Sfar’s graphic novel ends series

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Joann Sfar, the French Jewish graphic novelist, considered one of Europe’s most gifted comic artists and storytellers, was the featured author, with focus on his acclaimed book The Rabbi’s Cat, as the fifth and final installment in a series of talks and discussions of the works of Jewish graphic novelists, which was hosted at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, and led by Professor Warren Rosenblum of Webster University.

The Rabbi’s Cat, described as “pure magic” by the San Francisco Chronicle’s book reviewer, was a uniquely different example of Jewish graphic novels in the series, which was titled, “Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novels.” The series included discussions of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, which realistically details life in a Jewish tenement in New York City in the 1930s; Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, by Ben Katchor, a quirky, Kafka-esque memoir of Jewish urban life in the 1950s; Maus, by the controversial and provocative Art Spiegelman, a two-volume retelling of the artist’s father’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps; The Quitter, by Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame, a Sad Sack-style retelling of his trials and tribulations of growing up as a pugilistic Jewish under-achiever in Cleveland and his later career as a successful graphic novelist.

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“In contrast to the other graphic novels in our series, which were all in black-and-white, The Rabbi’s Cat is in splashy and vivid colors,” Rosenblum pointed out. “Each of the first four graphic novelists we studied were Americans; Joann Sfar is French. In addition to the splashy colors, Sfar’s artwork is not avant garde, and is arranged in two columns and three rows of panels. There is a narrator’s voice in addition to the dialogue and thought balloons,” Rosenblum continued.

Rosenblum added, “Sfar’s work is brilliant, and truly novelistic, and it is laugh-out-loud funny. He is brilliant, much like Woody Allen, in combining madcap humor with deep philosophical and religious discussions. Sfar also draws his figures fresh each time, so that there are differences among the characters in the panels. He is also a big fan of jazz, and much of the action can be described as cinematic, with frequent changes in the action.”

Some participants in the discussion saw similarities between Joann Sfar’s work and the “magic realist” school of Latin American writers, like Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcua Marquez, and the Cuban-born Italian Italo Calvino, in which off-the-wall, fantastic “impossible” events occur within a here-and-now mundane situation. The story begins in Algeria in the 1930s, where a cat belonging to a widowed rabbi and his beautiful daughter Zlabya, eats the family’s pet parrot and gains the ability to speak. The cat immediately begins to tell lies, prompting the rabbi to bring him to his “rabbi’s rabbi” to learn the ways of the Torah and truth-telling. The rabbi’s rabbi tells the cat that cats can’t be Jewish, but the cat, who is modeled after the author’s own thin-faced pet, insists upon studying not only the Torah but Kaballah and having a bar mitzvah. When the rabbi’s daiughter falls in love with a young rabbi from Paris, her father and the cat follow her to Paris to meet Zlabya’s worldy, assimilated new in-laws.

Rosenblum pointed out that The Rabbi’s Cat also differs from the previous Jewish graphic novels in that it focuses on a Sephardic rather than Ashkenazic group of characters. “There is a tendency among Ashkenazic Jews to romanticize Sephardic Jews, that somehow they are more ‘authentic’ in their observances. There was also a period of time when Jews under Arab and Muslim rule were relatively better treated than they were in Christian-run societies.”

Rosenblum added that Sfar’s use of vivid colors and lively drawings gives his work a “sumptuous, erotic feeling; the beautiful daughter, and the aromatic foods and spices of the Sephardic Jewish culture can be felt in the book.” Rosenblum pointed out that the novel brings together Sephardic Jews, with roots in Spain, Portugal and North Africa, with the Central European Ashkenazic Jews. “The Ashkenazic Jews of France were under much more pressure to assimilate to French and European customs. The Sephardic Jews, some of them with roots going back to the days of the Second Temple also could remember when Jews were ‘tough’ as symbolized by the character Malka, who shows up with his pet Lion.”

The character Zlabya, the daughter, comes to symbolize the once-respectful rabbi’s child, who becomes seduced by the material luxuries of Paris, and comes to think more about buying fancy clothes and jewels than remaining true to her Jewish roots. Meanwhile, the rabbi becomes increasingly confused and conflicted as he tries to balance his own sense of Jewish tradition with the pressures of adjusting to the assimilationist tendencies of Ashkenazic French Jewry. “By the end of the book,” Rosenblum says, “the rabbi comes to terms with his new setting and struggles to balance tradition and modernism.” One participant in the group discussion compared the rabbi to Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, who constantly must modify his loyalty to “tradition” as each of his daughters moves farther and farther away from them and into a more “modern” way of loving and living.

The series on Jewish graphic novelists and their work was offered not only at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library led by Prof. Warren Rosenblum, but also a similar series on some of the same authors, led by local poet Michael Castro at the University City Public Library, part of a national program on “Jewish Literature: Identity and Imagination,” sponsored and presented by Nextbooks and the American Library Association.

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