Once that cat was out of the bag, all hell broke loose. A clever cat with the verbal skills of Socrates and Plato, but lacking the attendant maturity.In Algeria in the 1930s, legend has been passed down that a common street cat belonging to a widowed rabbi and his beautiful daughter, Zlabya, eats the family parrot and miraculously gains the ability to speak. To his master’s consternation, the cat immediately begins to tell lies, such as denying he devoured the bird.However his subsequent indigestion recalls those famous Alka Seltzer antacid commercials, ” I Can’t Believe I Ate the whole thing”, which exposes his mendacious tendencies.
The rabbi attempts to educate him in the ways of the Torah, while the cat negotiates by insisting on studying the kabbalah and having a Bar Mitzvah ( and receiving gifts as well as having a feast in his honor ). The cat, at times, is a perfect mix of the most annoying human traits and the most insupportable cat traits, more Fritz the Cat than Aristocat. But he evolves, albeit slowly and with his share of scrapes and bruises.However, he gives as good as he gets.
They consult the rabbi’s rabbi, who maintains that a cat can’t be Jewish,at least in the technical sense and within the accepted parameters which are essentially legalistic. As Charles Dickens said, ”the law is an ass”. However the cat disagrees with the expert opinion, claiming he has all the human characteristics, for better or worse, as well as a soul, and a passion for music which constitute all the necessary faculties for being accepted and treated as anything but a second class citizen within the community. Poor Rabbi, ”And for this we left Egypt? ”The Rabbi’s Cat has a very quirky story that’s not easy to summarize. The scrawny cat, now brimming with confidence and swank, uses the power of speech to engage his master, in theological and practical issues which sometimes devolve into heated discussions in which both eventually retreat and broker a truce to reflect on each others point of view.
The scenario invites countless opportunities for the rabbi and his cat to grapple with the pertinent and mundane vagaries of life. There is a poetic magic to this legend, but it goes further. The alley cat can also chant and sing, and shows some musical dexterity and potential with stringed instruments, particularly the guitar. He tries to convince his master to teach him the Torah, raising the question of whether the appropriate age for his bar mitzvah should be in human years or cat years. Of course, being a cat, he has plenty of unusual opinions about Judaism. The story becomes a broader, more profound narration about the rabbi’s family and the intersection of Jewish, Arab and French culture. The rabbi’s daughter Zlabya marries a young man from a nonobservant family in France. This story works on many different levels. The main theme of this work is summed up in of the sketches, when the rabbi says, “Blessed are thou, who allows us to transgress.” His message is one of optimism, delivered with humor and humanity.
Remarkably, on a visit to Paris to visit future in-laws the cat stumbled upon an obscure book by Henri Blanquart, called” Les Mysteres de Peuple Juif” which claims, with a certain degree of coherence and plausablity, that Moses, against conventional wisdom, led his unruly flock of stiff-necked followers, to Andalusian Spain instead of the Promised Land, where they settled and eventually built Solomon’s Temple.The cat recounts the story, claiming his musical heritage and skills are based on this lineage and challenges the Rabbi…The Rabbi faces many challenges in navigating his 3000 year monotheistic faith and its traditions, as modern political and economic movements invade. He has spent much of his life studying the holy books and the painstaking commentaries and analysis, which provide answers to many questions from cosmic theology to everyday existence.
However, the Rabbi continually encounters situations his religious education did not prepare him for; from his volubile and irrepressible cat’s unorthodox ideas about Judaism; to his cat’s desire, unprecedented for an animal, to join the Jewish tribe. In the end, the Rabbi faces these dilemmas and difficulties with a mind of his own, in contrast to many others, who either cave in to secularism or passionately throw themselves into hard line, rigorous and usually damaging and repressive religious doctrine. One of the book’s themes is that love and dedication, whether to other people or even to a tradition as legalistic as Judaism’s, may not always mean strict obedience.
The cat is pulled from the pages of French graphic book writer writer Joann Sfar. However, the story is just beginning. The cat, concerned about his mortality in cat years,and being gentically inquisitive and curious, swallows some unusual medicinal mix from an Arab faith healer and is transformed into Algerian musician Enrico Macias, transforming himself into an instant musical prodigy. His eclectic compositions and arrangements are culled from the vast swaths of the mediteranean, Arab North Africa , Persia, The Iberian Peninsula and some Eastern influences.There are unusual instruments, chord progressions and inteplay of tempos and keys with respect to Western musical tradition.Macias was raised in a classical music envirnoment indigenous to the Algerian and North African setting that Sfar illustrates. Enrico Macias has changed little of his style over his career; no effort to appeal to younger listeners, yet the songs are easily identifiable, perhaps due to the polymorphous blend of musical heritage which synthesizes and integrates multiple religious and cultural influences.
Joann Sfar, the graphic novellist with his portrayals of Jewish daily life within a meditreanean context of the pre-modern era, has universal appeal. His ”Chat de Rabbin” series and other looks at this world ;brushes of fate woven into a fabric, a quilt work of diverse beliefs are compelling both in their humorous, yet profound reflections. Changes in life and the disruption of modern political and social movements impact the artistic and cultural life in Sfar’s narrative. The presentation of violence, repression, religion and the underlying undercurrent of fraternity and brotherhood between Moslems and Jews are presented in contexts that are unusual and which bait and hook the reader with elements of the unexpected. This is the animated world from which Enrico Macias springs,the slightly unpredictable ”Cool Cat”, who, forced to leave Algeria in their civil war, recreated a musical vocabulary in his diaspora which blends memoir and fantasy with philosophical musings. Colors, textures and flavors of a time out of mind where Jews and Arabs coexisted.