Rediscovering the Arab Jewish Past

David Shasha

Posted Oct 26, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Book Review: Rediscovering the Arab Jewish Past

Joann Sfar, The Rabbis Cat, Translated from the French by Alexis Siegel and Anjali Singh, Pantheon Books, 2005

Before I even begin to speak about this most rare and extraordinary of books on the modern Sephardic condition, I would advise my readers to stop reading this review and go to the relevant websites and order this book.

Once you have ordered this precious book we can begin to discuss the ways in which it illuminates the world of Arab Jews in our day. 

It should be remembered that there are very few books available to the Western reader that tell stories of Jews in the Middle East.  Perhaps the most prominent and artistically successful of recent years has been Ronit MatalonҒs The One Facing Us, a novel about an Egyptian Jewish family who has moved to Africa to live and conduct their business.  Matalon, like her fellow Israeli writer Yitzhak Gormezano Goren was able to reconstruct Egyptian Jewish life from the perspective of an Israeli exile that has served to color the details of the past.  In this aspect any discussion of the Arab world is fraught with the difficulty of looking at people who were once neighbors and have now become enemies.

Since the publication of Ammiel Alcalays seminal study of Jewish life in the Middle East After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture and his essential anthology of translated writings from Israeli authors from the Arab world like the aforementioned Goren and Matalon, GorenҒs work remains untranslated while Matalons later novels do not deal with the Sephardic thematic as their central concern, there has been precious little material about Sephardic life in modern culture.  We have read Ruth Knafo SettonҒs The Road to Fez, a wonderful novel that is sometimes marred by a very American concern with anti-Arab payback, as we have read Haim Sabatos Aleppo Tales, a book that is less a part of the modern Sephardic literary sensibility and more a part of both a Zionist and Orthodox perspective that frequently obscures the actual ways in which Jews lived in the Middle East.  Each of these novels, however they might be written, serves to reinforce certain preconceptions that have distorted Arab Jewish history.

We must not forget the writers of an older generation like Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas, Samir Naqqash and Nissim Rejwan Җ all Iraqis who have for many years laid out both a historical and an imaginative reconstruction of their own biographies and the way that those stories fit into the larger picture of Jewish history and self-definition.  Most recently we have greatly benefited from Nissim Rejwan֒s trenchant memoir The Last Jews in Baghdad which provides a clear picture of the way things ended for one of the most important and most ancient Jewish communities in the Arab world. 

But for the Anglophone reader there has been precious little published that would open a window to Jewish life in the Arab world.  Many of the writers who have worked on this subject have seen their works marginalized and left on the trash heap of Israeli literature untranslated or unpublished ֖ we know that works by Albert Swissa and Samir Naqqash have indeed been translated into English and yet these books languish in a no-mans-land of uncaring and apathetic publishers.  Even the work of the late Egyptian writer Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, originally written in English and referenced in MatalonҒs novel, is only available in Hebrew translation.

So it is with more than some interest and enthusiasm that I became aware of a French visual artist Joann Sfar who has gone back to a part of his family history in Algeria to tell some very imaginative stories about a widowed rabbi, his beautiful daughter and their cat.

Mr. Sfar specializes in what has become known as the graphic novel; a sub-genre of the art of cartoon drawing that expands the form to be inclusive of a larger and more subtle canvas.  The graphic novel seeks to tell stories which reflect the scope of the literary novel rather than the short format of the comic strip.  The most famous example of a graphic novel by a Jewish writer has been Art Spiegelmans Maus for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.  The graphic novel is a wonderful way to tell a serious story in a way that enables the reader to not only feel the contours and rhythms of the tale, but to visualize in a concrete manner the images of the story and of the past that it purports to reconstruct.

In the case of The RabbiҒs Cat we are introduced to an Algerian Jewish family with a very unique cat.  The family has lost its matriarch and the cat, in love with his young mistress, decides to eat the family parrot and thus is enabled to talk.  This literary device permits Sfar to have an ongoing philosophical dialogue go on between the rabbi and the cat.

In these dialogues, one part humorous and one part existentially challenging, we see emerge a richly textured portrait of Algerian Jewish life.  Sfar skillfully draws a verbal and a visual image of a society that is deeply complex and in the throes of some extremely difficult changes and transitions.  The rabbi is shown as having been a community leader and now must take a test given by the French consistoire in order to maintain his place as the communitys rabbi.  We see the rabbi studying French texts in order to pass this dictation exam.  As this is happening, the cat wishes to be Bar Mitzvahed and to begin the study of Kabbalah, Jewish mystical lore.  In the conversations between the cat, the rabbi and the rabbiҒs rabbi we see a kind of Marx Brothers hilarity that is replete with many of the complicated issues that mark the modern Jewish condition.

The cat appears to be a cynic and questions many of the religious beliefs and orthodoxies of the old rabbi and his Sephardic rabbinical traditions.

