long book in a second language!)
The Cat narrates the story. Cat, Rabbi, and The Rabbi’s twenty-ish -- and dishy -- daughter, Zlabya, live comfortably together. Cat eats parrot; acquires speech. Cat wants Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi’s rabbi says no. Rabbi undertakes Cat’s religious instruction. Cat blasphemes and loses speech. Young rabbi, Jules, comes to town, courts Zlabya. Couple weds against The Cat’s wishes. All four go to Paris to meet Julius’ parents. Rabbi and Zlabya fight. Rabbi sleeps in Catholic church, has very secular adventures, enjoys convivial smoke with very-assimilated fellow father-in-law. Rabbi returns to his congregation, preaches cheerfully perplexed sermon.
There’s a Rabbi’s Cat II, but it isn’t the same. Everybody runs around having adventures, there’s a certain amount of commentary about racism, and it’s a lot of fun. The Rabbi’s Cat is closer to Huckleberry Finn. Two characters in Huckleberry Finn drift aimlessly through a series of comic adventures, but the account manages to show Huck’s growth, as he comes to recognize his companion’s humanity, in spite of conditioning that tells him he will go to “the bad place” for acting on the recognition.
The Cat in Rabbi’s Cat is a conceit for The Rabbi’s turmoil. He solves the problem of a noisy parrot by eating the bird. He scatters the papers on The Rabbi’s desk. At night he prowls the neighborhood, and “teaches” the female cats “a thing or two.” Convinced that one of The Rabbi’s students, a self-important know-it-all, is a hypocrite, The Cat follows him to an Arab brothel. Eager to report, he’s met with “The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ counts malicious gossip as a blood crime” from The Rabbi. The Cat answers, “So?”
When the pair visit The Rabbi’s rabbi about The Cat’s Bar Mitzvah, the older rabbi’s objection shows he’s stiff-necked, and more than a little goofy. While they read by a fountain, having just been evicted from a restricted cafe, they are interrupted by a congregant with an inane question of law (this is where, I think, The Rabbi goes, "Who cares, but..."). The Rabbi’s best friends are a desert will-o-the-wisp cousin who is a law unto himself, and a sheikh who may be another cousin, and the wisest character in the book. Zlabya and Julius ask Abraham’s permission to marry, and he wants to forbid it, but knows he can’t. The Rabbi mopes around the garden, but The Cat, now silent, goes off on a silent rant about mortality, as though Abraham could forestall decay and death by withholding consent.
Abraham is any man of sixty, losing the child who always and only belonged to herself, and confronting the limits of the philosophy by which he has steered his life. The events in the story are the occasion for his doubts’ and insecurities’ becoming inescapable. Mortality and tautology are part of the human condition. You have to be particular to show the universal. Sfar gives us the universal in spades.