Drawing Conclusions: Joann Sfar and the Jews of France
On March 19, 2012, a French jihadi on a shooting spree targeted a Jewish school in Toulouse, murdering three children and a rabbi. A few days later, a Jewish cemetery in Nice was defaced. Both events were on the mind of comic book creator Joann Sfar as he resumed work on the final book of Klezmer, a five-volume fantasy on Jewish life in turn of the century Eastern Europe. Published last year by Gallimard, the last installment imagines a group of musicians on their way to Kishinev in the immediate aftermath of the infamous pogroms that took place there in 1903. Versions of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Chaim Nachman Bialik make their appearance in the book. In the Afterword Sfar explains that his Kishinev is a symbol for the fundamental dilemma of Jews in Europe not only in 1903 but throughout the 20th century and today in the 21st: namely, how to respond to the anti-Semitism that threatens both the physical existence of Jews and their dream of participation in a cosmopolitan European society.
Sfar is neither the first nor the only significant Jewish contributor to French comics. Jews who have left their mark on what the French call “bandes dessinées” and regard as a serious art form include, for instance, René Goscinny, the co-creator of the iconic French comic book Asterix, and Marcel Gotlib, whose satirical creations helped propel French comics into adult territory in the 1960s and 1970s. That satirical territory was most famously occupied by the comic periodical Charlie Hebdo to which Sfar, along with other Jewish writers and artists (including Elsa Cayat and Georges Wolinski, who were murdered in the recent Islamist attack on the magazine’s editorial offices) also contributed. Yet, as the historian of bandes dessinées Thierry Groensteen observes in Entretiens avec Joann Sfar, an informative book-length interview with Sfar published in 2013, Sfar is the first French comic book artist whose reputation rests on works that explore Jewish themes and characters directly.
Sfar is best known for The Rabbi’s Cat (English translation in two volumes, 2005 and 2008) about a talking cat and its Jewish owners in North Africa between the world wars. First published a little over a decade ago, the series became a best-seller in France and has since been translated into several languages, including English, and adapted as an animated feature film. Sfar has also treated Jewish themes at length in other graphic novels including the three-volume Les Olives noires (2001–2003, story by Sfar, art by Emmanuel Guibert), the two-volume Chagall en Russie (2010–2011), and Klezmer (2005–2014, Volume One translated in 2006). Jewish characters and references feature prominently in other of his works as well, such as his series Pascin about the French painter Jules Pascin (who was Jewish and whom Sfar has roaming the bordellos of Paris with fellow painters Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall) and his popular children’s book, Little Vampire, whose Jewish protagonist Michael befriends the undead. In 2010, moreover, Sfar directed an acclaimed film based on the life of the superstar French musician Serge Gainsbourg, who was also Jewish.
Sfar, who is now working at the height of his considerable powers, was born in 1971 and grew up in Nice. His Algerian-born father was a bon vivant and lawyer, who later became well-known for prosecuting neo-Nazis; his mother, a promising young singer in the breathy style of Brigitte Bardot. When his mother died suddenly at the age of 26, his family decided to tell the three-year-old Sfar that she had left on a trip and would return when he was older if he behaved himself, a pretense they kept up for a year. The young Sfar found refuge in constant drawing despite his family’s concern that it had become alarmingly obsessive. He has also been quoted as saying that by the age of six he had realized that “it was useless to behave and maybe also to believe.”
He went on to study art and drawing at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, while continuing a longstanding interest in philosophy. (He has published illustrated versions of Plato’s Symposium and Voltaire’s Candide, and an early ambition of his was to render the classics of Western thought in comic form.) His comics began to appear in the 1990s, and he was involved early on with L’Association, the publishing collective that brought out such works as Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated Persepolis and Sfar’s own series about the Jewish modernist painter Julius Mordecai Pincas, known as Pascin. His first major success was Donjon, an ongoing series of dozens of whimsical, interconnected fantasy adventures, which Sfar created with Lewis Trondheim. More successes followed, as well as collaborations with a number of different artists and writers.
Apart from his recognizable almond-eyed women, Sfar is not known for a distinct drawing style, borrowing instead from a wide range of influences including Jules Feiffer, Quentin Blake, illustrator of many of Roald Dahl’s books, and Marvel Comics’ artist Jack Kirby. His main talent in any case is not as an illustrator but as a storyteller. Sfar is a font of narrative creativity, a Scheherazade with pen and brush. And he is at his best when chronicling the vagaries of love and jealousy, as in his sad yet delightful Vampire Loves, in which the romantically inept vampire Ferdinand tries to find happiness after the collapse of his relationship with the fetching plant-girl Liana.
Yet it is Jews and Judaism which most exercise Sfar and with which he struggles in his best-known works. And struggles is the word, since Sfar is nothing if not ambivalent about these subjects. Certainly, he makes no secret of his aversion to rabbinic orthodoxy. Jewish law is, as he puts it in the Groensteen interview, “absurd” and “Jesuitical,” and Judaism is often a “teaching of hyperbolic guilt.” The point is made repeatedly in his books, in which strictly observant Jews are portrayed as sanctimonious and foolish, while characters who free themselves from Jewish tradition tend to be sympathetic. In the first volume of Klezmer, the Talmud prodigy Yaacov is expelled from his yeshiva, freeing him to declare his disbelief in God, express his indifference to Jewish law and prayer, and take up with a band of lively musicians. Les Olives noires, set in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, features the cowardly fanatic Josue, a Jewish nationalist who cares more about the strictures of kashrut (dietary laws are a bête noireof Sfar’s) and the exclusion of Gentiles than about protecting a child. Throughout Sfar’s books, ethics and compassion lie for the most part outside the structures of traditional Judaism.
