Interview with Joann Sfar, who owed us some explanations about the title of his latest novel: The Last Jew in Europe.
Joann Sfar is a French graphic novelist, director, and novelist born in Nice in 1971. Of Algerian and Ukrainian origin, part of his prolific work blends Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, notably in the Klezmer comic book series and The Rabbi’s Cat, adapted for film, translated into several languages and winner of the Will Eisner Prize. He also draws for the press, including satirical newspapers like Charlie Hebdo. He directed the film Gainsbourg, vie héroïque, awarded several prizes at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards or BAFTA) in 2011. His other works include Le plus grand philosophe de France, (2014), Modèle vivant (2018) and recently, Le dernier Juif d’Europe. He teaches at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris.
Joann Sfar reminds us that he first and foremost he is someone who draws, and that drawing gives rise to his stories and perspectives. “Drawing is a human science,” he asserts. The techniques of observation that drawing entails create an acquaintance with the world, with men and things, based paradoxically on the capture in a static image of a rhythm. Drawing is not music and yet, one must represent what one sees with the right notes, one must look at what animates beings in order to draw. If we start from this point, it is because Joann Sfar is himself above all a rhythm, of life, of creation and of speech. As one sees in the interview he gave us.
We thought we would start by listing what Sfar does, but as there are a thousand things – from comics to cinema, including novels, too – and as we cannot be comprehensive, it is perhaps more appropriate to imagine his portrait from this inextinguishable rhythm and understand his inexhaustible source of inspiration. A bit like a passage in an Albert Cohen book, in which one meanders for fifty pages, Joann Sfar constantly tells stories that draw on elements from the synagogue, art history, literature (Jewish or not, and anti-Semitic too, he loves Céline – these things happen), philosophy (of Clément Rosset), feline states of mind and teratology (the study of anatomical anomalies). Or, as in a painting by Chagall (to whom he dedicated a comic strip), we imagine Joann Sfar, notebook in hand, flying over several cities in one, Nice, Setif in Algeria, and a shtetl in Ukraine; At the bottom right, there would be Klezmer and Gypsy jazz musicians, on the left there would be a cat reading the Talmud to a lion, in the center there would be a small dacha with palm trees around it, called “La Boule Rouge” (a famous “pied-noir” restaurant in Paris), and then in the background, a cemetery teeming with friendly dybbouks and vampires. It would be very colorful, without any cause and effect, so joyful and free.
Joann Sfar’s creativity comes from this surrealist aesthetic, a little nostalgic – but he will not say so, because nostalgia implies a certain withdrawal into the past. Everything is present simultaneously, the dead and the living, and therefore the tragic dimension of existence is always already in evidence. Once this has been accepted, there is no longer any reason to be afraid of expressing oneself, and to represent the “ordinary aberrations” of time. We met with him to talk about this. Resigning oneself to a tragic pessimism does not prevent one from being deeply worried, about anti-Semitism, for example. But how to talk about it? And why wring one’s hands over the way to talk about it? It will have escaped no one that the main antagonists of anti-Semitism have changed, and that the old criticisms of anti-Semitism not only no longer work so well, but that in the morass of the competition of memories, these arguments no longer receive even a hearing.
Joann Sfar’s stories do not assert truths, but transport us, here into the Jewish life of Algeria, there into a fantastic underground world where the unconscious stakes of the earthly world are played out – and also give us a perspective on current events. A journey rather than a satire or a political cause. So that Sfar’s discourse forges imaginary contents that distract a little from the polemical reality – while helping us achieve catharsis. In the manner of Sempé, whose ambition is to capture in a minimalist way the feelings of people and places, Sfar captures the tensions of current events, with accuracy and humor. This kind of drawing has the power to overturn false claims, of politicians for example, but also to smash idols. It is the most morally permissible transgression possible of the Jewish prohibition of iconography, precisely formulated to avoid idolatry. A dialectical art, in short, that we find in his way of approaching Jewish stories.
