The Rabbi’s Cat – what if your cat can talk too?

(by Cu)

As I was talking about the Ramadan with an Indonesian friend of mine last week, a sudden feeling of delight came to me because I realized that I was able to observe and to listen to stories of all different religions from a neutral position (or at least till now). Despite not being religious, I love seeing how hundreds of people in my country flock into pagodas right after every Lunar New year’s eve, or how my friend explained to me with passion the advantages of fasting. Thoughts considering religions have been lingering in my mind for a few days, until I ran into a DVD that was available to be borrowed for free in the local library yesterday.

“The Rabbi’s Cat”: the name certainly caught my attention, and the drawings on the DVD’s cover looked special, so I brought it home without a second thought and devoured the film as soon as my parents left the living room. It was a pure coincidence that I watched this cartoon movie. I hadn’t expected that religions would be brought into question in the story, but I’ve since then been constantly thinking about it with satisfaction. Therefore, I would like to do a review of “The Rabbi’s Cat”. Even though it already came out in 2011, I suppose there are still people like me who didn’t know of its existence or of its greatness.

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The movie is based on a French comic with the same title created by Joann Sfar and was animated in collaboration with producer Antoine Delesvaux. The story took place in Algeria in the years 1920s. The cat lived with its master (the rabbi), his daughter and a parrot. After having eaten the family’s talkative parrot, the cat suddenly gained the ability to talk, but the first words it uttered were a lie. As a consequence, the rabbi forbad it to get near his daughter, as he feared that she would be exposed to bad influences. Due to its deep love for the mistress, the cat was willing to become a true and good-behaved Jewish cat and even to get his bar mitswa done. During the learning process, it opened up discussions with the rabbi and even with his teacher on Judaism and the religion’s practices. Later, the rabbi had to pass a dictation exam to maintain his position as the local rabbi. Desperately hoping that he would be able to make it, the cat kept repeating a sacred name and lost its ability to talk, but which had contributed to its master’s success. After that, it could only communicate with a Russian Jew, who had escaped the violence against this group of people in this northern country by hiding in a wooden chest full of forbidden religious texts ship to Algeria. It then went on an adventure to find the African Jeruzalem together with the rabbi, the Russian refugee, an exiled Russian solider, a Sufi who was the rabbi’s far cousin and his donkey.

Through the adventure of the cat and its master, we discover how a country as rich in religions and cultures as Algeria stands on the verge of development during the third decade of the 20th century. Both the questions related to religion tolerance and racism appear in Joann Sfar’s piece of art, as the characters in the movie represent different groups of people such as Algerian Jews, Muslims and European Christians whose barriers consist of their origine and languages’ priority. Besides, we also remark the difference between Algerian, Russian and so-called African Jews who have darker complex and who live in a place where the Russian Jew believes to be the African Jeruzalem.

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I have personally never visited Algeria and its neighbouring countries. For I have only lived in Asia and Western Europe, this North-African region proves to be a whole new world for me, waiting to be explored one day. All I have discovered about the country was through Albert Camus’s work “The Plague” and Yasmina Khadra’s novel “What the day owes the night”. Together with what I have learned in these two literature pieces, Algeria in “the Rabbi’s Cat” brought me from one surprise to another. The artist have painted the country mostly in warm colours, such as orange, brown and some reddish hues; which emphasizes the enthousiasm and the warmth in every character’s heart. This, in my opinion, also creates a great contrast between the country with all of its religious population and the cat that has a cold and blueish hue as fur colour.

One of the reasons why I have enjoyed watching the animated movie is because I can see myself in this cat that poses a bunch of questions concerning religions and that observes how all these religions deal with each other from a neutral point of view. Religions play an important role in our history and have been a point of support for most of the population. Therefore, questions, curiosity and studies around them are surely abundant. With the development of natural sciences and the decrease of illiteracy, we begin to believe less in super natural power like God, just like the cat in the beginning of the story. It used all logical and science-related arguments against the rabbi and his teacher, who are convinced of the existence of God and of their duties as rabbis.

The psychologic development of the main characters is also achieved at a high level. I loved seeing how each character reacted to the cat’s curiosity. Even the reason why the rabbi had a cat was given in the beginning of the movie: “Jews don’t really like dogs. A dog bites and run after you. Jews have been chased and bitten so much that they prefer cats after all.” (This is my own translation of what has been said in the movie, because I’ve watched it in French. It may therefore not be 100% correct, but the idea is about the same). If a Jew believes in God, a rabbi must be more confident of his belief than anyone else. However, when the fellowship went on the adventure to find the African Jeruzalem and the cat was stung in the middle of a desert, the rabbi refused to pray for it as he said: “When my wife died, I prayed everyday but the Saint didn’t do anything. I don’t think he will lift his little finger to save my cat.” The characteristics of all characters are perfectly described through every action and every single sentence they say, which makes them lively and gives the film no unneccessary scenes.

Another scene that I considered to be one of the bests in the movie was when the rabbi discovered that he was allowed to continue his carreer as a rabbi. Together with his cousin the Sufi, they prayed, danced and sang under the moonlight. That very moment was observed by the cat: “So they both prayed, one towards Jeruzalem and the other towards Mecca. They danced, they sang, they joked, more exclusively than you have ever seen. And I thought that it would be nice to be able to regain my talking ability in this insane atmosphere, but I couldn’t.” In my opinion, the scene represented a great sign of tolerance. Eventhough the two people were of two difference religions, they could still pray for their own God and dance together without having to think about the social barrier between them.

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In short, “the Rabbi’s Cat” is a wonderful animated movie that shows us images of Algeria with all of its people, cultures and religions. More than just a middle of entertainment, the film itself is a philosophic work, which opens up questions about Judaism and how Algerians’ life develops as the population is deeply involved in different religious practices. If you love animated movies, this is really one of the must-sees of all time. Though I have never read the comic on which it is based, it has surely made it to my must-reed-this-summer list.

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