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Artistic creativity certainly does: His artists and musicians and writers stand outside of, and often against, their traditional communities. Sfar prefers instead to draw his Jewish characters in fellowship with non-Jews. The rabbi in The Rabbi’s Cat, for instance, is best friends with a Sufi Muslim. (This makes it all the more ironic that no publisher has dared to publish the Arabic translation of the book.) In Klezmer, the quartet of musicians includes a philo-Semitic Roma guitarist based on Django Reinhardt, and they are assisted by a rather improbable Cossack killer with a heart of gold.
Of course, the Jewish worlds of Sfar are always fantasies, set in the past but only loosely connected with history. They are at times informed by scholarly works—he has drawn upon the work of Jeffrey Veidlinger and Michel Gurfinkiel, among others—but are more often inspired by tales from his Polish and Algerian grandparents, whom he tends to romanticize. (For instance, he uncritically reports his irreligious grandfather’s claim to have “memorized the Talmud.”) It may reflect nothing more than his own preference for fantasy over reportage, but it does seem significant that none of Sfar’s narrative works about Jews is set during his own lifetime, either in France or in Israel.
Sfar has, however, taken pains to keep himself at arm’s length from the Israel-bashing so common in the worlds of French leftist politics and bandes dessinées alike. Some years ago, when he was asked, as “a good Jew,” to sign an anti-Israel petition, he refused, saying that he had never been a good Jew and didn’t see signing anti-Israel petitions as the way to start. More recently, his name was not to be found among those, including his interviewer Groensteen as well as some American colleagues such as Ben Katchor, who signed a petition in January 2015, demanding that the prestigious annual celebration of comic book art at Angoulême drop the Israeli company SodaStream as one of its sponsors. While his political sympathies are left-wing, Sfar deplores France’s “neurosis about Israel and Palestine” which he sees as an unsavory French attempt “to settle World War Two and the Algerian war on the cheap.”
Nevertheless, while Sfar sees Zionism as an understandable Jewish response to anti-Semitism, the State of Israel holds no attraction for him. The Rabbi’s Cat, for instance, concludes with a story in which the characters search for a fabled Jewish homeland in the wilderness of Africa. Apart from the cat, the two characters who reach this mythical Jerusalem are Marc Chagall and the African woman he falls in love with along the way. They hope to find a place where they will be accepted—Jew and black, victims of anti-Semitism and European racism, respectively. However, the foreboding, Assyrian-esque city’s inhabitants—gigantic, blue-skinned, sword-and-magen-david-toting “Jews who have never left the land of their ancestors . . . Happy, balanced people who radiate self-confidence”—expel Chagall and his wife. She, after all, is not Jewish and they do not believe that he is either, since they have never seen a white-skinned Jew. The couple must make their way in the world, relying on their love for each other. It requires little interpretive effort to see this as Sfar’s portrayal of Israel, martial, oriental, and alien, and which he believes can offer no welcome to a cosmopolitan artist of European background, let alone one whose wife, like Sfar’s, is not Jewish.
Sfar’s Klezmer series began as a celebration of an idealized diasporic Jewishness, authentic and freewheeling, which according to Sfar was utterly destroyed by “the Cossacks and Hitler and Stalin.” Sfar is dismissive of the notion that any of this Jewishness might be alive today. Orthodox Jews today, he claims in the Afterword to the first volume (translated by Alexis Siegel), “think the Jewish soul is to be found in compliance with dietary rules” while he finds Israel lacking the spirit of the world of Klezmer:
I love Israel, because it’s a beautiful country and I have family there, but give me a break! Israel is the opportunity to transform my fellow Jews into ordinary people: Jewish farmers with a fence around their field, with an army—regular people, in fact. From a quality of life standpoint that’s a good thing, but I don’t see what I have in common with them. They are far less Jewish than I am.
So where does this leave Sfar as violence continues to escalate against the Jews of Europe? How does he draw the Jews of France after the massacre of his colleagues at Charlie Hebdo and, most recently, his fellow French Jews at a kosher grocery?
Here we must return to the final volume of Klezmer, which dramatizes Sfar’s suspension between an anti-Semitism that makes life for Jews impossible in France and the forms of Jewish solidarity (Orthodoxy and Israel; religion and state) that he rejects. He writes in the Afterword that the Kishinev pogroms are a metaphor for the moment in which Jews must choose whether to stay in Europe or leave for Israel. To stay in Europe is to embrace a Judaism that is diasporic, European, cosmopolitan, progressive, and cultural rather than religious—all traits that he apparently believes cannot be found in Israel. Yet he recognizes that in choosing Europe one possibly chooses destruction. “In 1903, the Jews that left Europe were wrong . . . yet their families survived,” he writes, while those who remained “and had the truth on their side . . . with rare exceptions died.”
Yet the resolution of this dilemma is one that, Sfar freely admits, he cannot depict:
[M]y characters go neither to Auschwitz nor to Jerusalem. They are not exterminated, because I cannot draw the massacre. They are not in Israel, because that is not my story . . . My country is France. The territory where I feel legitimate is Europe. And klezmer. And all my books testify to this alone: the Jews who had the courage to remain in Europe made a noble and worthy choice. I write to justify the Jews of Europe. They were right. And many died for it.
And so, at the end of the final volume of Klezmer, Sfar leaves off just before his characters reach Kishinev, before the moment in which they must choose. Their train approaches the city, but it never arrives.