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Book Review: The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)

January 17, 2012 7 comments

Jewish girl holding a gray cat.Summary:
The rabbi’s cat gives us a glimpse inside the home world of an Orthodox Rabbi and his young adult daughter in Algeria in the 1930s.  The cat is who we could call the “questioning” member of the family, a fact that isn’t too bothersome until one day he gains the ability to speak.

Review:
I loooove animal perspective books, and the drawing of Zbalya holding the cat on the cover was so adorable that I just had to grab this off the library shelf.  I was not disappointed.

Although I think anyone could enjoy this book, it definitely helps to have a bit of an understanding of how Orthodox Judaism works in order to catch some of the inside jokes.  The first chapter sucks you right in when the cat eats the “forbidden fruit”–the family’s pet parrot.  This renders him with the ability to speak.  Since I don’t have the book right in front of me, I can’t quote, but allow me to paraphrase the first conversation the cat has with the rabbi:

Rabbi: You ate the parrot!

Cat: No, I did not.

Rabbi: You are lying!

Cat: I am not lying, I am questioning. Good Jews question.

Rabbi: You are not a Jew.

Cat: Why not? You’re a Jew, and you are my master.

Rabbi: You are not circumcised.

Cat: I’m a cat. Cats can’t be circumcised.

Rabbi: Fine, but you have not been bar mitzvahed.

Cat: I am only 7.

Rabbi: In cat years that is 49.

Cat: Fine, than bar mitzvah me.

The rabbi agrees to start teaching him the Torah, and the questioning and ridiculousness continues.  It’s completely hilarious.

The cat is everything you imagine a cat to be–snarky, questioning, judgmental, but ultimately wants nothing more than to be held by Zbalya while she studies or sleeps, which leads directly into the second conflict in chapter two–Zbalya gets married and leaves the cat behind in her father’s household.  The final chapter covers a family visit to Paris to meet Zbalya’s husband’s family.

The drawings are rich and quirky.  The cat is not a beautiful cat, but he with his big ears and funky body shape matches the tongue in cheek witticisms of the story.  Algeria and Paris are exquisitely drawn, albeit from a cat-eye perspective.

It’s obvious that Sfar respects Judaism yet questions some of the rigorous rules of Orthodox Judaism.  Among the things the cat questions are Shabbat rules, why he can no longer sleep in his mistress’s room after she is married, why humans are so secretive about sex, why questioning is supposedly welcomed yet it annoys the humans, and why the name of god must not be spoken aloud except in prayer.  Even if you’re not religious, the book does make you wonder just what your pets think about your own habits and belief systems when they’re not purring in your lap.

Overall, this was a fun book with a cool perspective on Orthodox Judaism, Algeria, and Paris.  Although the last chapter wasn’t as strong as the first two, it was still well-worth the read, and I am eagerly anticipating diving into the next entry.

I recommend this to cat lovers and those with a knowledge of Judaism.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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