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Comic Book / The Rabbi's Cat

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The Rabbi's Cat (Le chat du rabbin) is a French comic book by Joann Sfar set largely in 1920s Algiers.

Its protagonist, the titular nameless cat, is owned by Rabbi Abraham Sfar and his daughter Zlabya, whom he loves unconditionally. One day, annoyed by the constant squacking of the Rabbi's parrot, the cat pounces and eats it, discovering soon afterwards that he now knows how to talk. The Rabbi is alarmed by this not so much because his cat now talks, but that the first thing the cat uses his new-found skills to do is to lie (about eating the parrot). The cat (despite being an atheist) also wants to convert to Judaism (something the rabbi and his rabbi are dubious about, given both the fact that the cat is a cat and his lack of reverence for the divine). The rest of the story involves the adventures of the cat, Rabbi Sfar, and Zlabya around Algiers, as well as a trip to Paris and (in the second volume collected in the US) a quest across Africa to discover a possibly mythical city of black Jews in Ethiopia called Jerusalem.

It was adapted into an animated film released by GKids in 2011. You can find the trailer on YouTube

This work provides examples of:

  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Averted almost completely. Rabbi Sfar, Zlabya, and the Jewish community of Algiers are Mizrahi, and regard Ashkenazi Jews as puzzling creatures they barely comprehend.
    • However, this trope is demonstrated in-universe when the rabbi's nephew El Rebibo, a musical performer, has to dress up as an Arab to get any work, as to the French Jews are only from Poland.
    • The second volume introduces us to one singular Ashkenazi Jew, a Russian painter who smuggles himself to Africa in a box of prayer books, whose customs and language are portrayed as very odd to the local Sephardic Jews. The second half of the second volume also details efforts by the main characters to discover a hidden community of Ethiopian Jews. The actual community of Ethiopian Jews are mentioned and very briefly encountered during the quest for the lost city.
    • Birkat Hacohanim, a side character who apparently does nothing but pester rabbi Abraham, asks if ever he eats alongside an Ashkenazi (who must wait five hours to drink milk after eating meat, rather than three for the Sephardic) and feels like drinking milk four hours later, if he can or if he should wait another hour out of respect for the Sephardic's traditions.
      Rabbi Sfar: Do you know any Ashkenazi, Birkat Hacohanim?
      Birkat: No.
      Rabbi Sfar: So why are you asking?
  • Animals Lack Attributes: Averted. The cat is usually drawn with visible testicles, and he wonders briefly if he ought to be circumcised to become a proper Jew.
  • Art Shift: The movie does this a few times, first when the cat describes his dreams (particularly the one where he and the rabbi hit the Despair Event Horizon over Zlabya's death, and later when he, the painter, and the waitress reach Jerusalem. This gives the sequence a surreal feel which, along with the pink elephants, suggests it might be entirely imaginary.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The residents of Jerusalem reject the painter as a fellow Jew and tell him to leave immediately. However, the comic ends with him being comforted in the arms of his new wife.
  • Blood Knight: Vastenov who lives for combat.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The snake, who views its offer of poisoning the lion, Malka, and Malka's wife as a gift to end the pain of their old age.
  • The Casanova: Subverted with Malka who has this reputation and cultivates it as part of his legend but is actually happily married.
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: The painter is a romantic artist in Russian or Yiddish, but speaks in very broken French. The waitress finds this adorable, primarily because he isn't doing this to condescend to her as a black woman, as most other white people do.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The Rabbi's Rabbi, a thoroughly unpleasant man who advocates drowning the Cat and views the Painter with deep suspicion, chides Abraham for his (mild) casual racism.
  • The Fundamentalist:
    • A Muslim tribe which the adventurers go to to heal the cat, who's been stung by a scorpion, particularly their marabou. Sheikh Sfar, himself a devout Muslim, views them with contempt for their unbending orthodoxy.
    • On the Jewish side we have the rabbi's rabbi, who the cat thinks is an idiot who doesn't know what he's talking about.
  • Good Is Not Nice: The cat is a subversion, as he is nice (at least to Rabbi Sfar and Zlabya), but not good.
    "I'm loving but I'm not kind."
  • Hidden Elf Village: Jerusalem (not that one), an isolated city of Ethiopian Jews who have been out of contact with the Jewish world for centuries.
  • Historical Domain Character: Father Lambert, Mayor of Oran and an anti-Semitic demagogue.
  • Honor Before Reason: How Vastenov ends up getting killed.
  • Innocent Bigot: Rabbi Sfar dismisses the possibility of black Jews, and is called out for it. To his credit, he accepts their existence without protest when he finally encounters them, and never treats the Waitress as anything but an equal.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • The Russian painter points out to Vastenov that he's not as self-centered as he'd like to pretend he is.
    • The cat as well in some situations.
  • Magical Realism: A talking cat and a talking/singing donkey in an otherwise normal world.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage:
    • The Rabbi is initially resistant to marrying the Russian painter and the waitress, because she isn't Jewish and he doesn't feel comfortable converting her on the spot (in Judaism, it generally takes a year or more of study to convert someone). He eventually gives in, however.
    • He also is alarmed when El Rebibo tells him that his girlfriend is Catholic, and relieved when Rebibo admits that he's unlikely to marry her.
  • Meaningful Name: The two Sfar holy men, Abraham and Mohammed, are named for the fathers of their respective religions. The cat, an atheist at heart, remains nameless.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: El Rebibo is madly in love with a singer, but is frustrated by the fact that she apparently sleeps with half the artistic community of Paris, and muses darkly that he may eventually kill himself over it
  • No Name Given:
    • The cat doesn't have a name, although after being healed from a scorpion sting the rabbi offers to name him after the healer (which gravely offends the man).
    • The rabbi's rabbi is either referred to with that title or (in the second volume) as "The Kabbalist." The Russian painter and the African waitress that he marries also don't get a name.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film cuts out pretty much everything involving Zlabya's husband, including the trip to Paris to meet his family
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The cat views the snake and its offers to bite the lion and Malka to be ahorrent
  • Scary Black Man: The residents of Jerusalem are enormous, pitch-black, and quite intimidating.
  • Shout-Out: Tintin appears in the second volume, encountered by the characters in their voyage across Africa. In a Take That! to the racism of Tintin in the Congo, he is portrayed as a racist moron (though more on the Innocent Bigot side) who irritates the group enormously.
  • Tuckerization: Joann Sfar gave his own surname to the rabbi.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Few people are surprised by a talking cat, more concerned by the moral implications of it (primarily that the cat takes his gift of speech and uses it to lie).