The Arty Semite

Talking Cat Takes Center Stage

By Curt Schleier

What happens when a cat eats a parrot? Obviously, it gains the ability to speak.

Joann Sfar

But what happens when it’s “The Rabbi’s Cat?” Clearly, you get an argumentative feline who takes on all comers, including his master. To add insult to injury, given the current troubles between Israel and Iran, it appears to be a Persian.

The film, in French with English subtitles, is based on a popular series of graphic novels by Joann Sfar, who also co-directed the movie. It is set in Algiers in the 1930s, at that time a bustling metropolis with large European, Jewish and Arab populations.

The rabbi of the title, named Sfar, has a lot going on in his life. A widower with a teenage daughter, he needs to pass a government-mandated French language test or lose his title. He can’t stop at many local cafes, because they don’t serve Arabs or Jews. A cousin with a pet lion visits. Another cousin, Sheik Sfar, is a wise imam. A large box from the Soviet Union arrives containing a Jew escaping pogroms. And then there is the adventure they — the Russian, the Sheik, the rabbi and his cat — embark on, in search of a mythical city of Jerusalem and the lost tribe of black Jews from Ethiopia.

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The Life and Loves of Serge Gainsbourg

By Ralph Seliger

Courtesy of Music Box Films

In a remarkable feat for a man who was not considered good looking, Serge Gainsbourg was celebrated as much for his loves as for his art. He began life in Paris as Lucien Ginsburg, the son of Jewish refugees from the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like his parents, he survived the Holocaust in hiding.

The artful and fast-paced French biopic, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” starring Eric Elmosnino, depicts Gainsbourg’s success as a pop musician and his romantic liaisons with the movie superstar Brigitte Bardot and other women. He was married four times, including to the English actress and singer, Jane Birkin, who is the mother of the best known of his four children, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. It is a bizarre curiosity that his last wife — an actress, singer and model known by the stage name of Bambou — is the granddaughter of Friedrich Paulus, the German field marshal who surrendered at Stalingrad.

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Films on Susan Sontag, Joann Sfar Receive Hefty Grant

By Katherine Clarke

Getty Images

In a bid to shape which Jewish documentaries find an audience, the Foundation for Jewish Culture announced the recipients of the Lynn and Jules Kroll Fund for Documentary Film on December 15. The $140,000 grant (split between five recipients) enables filmmakers, considered to be expanding the understanding of Jewish experience, to reach a wider audience.

This year’s winners included Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s “The Law in These Parts,” a chronicle of Israel’s 43-year-long military legal system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Nancy D. Kates’s “Regarding Susan Sontag,” an examination of a revered thinker through archival images and interviews; “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” Sam Ball’s portrait of the celebrated graphic novelist; “Numbered,” directed by Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai, addressing the internal and external scars of Holocaust survivors; and “The Hangman,” directed by Netalie Braun and Avigail Sperber, the story of Israel from the perspective of a marginalized Yemeni prison warden.

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Rabbi Josy Eisenberg, France's Jewish Media Star

By Benjamin Ivry

At 76, Rabbi Josy Eisenberg is a longtime representative of Judaism for the French public. He is the genial host of the half-hour religious program “La Source de Vie,” broadcast in various formats since 1962, and he helped write the 1973 hit comedy film “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob,” starring comedian Louis de Funès. In France, Rabbi Jacob is still so popular that in 2008, comedian Patrick Timsit, of Algerian Jewish origin, directed a music stage version complete with a Hasidic rap.

Eisenberg has also published a dozen books of which only one, “The Seven Lights: On the Major Jewish Festivals,” has appeared in English. His latest title from Albin Michel Publishers, “Livres de vie: de la Bible à Albert Cohen” (“Books of Life: from the Bible to Albert Cohen”), surely deserves to be translated, as it features transcripts of his best TV interviews from the 1960s until today. Of these, the most gripping is a chat with the Greek-born Sephardic Jewish novelist Albert Cohen, who discusses his 1972 book, “O vous, frères humains,” (“O fellow human beings”), itself shockingly still untranslated into English, which dwells on a boyhood encounter with antisemitism after Cohen’s family moved to Marseilles.

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