The hero of the new graphic novel by French artist Joann Sfar has only one superpower: speech. But the house pet in The Rabbi's Cat ($25) isn't interested in average feline concerns. He prefers debating Jewish philosophy with his master, an Algerian rabbi. And although he does some naughty thingslike eating the rabbi's noisy parrot, which is how he got to talkthe cat is a lovable narrator of the family's life. The book contains the first three stories of the popular series that's sold 300,000 copies in France.
Why a cat?
I've got a wife who says strange compliments to me. She said there is one thing you draw properly. It's the cat. So then, I decided to draw him in every panel and I tried to make a story around him. He's a very funny cat, skinny with long ears.
And you don't like parrots?
No. They haven't experienced anything, but they always have so much to say. As a child in Nice, I had a rabbi who had a parrot, so it's based on him. The rabbi had bad pronunciation though, so the parrot was clearer than him.
Why does the story revolve around Judaism?
I came from a Jewish family. My mother is from the Ukraine and my father is Algerian, so there was a range. Some of my family is religious and some is secular. When you're a child, you discover your family as extraterrestrials. It's like you're too young to discover you're a Jew also.
So you're the cat.
Maybe. When you have a young kid at dinner, he can listen to everything, but he can't speak, like a cat. But I didn't grow up in Algeria, although the stories are from my family.
You actually had a relative who went everywhere with a lion like the guy in the book?
Those were stories my grandmother used to tell. You know how some people bring around lions to show to tourists? We had an ancestor who did this.
Anything else come from your life?
At the Talmudic school they sent me to, sometimes they told me things that were real stupid. My grandfather was a scientist and antireligious and he criticized this. Maybe this inspired me.
What do you think the book will teach people about Judaism?
I don't know how it is in the States, but in France, [people meet] Jews in school but have never gone to a Shabbat dinner. I wanted to dramatize Jewish families and show there are not so many differences.
What other adventures can we expect from the cat?
In the next one, the character with the lion, he's getting old and is unable to seduce women. Also, the climate changes in Algeria. It's in the '30s and it turns to prewar violence and French antisemitism.
So is your cat a celebrity in France?
I don't know if the other cats are aware of his fame. He still loses fights with other cats.
And is he Jewish?
Of course not. We tried to circumcise him, but it was too small and there was blood everywhere. Vicky Hallett