Here we see Sfar reconstructing the philosophical debates that existed among Sephardic rabbis since the time of Seadya GaҒon and Maimonides.  This proclivity for philosophical discussion is of course tempered and recontextualized by the more modern Western elements that become a subtle thematic in the book as a whole.

Throughout The Rabbis Cat there is a constant battle waged between the traditional ways of the Algerian Jewish past, a past that is deeply embedded within its Arabic cultural environment, and the great pressures that have been exerted by the French presence in Algeria; pressures that have caused internal problems for the Judaism of people like the old rabbi and for the continuity of an old world that saw Jews and Arabs forming relationships that were both amicable and peaceful.  The cat is an agitator who seeks to trip up the rabbi and force him to relinquish many of his long-cherished beliefs.  But the rabbi continues counsel the cat and stand up to many of his challenges.

In this aspect, Sfar looks at the battle between traditional Sephardic Judaism and the challenges of modernity.  And the rabbi does not acquit himself poorly in this regard.  He shows himself to be a wise and sensitive teacher, filled with a warm spirit and a giving heart.  The pressures that are being exerted from the side of a corrosive French presence in Algeria are seen as forcing traditional natives like the rabbi out of their own identities in a way that will ultimately do damage to their internal equilibrium.  These native Algerians live under a racist French occupation where they are refused service in restaurants and where they must prove their proficiency in the French language in order to minister to their native communities.

In a startling episode in the second section of the book ғMalka of the Lions the rabbi takes a trip with the cat to the grave of his ancestor Messaoud Sfar where he comes across an Arab sheikh named Muhammad Sfar who is traveling by donkey to the very same gravesite to visit the very same ancestor on his birthday!  The two men find that they share a common ancestor.  Sfar has the two menԒs animals argue over the meaning of the name Sfar:

Wait, an Arab is called SFAR?

Yes.  Sfars an Arabic name.

Are you kidding?  Sfar comes from ғSofer, which means ԓto write in Hebrew.  Sfar is a Jewish name.

You ass, Sfar comes from ԓyellow in Arabic.  It evokes the sulfur flower used by coppersmiths.  SfarԒs Arab through and through.

Besides, were going to the grave of Messaoud Sfar our ancestor.

ThatҒs where were going too.

Messaoud Sfar was a great Sufi, a saint.

No way!  Messaoud Sfar was a rabbi.

The animals have this argument while the rabbi and the sheikh calmly travel together and relate to one another in terms of a fellowship that is both extraordinary and deeply moving.  The two men interact with one another on a human level as equals and discuss the problems that the rabbi has been having with the French examination.  At the end of their discussion they celebrate the rabbiҒs success on the test and dance and sing into the night.

Such are the strange but moving emotions that flow through the pages of this book.  We see before our eyes a beautifully etched portrait of a world now lost that is filled with compassion, warmth, intelligence and the sensibilities of the human condition under trying circumstances.  All of this is leavened with a keen sense of humor and a penchant for the absurd.  It is a sweetly nostalgic tableau of a group of characters that are rarely drawn for us in these times.

In the final of the three stories that comprise the book, Sfar shows the ways in which the internal world of the Algerian Jews falls apart.  The rabbis daughter falls in love with a young rabbi who comes to Algeria from Paris and brings her back to France to meet his family.  On this trip back to France, the rabbi and his daughter leave not merely their home, but are challenged to hold on to their traditional values.

We witness the almost complete collapse of the ғold world under the pressures of the ԓnew world. 

The daughter is anxious that she and her father will appear to be old-fashioned and out of step with the mores and values of her new French family.  And indeed, the rabbi elects to run away from his new in-laws and walk the Paris streets where on Shabbat he completely loses it.  He seeks out his nephew, a singer named El Rabibo who we later learn can only make a living as an Arab caricature acting as a minstrel street singer.  Wishing to practice the traditional musical arts of Algerian singers, El Rabibo is forced to take the role of a stereotype to conform to the racist expectations of the French who see Arabs as just so much exotica.

The rabbi becomes disillusioned and violates many of the Sabbath precepts and eats an extremely non-Kosher meal at a French bistro on Friday evening.  Concurrently, his daughter is trying to acclimate to the French ways by going to buy new clothes and by discarding her Arab dress.

This clash of cultures speaks to the tensions and prejudices of the Western view of Arabs that has existed for many centuries.  The cultural racism emerges in The RabbiԒs Cat out of a French sense of superiority and by the ways in which the French colonized the Arab world.  Going from Algeria to France we see that it is Western elitism and superiority that has left the native Algerians in a state of degradation.  The natives are left without their culture and without any sense of human dignity; a dignity that was once a determinative factor in the balance of human existence in the Arab world of the distant part.