In Volume Nine of The Rabbi’s Cat, a speech bubble reassures: “It’s okay, come back! This is not a story about Jews!” Stories about Jews are not presented as being about (only) Jews; Jews figure as bellwethers for certain social trends, canaries in the coal-mine. Nor are these stories of interest due in the first place to ethnological fascination — How do Jews live, what do they eat, what is their worldview and what is their recipe for almond pastry, do they want to rule the world or marry off their daughter? These questions aside, Jewish non-Jewish stories are adventures that illustrate in a concise way how the vicissitudes of history are experienced, subverted, reshaped, with pinches of folk wisdom and useful neuroses thrown in. All this to continue to exist, and to have one’s place in the sun, in Setif, on a kibbutz, or in a haunted house in Nice. In The Last Jew of Europe, which is not (only) a Jewish story either, the anguish of the cartoonist Joann Sfar takes another turn. The last few years in France do not bode well, and in the face of a new wave of anti-Semitism, the ship must head in a new direction. Joann Sfar conjures up anguish with magical powers, which unfortunately we do not have. But perhaps it is enough to make us believe it. – Avishag Zafrani
Those who understand French can listen to the full interview with the podcast below.
Avishag Zafrani: Your novel, The Last Jew of Europe, takes up the adventures of a Ukrainian Jewish vampire, a violinist who died in combat in 1917, and who we had already seen in one of your previous novels, Eternal. But this time, he reappears in a contemporary France which is roiled by serious social conflicts and is seeing a new wave of anti-Semitism. He will meet two characters, a father and his son, François and Désiré Abergel. They symbolize the “last Jews of Europe”. Désiré, in particular, wishes to stop being Jewish and even to become anti-Semitic to see what it feels like. Before going back over his strange and somewhat contradictory journey, and before talking about the other characters, including a lay rabbi, a mystical psychoanalyst, in the midst of a world that mixes the dead and the living, I would first like to ask you about the title of the book. One might have expected to read a variation on the common theme of the disappearance of Jews in a particular region (as when one speaks of the last Jews in Poland, the last Jews in Morocco, or the last Jew in Afghanistan who looks after his synagogue alone). In your novel, one does not get the impression that this is what it is about. It is rather that you are working on the theme of the disappearance of anti-Semitism. Was the idea of “the last Jews” motivated by a concern, a deep anguish?
Joann Sfar : … And an anger. Beyond the content of the book, there is an angry part of me that wanted to fill the bookstores with a book marked “the last Jew in Europe”. Even before I wrote a line, I wanted that. I am well aware that if I had done a book with a white cover and only the words “the last Jew in Europe”, it would have been studied as a serious or academic or polemical subject. The mere fact that it’s an entertainment book with monsters and a vampire on the cover already puts it into perspective or makes you wonder what I meant. And inside the book, we find the revival of the most widespread desire in Europe and in the world: the desire to massacre the Jews. Since the Jews have existed, each generation has reinvented a way of hating them. What is interesting is that from one generation to the next, they are reproached for one thing or its opposite. Sometimes they are criticized for being too religious. Sometimes they are criticized for being too secular. Sometimes they are criticized for not understanding new ideas, sometimes for having produced them.
AZ : But let’s go back to the title…
JS: In The Last Jew in Europe, our hero is very annoyed because his father wants to have his foreskin put back on. And if his father has the foreskin put back on, he will find himself the last Jew in the family. And there is perhaps a mise en abyme of the drama of our generation, that is to say that we all inherit a rather heavy historical and religious tradition from our parents. We find ourselves in charge of it and we don’t know very well what to do with it… My concern and my anger, in fact, come from several things: first of all, I am terrified of the disappearance of a cultural life, of a European Jewish intellectual life. I distinguish this from a Jewish presence in Europe. Are there Jews who are fulfilled or happy enough in Europe to project their voice in the cacophony of the debate, to project their voice as Jews. Not as Jews who are closed in on themselves, not as Jews who see their future in Israel, or as Jews who always project themselves somewhere else than where they are. If I wanted to be silly, I would talk about the Jews of being there, to mark that moment when you find yourself there, in a place, somewhere where you tell yourself that it makes sense.
