The Rabbi's Cat
by Joann Sfar (Pantheon, 2005)

It isn't until you get to the end of this intriguing tale that you realize just what exactly the point was: that listening is indeed learning and that it's perfectly all right to admit to what we don't know. The story is about moving from certainty to uncertainty to the graceful humility of ignorance. Change is unsettling but ultimately good, and to embrace change is to look the tiger or the cat right in the eye. All it can do is make us a better person. What Y-hw-h most requires, is a little humility.

Writer Joann Sfar has published over 100 books in France, only a few of which have made it here. He is mostly known in the U.S. for his Little Vampire series. His drawing style is reminiscent of Jill Thompson's, whose allergy to rules and straight lines have made for some of the most cheerfully inventive comics the medium has ever seen.

The story takes place in Algeria in the 1930s when the country was under French rule. After eating his master the rabbi's annoying parakeet, the unnamed cat magically gains the power of speech and, being a rabbi's cat, immediately requests a bar mitzvah. He demands equal treatment in the eyes of Y-hw-h. He wants what he wants because he is a cat and no one who has a cat can fail to understand how self-involved he is because self-absorption is the birthright of every feline in g-d's green earth.

Each chapter of this delightfully sublime and inventive tale deals with an aspect of faith. The first chapter is a battle between the secular and the sacred: the secular cat who wants sacred knowledge without work or commitment, and the rabbi who wants loyalty as proof (Who would ever take a cat's word for anything?) of faith. The next chapter focuses on faith as a family trait: the rabbi's beautiful daughter decides to marry. The rabbi is now a confused man trying to balance the loss of his daughter against the loss of tradition, in which his travels from home to a confusing new world remain a potent metaphor. The last chapter deals with diaspora, exodus and a return to the state of unknowing that may represent our most honest relationship with g-d, who at the end of the day truly does work in mysterious ways, and maybe all we can do is just enjoy being a little off kilter, a little in the dark, about what it all really means.

The Rabbi's Cat is the quintessential Jewish folk tale: there is a connection to holidays and the tropes of Jewish existence, such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and the marriage of Rabbi Abraham's daughter to a young man who wants to become a rabbi; the lead hero of the tale is a rabbi, a frequent hero in Jewish tales (the other most common hero being the prophet Elijah); and much of the action takes place in Jewish places or places symbolic to Judaism, such as the synagogue or even a Christian church, a desert or the banks of a river; and the story of course contains strong messages about duty.

More importantly, The Rabbi's Cat is a prima facie example of Jewish irony. As the argument between the cat and the rabbi proves, the teachings of the Talmud can be taken to an extreme that lends itself to satire. The isolated and insular communities of Jews in the European communities in which they lived helped to foster the use of humor as self-criticism. In Algeria during the period in which the story is set, there is much hardship and suffering, the burden of which is alleviated if one is able to find something to laugh at. Sfar is an expert at capturing the full range of human emotions and the reasons they exist, all of it told with witty insight.

While definitely in the realm of magical realism, The Rabbi's Cat is still quite original, not to mention respectful, elegant, beautiful and creative. A cat, arguing with a rabbi, about the need to study for a bar mitzvah, and then winning the argument? Believable. Very. And it's the scene that describes this whole book: by being erudite but refusing to commit to an outcome or a fixed ideology, you can take the greatest chance of your life. Do we need to worry about who or what God is, or whether or not there is Kingdom of Heaven? Perhaps, as Phillip Pullman mused in the His Dark Materials trilogy, heaven isn't a kingdom as much as a republic, and one that exists on Earth, right here, right now, in our hearts. After all, what matters most is not material.

review by
Mary Harvey

29 November 2008

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