After going on an excellent Jewish guided walking tour of the Marais district in the morning, I was ready for some Jewish entertainment in the evening. Fortunately, the historic Théâtre de l’Œuvre, in the 9th arrondissement, was showing a musical called Le Chat du Rabbin (The Rabbi’s Cat).
Several years before, I had put myself on the (e-)mailing list of the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, but because of the coronavirus pandemic I had never actually seen a show there.
The flyer for the musical (un spectacle musical avec orchestre) reveals that it is based on a comic strip, a bande dessinée (BD) by Joann Sfar.
The next morning, I looked up Joann Sfar and found that he is a well-known and highly prolific bédéiste, meaning a person who writes and draws BDs. His series “The Rabbi’s Cat” has grown to thirteen volumes, and altogether he has published more than 150 BD albums as well as novels and books on art and philosophy. He is also active as a film director — his first film, Gainsbourg, vie héroïque, won a César for the best first film in 2010, and his second film, an animated adaptation of “The Rabbi’s Cat”, won a César for the best animated film in 2011.
Although Joann Sfar says he is not personally religious, he has wide-ranging interests in philosophical, existential and even theological questions, stemming from his complex Jewish family background. His mother, a French pop singer, was a descendent of Ashkenazi Jews from Ukraine, while his father came from a family of Sephardic Jews in Algeria.
Since the Théâtre de l’Œuvre does not have an orchestra pit, the twelve musicians were placed on the stage, leaving some space between, in front of and behind them for the actors to perform. The original music by Matthieu Michard sounded very Algerian, at least for the first half of the show, and the two most prominent musicians were playing North-African-looking stringed instruments. These two musicians also had microphones, because they had short speaking roles in various scenes.
In addition to his cat, the Rabbi has a lovely daughter, Zlabya, and a parrot. The parrot gets on everyone’s nerves because he talks constantly, even though he has nothing to say.
The cat eats the parrot, and discovers that he suddenly knows how to talk. When the Rabbi asks what happened to the parrot, the cat says: “He has left on an urgent errand. He said you shouldn’t wait for him for dinner.”
The Rabbi tells his daughter that a miracle has happened, the cat can talk. But he says there is also a great misfortune, because the cat tells nothing but lies. The cat denies this, but insists he did not eat the parrot (said while he still had the parrot’s feathers stuck between his teeth).
A while later, the cat has a dispute with an elderly rabbi described as “the rabbi of the rabbi”, who tells him his ability to speak is bad, because he acquired it through an act of death. The cat says that is not true, because he did not eat the parrot. The rabbi of the rabbi calls him a liar, and the cat explains that “with the ability to speak, one can say whatever one wishes, even things that are not true,” which is a marvelous power that everyone should try out.
The rabbi of the rabbi is meant to be an elderly man, but in the musical he was played by a young-looking actor with a long black pasted-on beard, so the first time I saw it I was confused about who he was supposed to be. The next morning I bought and read the first volume of the BD (for € 13), so when I saw the musical again I was no longer confused, at least not about this episode.
The cat, by the way, was played by a human, namely by a man whose hair was combed up and sprayed to look vaguely like a cat’s ears.
In the middle of the musical there is a sudden change of scene, showed by ingenious lighting effects and by the way the actors huddle under the arches to keep dry. It is raining incessantly. The rabbi, his cat, his daughter and his new son-in-law are in Paris to meet the son-in-law’s family.
The music changes, too, but not for the better. To me, at least, the ‘Paris by night’ music of the second half sounds trivial compared to the Algerian-inspired music of the first half.
The cat notices that Zlabya and her new husband are not enthusiastic about having the rabbi come along on their honeymoon.
Volume 3 of the BD Le Chat du Rabbin (which I didn’t read until later) is called L’Exode (Exodus). It begins with a preface by singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki (1934-2013), who was born and raised in a family of Romaniote Jews in Alexandria, Egypt (where he attended French-language schools throughout his childhood).
Moustaki praises Joann Sfar for reminding the world that the humor of the Sephardic and Romaniote Jews can be just as funny as the better-known humor of the Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe. “I am delighted to note that, in the work of Sfar, the philosophical values and the way of life of the Judeo-Mediterranean minority in which my childhood was immersed have kept all their letters of nobility. They are the ones who set the tone for the delicious provocations and sacrilegious imprecations of the cat, the rabbi and Joann Sfar.”
People like me, who have only ever experienced Georges Moustaki as a white-haired, white-bearded métèque, tend to forget that when he first moved to Paris in the 1950s he had a completely different image, namely as the lover (much later he described himself at age 24 as “an upstart gigolo”) of a famous singer nearly twice his age, Edith Piaf, for whom he also wrote songs. (He wrote the lyrics to Milord, for example.)
In the third volume of the BD Le Chat du Rabbin there is a character named Raymond Rebibo, the rabbi’s long-lost nephew, who is very similar to Moustaki in his twenties in Paris (with Moustaki’s approval, evidently), but this character does not seem to have made it into the musical, as far as I can recall.
Unfortunately, the musical Le Chat du Rabbin only had a run of two-and-a-half weeks at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre — that would be about thirteen performances, two of which I attended. But it was well-received, so perhaps it will be revived somewhere else in the future. If you see it advertised somewhere, please tell me in the comments below.
My photos and text in this post are from 2022.