I grew up, like many Jews of my generation, with the guilt of not having gone to Israel. My father, from the time I was six or seven, prepared us for our aliyah – which we never made. He bought an apartment in Israel; he sold it three years later. Part of my family left, but not us. Each time, it was a failure. But I refuse to see my fate and the fate of the Jews in Europe as a failure or as a non-choice or as anything else. On the other hand, I cannot fail to see that when I was a child, European cultural life, and particularly French cultural life, was shaped by Jewish thinkers who sometimes thought against religion, who sometimes thought against their history, but who were nevertheless very present, who were aware of their heritage and who were – so this is my personal tropism – and who went in the direction of progress. If I wanted to be provocative, I would say that every time the death penalty was abolished, there was a Jew behind it.
We find ourselves today with – and I hope that this will change, I hope that my book is only a work of Cassandra – a moribund Jewish word in Europe, that is to say that the only Jewish intellectuals that we are able to name are people who, at best, are in the reaction and at worst, are on the extreme right. In any case, one has the impression of old people who are yo-yoing. I have the impression that even the religious word is not heard most in Europe. There is a void, an absence. The Jewish project in the twentieth century was twofold. On the one hand, there was the Zionist fascination, the desire to create a country where things would be better than elsewhere. And this is a very beautiful choice, it is very noble. And on the other side, there was the Bund. The Jewish voice is also a voice of the European polyphony. It must be heard, even independently of religion. And there must be representatives of the Jewish voice in Europe, in the same way that all European peoples have representatives. In this reality, the Jews have something to say.
Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know where we are today. I answer with vampire stories. I answer with my little anxieties. It’s funny because for The Rabbi’s Cat, I have my nose in the Bible a lot right now, in the prophet Elijah in particular, when he gets mad and he reproaches the Israelites for hobbling on two feet, one foot believing in Baal and the other one believing in the Lord. And I have to say that in my work, there is a bit of that, that is, I don’t resolve to make a totally serious and totally involved book. I always have to put in some bullshit every ten lines… Firstly, because I believe that things are transmitted through play, and secondly, because I have a difficulty with seriousness, or rather with the idea of the author who is convinced that he is serving a purpose. Literature is not there to instruct in virtues. Literature is there to show us the depths of the human soul, sometimes at its worst. If there is a value in this work, it is the verbalization of my anguish.
I recount a scene in my book that I did not invent. I found myself one evening at a table with a great figure of contemporary Judaism who is a formidable guy, industrial, brilliant, active in French society since forever. There must have been one too many old Jewish women thrown out of a window. I don’t remember which one… There have been a lot of those lately. And he said, “Look, I’m sick of it, I’m sick of it. Sometimes you want to give it all back. Judaism, you want it? Take it, that’s it. I’ll get de-circumcised and you can get the hell out. And like that, we’ll see who you’ll get mad at. ». And that, I said to myself, is an idea in the style of Gogol or Kafka, or it’s a theatrical idea: the Jew who wants his foreskin back. And obviously, as in a funny story, the moment he has his foreskin put back on, he wants to become anti-Semitic…
AZ : The passage where Désiré Abergel decides to become anti-Semitic and benefits from the latest surgical advances to have his foreskin replaced is both very funny and chilling. One has the impression that Désiré Abergel can’t take it anymore, he is saturated. Perhaps he himself fought anti-Semitism in the past, and believed in it, but it’s over. The situation is beyond him, he is overwhelmed. He tries to be anti-Semitic with the idea that it will relieve him: it must be said that it is convenient when one is anti-Semitic, one has found the culprits of many of the ills of existence, which must therefore be soothing… But this self-hatred of the character is fleeting, it does not work so much. His son François, who becomes the last Jew in his family, must carry the responsibility of appeasing his father’s despair or protecting him from despair. He must save him from something…
JS: Yes, and then there is the relationship to the genitals… The relationship to the paternal genitals, for me, is a founding one. I tell it at the end of The Rabbi’s Cat. My father, who has always been an extremely militant, violent, fighting man, was the first lawyer who had neo-Nazis thrown in jail in the 1970s. He lived under the threat of coffins and phone calls at night. He would throw a punch whenever he had to. He was also a very impressive guy who was crushed with guilt for being a Jew from Algeria who was not deported and who could not fight Hitler. So he gave birth to me to fight against Hitler, who was no longer there. As a result, I had to spend years standing guard in front of the synagogue in Nice and Hitler never arrived.