Sfar draws Algeria as a richly textured and deeply colorful place that is not mere exotica.  The humanity of the protagonists and the ways in which they live their lives with a rewarding sense of themselves and who they are as people is broken by their exile from their own world.  It is this Exodus,Ӕ as Sfar calls the third section of the book, which ties together the various themes and motifs of the book.  We see the humble protagonists running a losing race to preserve their own way of life and the rich and humane values of their native traditions.  The cognitive dissonance of the modern Parisian street is not merely a rote anti-modernism, but is a clash of value systems that eviscerates the measured way of Algerian life.  Free of the tensions of race and the animus of modern identity politics, the oldӔ world remains free of the elitist hatreds and the prejudices of the modern West.  It does not see things in the ethnocentric manner that has been so endemic to the modern condition.  Once the rabbi is faced with this tension his whole world begins to disintegrate.

After approaching the author with a series of questions on these themes, I learned that he himself works more intuitively than as a scholar or a scientific analyst of society.  His canny intuitiveness which he told me came from hearing his Algerian Jewish grandmothers stories, stories which clearly resonated in many unconscious ways that Mr. Sfar is still not completely cognizant of at a more conscious level, show us the ways in which tradition and culture are passed along.  Embedded within these extraordinary images of an Algeria that is more an Algeria of the imagination, of the historical past, rather than of the present, is a richly complicated dialogue that engages the problems of Orientalism, of religious modernity, of cultural elitism, of racism and of the problems that ordinary people have finding their way back to their own traditions and histories. 

The RabbiҒs Cat is a vividly realized work that draws a vibrant and accurate portrait of a lost Jewish world in Algeria.  It deals with the dual problem of Jewish identity in relation to their Arab Muslim hosts and that of the French imperialists.  The Rabbis Cat retrieves the philosophical and religious discussions that were once a part of the traditional Middle Eastern world; an open world of dialogue and debate.  It presents a pluralistic civilization that has been caught in a web of polemic and cultural incoherence that has served to almost completely eclipse its wisdom and its passionate zest for life.

In the most subtle and innocent ways, The RabbiҒs Cat functions as a brilliant portrait of Arab Jewish society that affirms its quiet dignity and its dazzling human sensibilities.  The reduction of this world into oblivion has served to deprive us, those of us who are an organic part of this world as well as those who are outside of it, of a living, breathing model of a pluralistic existence where people do not degrade and abuse one another for their national or ethnic identity, but who see each other in deeply human terms.  The ongoing dialogue between the rabbi and his cat in the book shows the ways in which Sephardic Judaism was so very comfortable with the give and take of ideas and of knowledge.  The meeting between the rabbi and the sheikh on the road to visit their common ancestor stands as a counterpoint to the harsh treatment meted out to the singer El Rabibo who must serve the French as a Stepin Fetchit type of character in order to satisfy the primal racism of the French, a racism that seems to be almost completely absent from the Algeria of what has become a long forgotten past.

The RabbiҒs Cat is a book about how the past affects the present and how the present needs the past in order to be more fully understood.  It is a brilliant and often stunning pictorial scrapbook which serves to reconstruct an old world and narrate the stories which make that world come to life.  It shows the ways in which Sephardic Judaism established ways of living that were eminently reasonable and which ensured the continuity of a past that was not averse to absorbing the modalities of the new.  The tragedy of The Rabbis Cat rests in the almost complete breakdown of the old civilization in the face of a brutally aggressive modernity that takes no prisoners; a modernity in the Orientalist tradition that rejects difference and otherness in the name of a unifying value system, Christian in orientation, that demands sameness at the expense of pluralism.

We thus learn that the West continues to exert its own values at the expense of those whose traditions would mount a challenge to those values.  It is a theme that could serve to teach us not merely about the ways of a bygone past, but could help us better comprehend the current divisions that separate cultures in our own day.

The RabbiҒs Cat is an indispensable addition to the library of modern Sephardic literature.  It is required reading for those who seek to learn more about the vast and wide-ranging diversity of cultures that make up our world.  It gives voice to a world that, as its author has told me, is the

miracle of the Mediterranean Sea: Jews and Muslims from the shores of Mediterranean used to practice an open-minded religion.  They put philosophy into their religious speeches.  The Sephardic Jews brought Aristotle and Plato into our religious landscape.

This is a lot! 

The problem today is that the younger people dont listen to their elders anymore Җ they refer to Israel if they are Jews and to the Gulf if they are Arabs. 

To all the kids I meet in the public schools I visit, whether they are Jews or Arabs, I remind them that they come from the Maghreb.  When a young Muslim listens to Al Jazeera rather than to his father, he betrays the Islam of his elders.  Islam in the Maghreb is much more open-minded and tolerant than Islam in the Gulf.  Talking of Islam as one unified nation is an awful lie.  I love Muslims when they act as Maghrebian people do; with tolerance, kindness, respect, intelligence and faith in science and culture.

It is this sense of openness and respect for others that permeates each frame of The Rabbis Cat and makes it not merely a mandatory purchase for Sephardic Jews and North African Arabs, but for all those readers interested in the human condition and the ways in which culture and history can provide for us a beacon of understanding and a way of coming to terms with many of the problems that we face moving forward as a civilization.

David Shasha