Geography, Identity, and Anxiety of Loss: Jewishness in Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat

With its winding plotline, unique artistic style, and distinct characters, The Rabbi’s Cat is not the average comic book. The story follows the lives of a rabbi, a rabbi’s cat, and a rabbi’s daughter. But in actuality, the novel chronicles a much larger narrative, transcending above the individual realm into the philosophical, historical, and universal. Rooted in a specific time and place—Algeria and Paris in the 1930’s—The Rabbi’s Cat encapsulates an entire Jewish world of the past and simultaneously questions and explores the very essence (or lack thereof) of Jewishness in the present. A close investigation into the narration, artwork, characters, and plot will shed light on the novel’s impactful claims about the fluidity of Jewish history and identity. Through an emphasis on geography, a continual variation of artistic style, and the diversity of Jewish characters, Sfar paints a picture of Jewishness characterized by historical environment, internal difference and exclusion, and impending cultural loss.

Sfar captures the contours of a certain historical moment in Algerian Jewish culture. He achieves this by endowing geography with significant agency. The power of time and place in The Rabbi’s Cat reveals the author’s deeper convictions about Jewishness. In her essay “Borderlands,” Marla Harris writes, “Jewish identity for Sfar is not unchanging and ahistorical, but is shaped by specific social, political, and geographical environments” (183). This understanding is evident in many moments in the novel. On page 16, the rabbi’s cat asks the rabbi’s rabbi for a Jewish conversion. On this page alone, readers see the cat from five different perspectives—from behind him, in front of him, under him, next to him, and from far away. In each of these panels, the image of the city outside of the window is more and more highlighted. The building seen through the window is a reddish color with a grid-like pattern. The pattern is reflected onto the trunk the cat sits upon in the top left frame, and it almost completely covers the panel in the bottom left, in which the rabbi tells the cat that his “love of God isn’t sincere” (16). In this way, the cat’s physical environment literally surrounds him. The next panel, on the bottom right of the page, breaks away from the previous scenery. Suddenly, readers see a panoramic view of the greater city, with a clothesline, a mosque, perhaps a synagogue, homes on a hill, and a wide, blue sky. The cat, narrating, tells us, “I never said anything about love of God” (16). This statement of disbelief in God is what eventually prevents the cat from conversion. But with such an important statement, the reader does not even see the cat’s face. Rather, we see his city. In this crucial moment, the climax in this discussion of faith, geography moves from the story’s background to its foreground. This page illustrates Sfar’s understanding that one’s most intimate beliefs and identities are shaped by the geographical environment.

This phenomenon appears again on page 39. The cat follows one of the rabbi’s disciples and mocks him for suppressing his sexuality. Surrounding the disciple are other city dwellers of all different nationalities and religions—Muslims, monks, Frenchmen, and more. The French flag waves in the sky in the top right panel, just above the disciple’s head, marking the scene’s position in history amid the French occupation of Algeria. The flag serves as a reminder of the French’s looming domination over the heterogeneous community of Algeria. Like the previous example, the last panel on page 39 leaves the specific disciple and zooms out to exhibit the entire city, its port, and its natural landscape, even though the narration says nothing of Algeria explicitly. From this, readers learn that the disciple, an observant Jew with strict theology and much repressed sexual desire, has become who he is because of his geography and the historical moment surrounding him. The diversity of the population, the religious tradition, the French colonization, the palm trees, and the sea create a confluence of cultures locked in time and place. By bestowing agency in geography, Sfar demonstrates how a cultural world shapes even the most personal contours of individual identity.

The role of geography is essential in the book’s juxtaposition between Algeria and Paris. On page 101, Sfar depicts a warm, bright, colorful, detailed Algeria. When the reader flips the page, we see a rainy, cold, grey, flat Paris. The lines are harsher, the drawings more haphazard, and the environment less detailed. In the middle right panel, Jules the Parisian says, “Look, the Seine River,” but the scribbled, colorless background obstructs the readers’ view of the water (101). The flatness of the gridded Paris sharply contrasts with the elevated and winding city in Algeria. In the span of these three pages, the rabbi and his family travel in three types of vehicles: boat, train, and car. This extensive travel, in addition to the stark contrast between the two locations, positions France on the margins of the book’s cultural world. In France, though, North African Jewry is considered marginal, as the rabbi’s performer cousin Rebibo in Paris says, “Playing a North African Jew doesn’t work, people aren’t interested, it’s too complicated for them” (122). France is the conqueror, and the Algerians are merely the colonized. But Sfar does not follow this prescribed Western binary. Instead, he privileges the unheard voices, perspectives, and experiences of the rabbi’s cultural world. By portraying Paris as a distant, unfamiliar, and unwelcome location, Sfar positions Algerian Jewish culture in the narrative’s center stage. Through the book’s representation of geography, the readers inhabit the cultural world of Algerian Jewry in the 1930’s.