When I was seven years old, he took me to Yad Vashem with my maternal grandfather, who had fought in the war and whose entire family had been exterminated in “the shooting Holocaust.” He found himself in France long before that, which saved him. He joined the maquis very early. He was one of the four or five medics of the Alsace-Lorraine brigade. So his war consisted, when he was advancing in Germany, shooting at the Germans one day and treating them the next, since he was the doctor. He used to say: “War is absurd, you shoot a guy and then you treat him… ». So I have these two men who take me to Yad Vashem. My father, in front of the photos of deportees, said to me: “You see, Hitler tried to exterminate us, you have to make a lot of Jewish children to show that he lost”. The sentence made my grandfather very angry, he who was looking for his family in the names of the deportees. He said, “Explain to your father that your genitals are not used to fight Hitler.” This idea is reflected in the book, because not only did my character get his foreskin back, but after he gets his foreskin back, at an anti-Jewish demonstration, he absolutely wants to take off his pants to explain to everyone that he is not Jewish.
It was an extraordinary time for my father, because the anti-Semites were the extreme right. It was great! Every time I got into a fight with skinheads, I was very, very happy. I knew I was on the right side. Now, anti-Semites can be anyone… I’m not saying this out of paranoia. I lived through the time when, 20 or 25 years ago, on Jewish radio stations, Jews were encouraged to say whether they had experienced anti-Semitic acts. Then I experienced the opposite. Today, we know that every anti-Semitic act leads to others. After the killings at the Ozar HaTorah school, the cemetery where my mother is in Nice was desecrated. Other schools received letters of insults, etc. Today, there is a tendency to keep silent about these acts of violence because we know that we will not be able to stop them. And we are in a totally new situation: traditionally, since the Middle Ages, hatred of the Jews was a tool of the rulers to buy civil peace. Here, we are in a completely new world where the public authorities defend the Jews. We are in a world where the public authorities are doing their best to avoid this massacre that the population, unconsciously, for all the psychiatric reasons, is calling for. This is what I describe in my book: anti-Semitism has become a commonplace today.
What I am trying to say in this book full of monsters is that the hatred of the Jew can only be fought on magical grounds, since it is a magical hatred, since it is a hatred that goes back perhaps to the emperor Nemrod. It will be fought by summoning the same deities as in the Bible, and it will be Baal and Astarte and whatever else…
AZ: You find ways of talking about anti-Semitism that are different from what we usually hear. The situation is aberrant: everyone is of course able to say how terrible and dramatic it is that Jewish children are being killed; and at the same time, the Jews feel, probably rightly, that they don’t want to hear them complain about anti-Semitism. This produces a literally absurd reality that your novel describes very well…
JS : In the 1930s, you could demonstrate by saying “dirty Jew”. Today, it is no longer acceptable. So now we demonstrate by saying “dirty Jew! We are not anti-Semitic”. This anti-Jewish slogan during the demonstration described in my novel is what made me laugh the most while writing it. And I think it’s the heart of the book… The cries of horror that I hear, faced with demonstrations that are nothing but anti-Semitic, coming from people who are bleeding hearts and say: “No, but how can you imagine? But how dare you, we anti-Semites? “Really? But when you were screaming against the Rothschilds every two minutes, what does that mean? Do you know the Rothschilds? When you talk about a stateless thing, do you realize the phraseology? It’s not possible that people don’t realize. It’s like when a kid spills something and says, “I didn’t do it. So when someone, with his heart on his sleeve, says “I’m not anti-Semitic”, there is the same rage in that “I’m not anti-Semitic” as in the “dirty Jew”.
