The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon)

We’ve all wondered if the intelligent eyes of a cat are capable of picking up on the subtleties of human interaction. Here, the cat adores the rabbi, but questions his impractical service to the Shabbat laws.

 

 

The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon Books;
142 pgs fc; $21.95) (w/a: Joann Sfar)

In Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat, a cat annoyed with a squawking parrot eats him and miraculously acquires the power to speak. But this cat does more than ask for a bowl of milk in the Queen’s English—he engages a rabbi in Talmudic arguments over the divine.

“He [the rabbi] tells me that the Greeks believed the dog to be the epitome of the philosophical animal. The dog—not the cat. I reply that the Greeks destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem,” says the cat, “and if a rabbi ends up calling on them for help it means that he’s run out of arguments.”

The story, told from the cat’s point of view, follows the cat, the rabbi, and his moony daughter in 1930s Algeria, against a backdrop of intricate rugs, family hookahs, stone streets, and casbahs. When the cat isn’t trying to convince the rabbi that he’s ready for a feline bar mitzvah, he’s pining for the rabbi’s comely daughter, swept away by a dashing Parisian Jew.

Sfar, an author/illustrator of more than 100 comics and children’s books, has fun with the big-eyed, spindly, “wedge-head” cat. The unnamed pet is alternately goofy and clever, and Sfar draws his adventure with a loose, childlike style reminiscent of comics by Richard Sala—it’s enchanting.

The tale manages to open up some larger issues, too. We’ve all wondered if the intelligent eyes of a cat are capable of picking up on the subtleties of human interaction. Here, the cat adores the rabbi, but questions his impractical service to the Shabbat laws. In turn, the rabbi celebrates God, but, when his daughter leaves cozy Algeria for the daunting metropolis of Paris, has to question the Lord’s plan. The ways of the shepherd are a mystery to the sheep. When a simon-pure yeshiva student sneaks off to the Arab quarter to visit a prostitute, the cat muses on the hypocrisy of man. It’s Animal Farm in Algeria. Insight into squabbles between traditional and assimilated Jews, Jews and Arabs, and Algerians and Frenchmen peppers the action, as well.

When the cat loses his power to speak, the story does lose some steam. The final act of this three-part tale meanders, and ends on an anticlimax. Still, The Rabbi’s Cat has the sort of elusive charm that scores with child and adult readers, alike. Cats, too.

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