What single gift could you have offered this Hanukkah that would have brought equal pleasure to:
1) your Talmud chavrusa
2) your spouse; and
3) your buddy, the Greek Orthodox monk from California, whose black robes make a Lubavitcher Hasid look — lehavdil — as snazzy as a hipster in a zoot-suit?
Obviously, my answer will come too late to have done you any good. But, since you asked, this year I gambled on The Rabbi’s Cat, a “graphic novel” (that is, comic strip) penned by the young French-Algerian-Jewish comix artist Joann Sfar. The “graphic novel,” of course, is the new genre of literature that seems to be taking the literary world by storm in the wake of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust parable, Maus. But I had never even heard of Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat until I stumbled upon some copies at the HUB Bookstore one morning while cruising for a Snickers on my way to work.
Intrigued, I opened and began to read, totally drawn into the intricate religious musings of the house pet of a traditional Algerian rabbi, until I’d completed the first tale — of a self-righteous, unforgiving yeshiva student, cruel to both people and animals (especially a certain cat), whom the cat spies entering a house of ill-repute in the Muslim quarter of town.
As the cat confesses to finally liking this “jerk” (as he calls him), having discovered an endearing all-too-human weakness behind the façade of rigid piety, the young man emerges from the Garden of Hidden Delights, sees our cat, and delivers him a hearty kick in the behind that sends him into the next and final frame of the story.
There are two more “novels” in this collection, the contents of which I’ll not disclose. But on the strength of this first story, I bought three copies, one for each person close to me in the way that only one’s chavrusa, one’s wife, or one’s personal monastic confidante can be. I trust that each will find in this rich book the message that is waiting for them in particular!
I contemplated gifting one to my own rabbi’s wife, but thought better of it. There is one unfortunate frame in which the “F word” appears in the cat’s reflections on the superiority of feline carnality over the human variety. I decided that, while the rebbetzin — worldly in her piety — had no doubt seen this word in print and may even have heard it uttered, it was not up to me to bring it to her attention by means of a Hanukkah present!
Fortunately, I had no such reservations concerning my chavrusa, my wife, or my monk — from each of whom I have — halila! — heard much worse! Each has received his or her gift by the time you read this. And I’m eagerly awaiting the inevitable reviews.
What does The Rabbi’s Cat offer readers of this esteemed biweekly? Well, in the first place, for the parochial Ashkenazim among us (and is not the conjunction of “Ashkenazi” and “parochial” already a redundancy?), The Rabbi’s Cat draws us into the world of Sephardic North Africa more richly than 100 coffee-table books or even three Stroum Lectures by Aron Rodrigue. Within seven pages we are laughing knowingly at Arabic oaths we never heard (“Yala al moussi ba!”) and, by the third tale, we are savoring the subtleties of intra-ethnic tensions (between “modern” Jews from France and “traditional” Algerian Jews) to which our Ashkenazic memories of Yekkes and Galitzianers in Manhattan have only the most general approximations.
Secondly, Sfar’s novel addresses one of the grand themes of modern Jewish literature and thought — the puzzle of balancing tradition and change — in an utterly fresh idiom. The Rabbi’s Cat, through the voice of a house pet who learns to speak by consuming the family parrot and lying about it in his first sentence, pokes brilliant fun at religious authorities who try to use religious tradition, in subtle and unsubtle forms of deception, as a tool of power and manipulation.
This cat, you see, wants a Bar Mitzvah. I dare you to read his argument with the rabbi’s own rabbi over the fitness of a cat to become a Jew. Can you not fall on the floor in a breathless faint, as Cat deconstructs the rabbi’s rabbi’s halachic dicta, including a final appeal to Greek philosophy, to support the view that even a dog is more fit to become a Jew than a cat? Reports Cat: “I reply that the Greeks destroyed the Temple…, and if a rabbi ends up calling on them for help, it means he’s run out of arguments.”
Finally, for those who ponder the possibility of Arab-Jewish co-existence, let me recommend the dispute between the rabbi’s Cat and the Sufi Sheik’s Donkey. How the four — rabbi, sheikh, Donkey and Cat — happen to join up on this pilgrimage to the grave of a common miracle-working ancestor is a story in itself. But, discovering that rabbi and sheik share a common family name, Sfar, the dialogue between Cat and his new friend grows heated:
Cat: Wait, an Arab is called Sfar?
Donkey: Yes, Sfar’s an Arab name.
Cat: Are you kidding? Sfar comes from “Sofer,” which means “to write” in Hebrew. Sfar is a Jewish name.
Donkey: You ass, Sfar comes from “yellow” in Arabic. It evokes the sulfur flower used by coppersmiths. Sfar’s Arab through and through. Besides, we’re going to the grave of Messaoud Sfar, our ancestor.
Cat: That’s where we’re going, too!
Donkey: Messaoud Sfar was a great Sufi saint!
Cat: No way! Messaoud Sfar was a rabbi!
This dispute is itself unresolved at the level of Cat and Donkey. Rather, we are left to assume that, whoever Messaoud Sfar was, there is enough of his sanctity to spread around to all of his Jewish and Muslim descendants — who should figure it out, already!
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.