I try to do hyperrealism, and it takes monstrous tools to make people understand, to make the punch… We live in a universe where the news, every day, brings so much strangeness, revolt, weirdness that we are not even asking ourselves if it is normal, how we are going to do it, how to position ourselves, where we are a population dumbed down every day by new realities that are beyond us. In a very few years, we had to get used to seeing people beheaded in our streets, to seeing a virus that disrupts the way of life of the whole planet, to meet people who are sure that elections in a democracy like the United States have been manipulated by a power like Russia, etc. You get used to things like that. We also get used to scientific inventions that we don’t have time to integrate before we are told that they are harmful. This creates a brutal return to a feeling that the individual is a tiny creature that everything exceeds and that, apart from his anger, has little to say. Now, even in France, we are faced with a population whose only channel of expression is public shouting, public demonstrations in which as much violence as possible is shown…
AZ : In your book, there is a very interesting and daring passage: the long monologue of a yellow vest. You show how difficult it is to understand a discourse that is full of legitimate claims, since it is about social conflicts and economic misery. And then you show how everything happens as if there was a kind of impulsive release. Something hyper archaic rises to the surface and is transformed into racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic outbursts. There is an anger that is quite legitimate, that could very well do without this layer of disoriented resentment. Why is it that it seems inevitable, for you, that this resentment accompanies this anger?
JS: It is this famous noisy ignorance of which the philosopher Clément Rosset spoke. He said “as soon as we go deeper, we leave the real”. The current false certainty is the following: all our contemporaries are convinced that their opinions are based on common sense, logic and reasoning. In reality, we are overwhelmed by emotions, whether on social networks or in real life, and we express our emotions as we can, by shouting… And we always end up, since we are talking about injustice and anger, by wanting to put a face on the person responsible for this anger. Obviously, the mistake is there. The thing that no one is able to hear, because it is the tragic permanence is that since antiquity, it is unbearable, it is that the forces that crush us are blind. What are the people who, for the last few years, have had this bloodthirsty hatred against the president of the French Republic, whether it be Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande or Emmanuel Macron, who are, after all, the three most different types that one can imagine?
This hatred is the certainty that in France, the president is capable of something. Having dined twice with François Hollande, I can promise you that if he had the power to do anything, it would have been known. I love the way he says it, with a very funny phrase: “You know, every time one of my colleagues takes the microphone and says we are determined, it’s because he doesn’t have a clue what he’s going to do.” And I think the public is suffering so much and for legitimate reasons, that they are not able to hear that there is no face, that there is no enemy, that there is no conspiracy, that there are no people who have come together to make things go wrong for them. It would be so easy and unfortunately there is none of that.
I had a mishap. I should have kept my mouth shut… Every time I speak out on social media, I tell myself I would have been better off keeping my mouth shut. At the time of the biggest yellow vest protests, on the day or the day before the biggest protest, you find a Star of David and something marked Jewish on a storefront. I had the misfortune to write a text saying, “this is not acceptable”. I received letters from all over France telling me that I was transmitting fake news, that this Jewish star had not been painted at all on the route of the demonstration or that it had been done a few hours before. One imagines that, in the context where the whole of France comes to Paris with pots of paint, a yellow star is painted on the route of the demonstration but without any link with it… So all this does not exist. Only the idea that I spread a fake news trying to throw the opprobrium on a movement. I am not questioning the legitimacy of all angry movements.
My only atavistic concern is to ask myself if this time they are going to cut our heads off or not? So yes, it colors my political judgment. It was very simple when I was a child, to believe that hatred of Jews came only from the extreme right. Well, that’s not the case anymore and it’s a pity because it’s always much sexier to attack a skinhead than to attack a person who has all the legitimacy to be angry because of his history or something else.
AZ: And you get away with using, precisely, monsters to try to solve this enigma of anti-Semitism, which has been going on for so long. When reading the novel, one has the impression that there was a kind of progressive suspense in the resolution of the mechanics of anti-Semitism. Joann Sfar is going to show us how anti-Semitism works, and we might be able to defuse it. And we arrive little by little at a sort of gnostic thesis according to which anti-Semitism is a subterranean, diabolical monster, which does not have so many forms or which is polymorphic, since, as you said, one can dislike Jews because they are communists or because they are capitalists, it depends. Anti-Semitism is not someone for you either. It doesn’t have a face. It is this amorphous and polymorphous monster that resembles all the sins it accuses the Jews of. In a way, your thesis about anti-Semitism is that it feeds on a hatred that it produces itself and that is based on the rejection of its own sins or its own feelings of guilt.