While Sfar demonstrates the effect of geography and history on identity, his artistic depictions of characters illustrate the fluidity of his conception of selfhood. This notion is articulated by the characters’ constant variation in appearance. No character is drawn in the exact same way throughout the book. The shading, detail, proportions, expressions, sizes, colors, and textures of the characters consistently shift, change, and evolve. Harris explains, “These variations and distortions underline the extent to which identity is not fixed like a portrait or photograph; they also capture the characters’ subjective states of mind” (192). On page 46, for example, the rabbi’s cat takes on five different appearances. In the top left panel, the cat has a small head, with textured, detailed shading. In the next image, his ears and legs are longer, his eyes bulge out, and his color is drawn much flatter. Then he is red, almost completely shaded with thick lines, amounting to an impressive realism. The final two images are completely the opposite—cartoonish, unshaded, disproportionate, and seemingly haphazard. In these panels, the cat expresses his contradictory feelings: “Here I am feeling sympathy for a human who kicks me. As long as I thought him unyielding and virtuous, I hated him. Now that I know him to be two- faced and hypocritical … I love him” (46). This moment captures the mercurial nature of the cat’s personality. He can be both sympathetic and self-centered, loving and judgmental, loyal and untrustworthy. Such contradictions and inconsistencies are present in all of Sfar’s main characters. Sfar’s insistence on variety and fluidity in the characters’ appearances conveys this idea that an individual’s identity is not static, uniform, or fixed.

But The Rabbi’s Cat extends beyond the realm of individual identity. Sfar articulates that such fluidity and variability of identity are intrinsic components of Jewishness. In less than 150 pages, Sfar introduces a wide variety of Jews. The rabbi is an observant Sephardic Jew who deeply values faith in Scripture and God. Zlabya is a young Jewess, deeply embedded in Algerian Jewish culture and simultaneously absorbed with Western literature and scholarship. Jules’ family comes from Algeria and assimilates to French culture, and he becomes a rabbi in the West who emigrates back to the East. Malka is a masculine, aggressive, legendary Jew. The rabbi’s rabbi, the disciples, Raymond Rebibo, and Jules’ father all characterize vastly different Jews with different backgrounds, beliefs, and goals. There is not one manifestation of a “correct” Judaism. In fact, Sfar warns against the dangers of attempting to homogenize Jewishness, which can only be based on exclusion and imbalanced power. The rabbi’s rabbi prevents the rabbi’s cat from having a bar mitzvah because of his tendency to question Scripture. Jules argues that his mourning customs are better than the rabbi’s, even though they are practically the same. The French theater rejects authentic North African Jewish music, calling it “Arab shit” (131). The rabbi worries about an Ashkenazi Jew replacing his position, resorting to anti-Semitic stereotypes as he complains, “He’ll have horrible features like freckles and Polish teeth. He’ll smell like a corpse” (71). Harris expounds on these moments, “Sfar both mocks anti-Semitism and criticizes those Jews who act like religious gatekeepers, expelling and excluding, making judgments about who is and who is not a (good) Jew” (183). The Rabbi’s Cat connects this gatekeeping to the colonial domination of French Jewry over Algerian Jewry. The French Jews take on a hegemonic role over the East, deciding on Algeria’s Judaism by forcing rabbis to pass French dictation tests. In all of these incidents, certain forms of Jewishness are elevated, while others are belittled. By cramming so many different types of Jews into one graphic novel, Sfar equalizes these variant Judaisms, ultimately revealing the harm and futility in identifying and enforcing any singular manifestation of “true” Jewishness.

Another distinct component of Judaism articulated by The Rabbi’s Cat is an anxiety of loss, which proves to be the consequence of excluding diverse modes of Jewish identity. Through symbolism, Sfar demonstrates how the loss of Algerian Jewish culture materializes through colonial hegemony and an insistence on the uniformity of identity. Starting on page 29, the rabbi’s cat describes a dream. In his dream, the rabbi tells him that Zlabya is dead. Water rises in the image, ultimately enveloping the cat, the rabbi, and the entire world they live in. Of course, this dream foreshadows both the rabbi and the cat’s emotions when Zlabya marries Jules, a French Jew, and moves away from home. To better comprehend the dream, we must understand Zlabya as a symbol for the cultural world of Algerian Jews in the 1930’s. In this dream, that culture is dead. Zlabya is not at her piano, in her kitchen, or reading her books, which are all locations of cultural creation (33). Now, the rabbi’s faith is meaningless, as he says, “Don’t give me that garbage, I know it only too well” (30). In the bottom left panel on page 31, the rabbi lumbers through a diminished, small, empty, and colorless city—the Algeria that once shaped his entire identity. The final two images of the dream are narrated: “She is in her tomb. And we’re not allowed go inside” (33). This scene of exclusion echoes other moments in the book when certain forms of Judaism are rejected, like when the rabbi’s rabbi will not convert the rabbi’s cat. This parallel is furthered by that rabbi’s comment that the cat “should be drowned,” since the dream scene takes place under water (14). Another similar exclusionary episode occurs when Zlabya is in her bedroom with her new husband, Jules. She throws the cat across the room and slams the door in his face. Just like in her tomb in the dream, Zlabya is sealed off and inaccessible. These comparable moments articulate the true threat posed by excluding diverse Jewish identities—the loss of an entire Jewish cultural world.

