Like so many cats that arrive on a doorstep and choose their owner, Le Chat du rabbin found me. I can’t explain why I was loitering in the bandes dessinées section of a students’ bookshop on the boulevard St Michel – maybe it was raining outside. I picked up Le Chat du rabbin and that was it: the coup de foudre. Only after a patrolling bookshop assistant tapped me on the shoulder some time later did I snap out of the Jewish quarter of Algiers nearly a century ago, where a talking cat lives with a rabbi and his daughter.
I coveted the rabbi’s cat as my personal discovery. Five years later, far from it: the cat’s adventures have been translated into English (though to my mind they read better in French), Hebrew and Spanish, and he is soon to star in his own animated movie. Joann Sfar, his prodigiously gifted creator, is the author of at least three dozen other cartoon books; and this summer his first film went on general release, a fanciful life of Serge Gainsbourg in which the French-Jewish singer-songwriter has a tall, thin alter ego with cartoon head and spidery fingers, and a fluffy black cat appears briefly as Juliette Greco’s maid.
‘It’s very difficult for me not to be Jewish so I don’t even try,’ Sfar said, interviewed about Gainsbourg. His family background is both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, his maternal grandfather having emigrated to France from Ukraine, his father from Algeria. Sfar was born in 1971; his mother died when he was 3. A recent photo shows him with cropped hair, dressed like a biker; but in an earlier portrait a sleeker Sfar sits in a striped suit, on his lap a grey cat with mad eyes, Doppelgänger of the rabbi’s cat.
The five Chat du rabbin graphic novels are adult fables set in the vanished pre-war Levantine world where Sfar’s father was born, where Jews and Arabs co-existed in townships of flat-roofed houses spilling down to the Mediterranean
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