The Rabbi's Cat 2
by Joann Sfar (Pantheon, 2008)

The mischievous hero of The Rabbi's Cat returns in The Rabbi's Cat 2. Set in 1930s Algeria, the sequel is as witty and humorous as the first. In fact, it's even better. While the first story dealt with issues of race and religion, with a minor travelogue set in the center, the plot of TRC2 is flipped completely over, with the adventure surrounding a center composed of issues regarding race and religion.

The novel is divided into two parts, with the first part concerned with the adventures and origin of the rabbi's larger-than life, colorful cousin Malka and his pet lion. The second half concerns the journey of a lost Russian painter in search of an African Jerusalem, where black Jews live in peace, protected from the outside world. The two books were originally sold as separate titles in France and are collected into one volume for the first time in America.

The point of both stories is pilgrimage to find the source of identity for two individuals who are very lost. The stories read like fables for adults, with a simple point: when you set out to look for yourself, you'll end up at home, wherever you go.

In the first tale, the life of the rabbi's cousin is explored. Age is creeping up on Malka. Longing to become a man of mystery and legend, he goes in search of a purpose to his life. Along the way the truth about who he really is, and what it is he wants from life, are revealed.

In the second story, the rabbi's son-in-law receives a box of books from Russia, a collection of scarred texts that were hurried out of the country as the Revolution took hold and Russian Jews found themselves under attack. The box has a stowaway, a Russian Jewish painter trying to get to Ethiopia in search of a legendary city that seems to have come straight from a fairy tale. The unintentional guest sets off a storm of debate among the rabbi's friends and family about what to do for him. Eventually, it's decided that he should be allowed to make his pilgrimage and they should be the ones to help him.

An expedition is launched involving the Russian painter, another Russian ex-pat who agrees to act as translator and financier of the expensive journey, the rabbi, his cousin the sheikh, the sheikh's donkey and, of course, the cat, who once again narrates the entire tale. Setting out in an old truck leftover from the Russian Revolution, the group searches out the existence of the lost city. They have their fair share of adventures while on the road, encountering wildlife, nomadic tribes and ferocious American reporters stalking jungle animals.

And no book about a wisecracking cat would be complete without philosophical discussions between the cat and the other animals and humans he encounters. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have free will? Where on this Earth can a person live in peace with their neighbors? Does a dogmatic view of the world and God truly bring us closer to the Mystery or does it create hostility and enmity between different ethnicities? As with TRC, the point of the story is not to provide an answer but, in true Talmudic studies fashion, to simply raise the question.

Whereas TRC was lighthearted, this follow-up has violence, some erotic touches and a host of much heavier themes, such as racism, marital discord, ethnic tension and religious freedom. The rabbi's daughter Zlabaya, for example, has realized that her husband is self-centered to such a degree that she does not have a place in his vision of how their lives should be. She is to him little more than an indentured servant. Their home is an unhappy one, their future in serious doubt.

In addition, the dark clouds of the Holocaust are appearing on the horizon. Around their town, ethnic tensions are not only stoked but are full on exploited by radical would-be politicians hungering for power. As with TRC, there is debate about what exactly constitutes faith and how it plays out in an increasingly secular, intolerant world. The journey through Africa is of course a metaphor for the journey of the soul through deserts and jungles that test faith and identity. Sfar does love his metaphors, and while there is nothing very subtle about them, there is also nothing gimmicky about them either. Sfar's straightforward, sincere manner keeps the story from delving into shtick.

The first book was pretty colorful when it came to culture but the sequel has an even larger smorgasbord of cultural diversity. Sfar isn't afraid to delve right into social issues, albeit with a very objective and honest eye. Once again it's the unnamed cat whose morality is unquestionable, as he remains the epitome of a soul who understands but refuses to abide by rules that don't enhance life as much as they constrain it. The cat encourages the rabbi and his friends to live life, experience it, and not worry so much about interpretation and rigid rules.

Sfar's quirky art is wonderful to look at. It's at one and the same time quite varied and yet very casual, a sort of wobbly fluidity that floats easily back and forth between meticulous detail and casual slashes and lines.

Fascinating and fun, the pathos and sweetness of this sequel is every bit as compelling as the first. Hopefully there will be more. The gentle wisdom of the cat's outlook on life is a balm for the soul in a world that's as troubled today as Algeria was in the 1930s.

review by
Mary Harvey

12 September 2009

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