If Zlabya represents the diverse Algerian Jewish culture, shaped by historical geography, that the rabbi has known and nourished all his life, then her marriage to Jules represents this culture fading away. This notion is furthered in Sfar’s depiction of geography. First, the detailed and colorful world of Algeria becomes messy, broken, abstract, and almost entirely disintegrated in the background of the panels on pages 92 and 93, when the cat narrates his anxiety about Zlabya’s marriage to Jules. With each close up of the rabbi’s cat, both the background and the cat’s appearance increasingly lose form. Connecting this to the symbolism of geography and physical appearance discussed before, it is clear that in these pages, the cat’s cultural world and his familiar individual identity are melting away. Much of the rabbi’s cat’s underwater dream is also echoed in the geography of Paris. In fact, on page 104 in the middle left panel, the heavy rain skews the figures, so they appear to be drowning underwater as well. Paris is depicted as grey, wet, and cold, imitating the muted colors underwater in the dream. Throughout these scenes, Zlabya’s bright red clothing serves as a symbol of their lasting Algerian culture, but even this fades away. On page 107, all of the characters, including Zlabya, are completely grey, as if they have absorbed the geography surrounding them. This occurs only when the rabbi decides to leave Zlabya, who says “Let him go” (107). Indeed, Zlabya feels anxious about her cultural difference from Jules and his family, so she purchases Parisian clothing on Shabbat, representing the East’s gradual adoption of Western Jewish culture under colonial pressure.

The rabbi’s anxiety about the loss of his culture is made clear on page 106 in the middle left panel. Here, the rabbi says, “Chas ve’shalom! My daughter, you’re bringing me to the home of people who don’t fear God” (106). The rabbi worries about this unfamiliar Parisian Judaism, the same Judaism that controls Algerian Jewishness through its cultural colonialism and French dictation tests. His body is literally split into two, with two heads and two hands. The “other” rabbi, on the right side, says to Jules, “Yes” in response to his reassurance that the food will be kosher (106). The same tension of this split between two cultures is embodied in the geography surrounding the rabbi. In the background, the left side floats small French letters, and the right side floats larger, more prominent Hebrew letters. It is as if the French letters, which the rabbi was forced to learn for his dictation test, are encroaching upon the Hebrew letters of his native Jewishness. Such a symbolic scene captures the deep, confusing anxiety about the loss of Algerian Jewish culture that the rabbi internalizes and that Sfar literally inscribes into Paris.

At the end of the novel, the rabbi and his cat return to their Algerian synagogue, surrounding by the Jewishness they know and love. As the legacy of his journey in Paris, the rabbi begins to question his indigenous Judaism, asking, “So, my friend, if we can be happy without respecting the Torah, why should we exhaust ourselves to apply all these precepts that make like so complicated?” (142) With this ending, Sfar reminds us of the fluidity of Jewishness with the intermingling of various traditions and geography. But on a more somber level, Sfar foreshadows the ultimate loss of the unique world of Algerian Jewry that he so colorfully captures in the novel. In the face of Western hegemony, cultural colonialism, and exclusive Jewish “gatekeepers,” the Algerian Jewishness of the 1930’s, shaped by its specific place and time in history and geography, faces an anxiety of extinction that, as readers look back upon knowingly, eventually materialized. But in addition to this memorial of a lost Jewish world of the past, The Rabbi’s Cat offers deep reflection upon the contours of Jewishness in the present. As Jews, we may turn to ourselves and know that we, too, take on various shapes, personalities, and identities. We, too, are shaped by the history and geography around us. And we, too, must encourage inclusion and diversity among us, lest we, too, become exclusionary. With this mindset, perhaps the cultural worlds we know and love will be rid of any anxiety of loss and will instead continue to flourish in colorful, variable, and diverse modes of Jewishness.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Jewish Graphic Novel with Professor Barbara Mann at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Harris, Marla. “Borderland.” The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches. By Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2008. Print.

Sfar, Joann. The Rabbi’s Cat. New York: Pantheon, 2005. Print.

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About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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