J.S.: Hate is a great political force, it is a concrete reality. Hate is a unifying force. Hate is a force that brings people together. And I believe that not all hatreds are alike. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, we can list them all, are hatreds that are not the same, that do not have the same drivers. They must be named correctly. In the hatred of the Jew, there is one thing in common each time, it is the feeling of proximity and strangeness. The hatred of the foreigner, the hatred of the race, is the hatred of someone who is taken out of our system. I remember an interview with Lech Walesa – which I can’t find again and which I’m told I made up, but I didn’t make it up at all – where he said: “We Poles have never hated the Jews. That’s not the point. We have always lived with them. The problem is that we can’t tell them apart. It stresses us out! “He didn’t say it as well as I did, because he wasn’t as funny as I was. But that was the idea…
We can see that the anti-Jewish caricature is very convenient because it allows us to recognize them. But at the same time, people are always looking for Jews. This is the common point between anti-Semites and Jews, who know very well who is a Jew and who is not.
My idea is that hate feeds on itself. And, perhaps this is also what I tell in the book, it is a pleasure to be in hate, it is a joy. And this is what strikes me most. This is the case with all massacres, unfortunately, it is not a Jewish privilege. Whenever there has been a massacre of Jews, I think of the story of the Kishinev pogrom, there is never the slightest hint of guilt among the massacres at the time of the massacre. There is a collective joy. There is a certainty of doing what must be done, and there is a certainty that it is necessary. I don’t believe in blindness. I believe that the person who massacres has the certainty of doing good.
I have never asked people to love the Jews. I only ask that they avoid massacring them. I see the greedy pleasure with which the big television or radio stations that invite me sometimes try to get me to talk about Israel so that I can finally trip up, so that they can put the label on me… I limit myself to answering that part of my family lives in Israel and that I would like them to avoid being massacred, and that my political thinking on the Middle East does not go beyond that. I was lucky enough to meet Georges Kiejman at one point and he had an extraordinary definition of anti-Semitism. At one point, I was talking to him about a far-right minister whom he had among his friends. But I told him: “All the same, Georges, he is very, very anti-Jewish! ». And he answered that “anti-Semitism consists in hating the Jews excessively. As long as they don’t kill us, it’s already a good thing.”
AZ : Albert Cohen, when he denounces anti-Semitism, it is by implying that he wants to be loved. It is a desire to be loved as a Jew. And he doesn’t understand. It breaks his heart, the anti-Semitism. It’s a very different position from yours… All this invites us to reflect on our level of tolerance towards what we can say about Jews or not. I am thinking of Romain Gary who, concerning De Gaulle’s famous sentence about the Jews being “proud and domineering” said, in substance, that the Jews exaggerated, De Gaulle’s sentence was not at all anti-Semitic, on the contrary it was a way of valuing the Jews: they are strong, they are proud and they are right to be so. And Gary added: “It’s a shame. We’re a bit sick of anti-Semitism. We should not react like that. ».
JS: Romain Gary and Albert Cohen are stars in my firmament. They are among the novelists I love the most, but fortunately they have a constant ambiguity about their Judaism. Albert Cohen is torn with disgust for his Jewishness. One sees the fascination for pretty Swiss blondes and one sees the disgust for the swarming that he imagines to be a Jewish swarming. It is all the more apparent because he has not had a Jewish life. He suffered anti-Jewish insults as a child in Marseilles, in his small family unit of Corfu Jews who try to go unnoticed in Marseilles. He invented his Jewish world.
Romain Gary is even more amazing, he’s one of the greatest Yiddish writers but in French), he’s on the level of Philip Roth. Except that, by mistake, instead of going to New York, he went to Paris. But it’s not his fault, it’s his mother’s fault. What makes Romain Gary great – because he is the king of liars – is that if you listen to him, he is not Jewish. He always presents himself as a prophet who wants the good of the Jews he only vaguely knows. My Jewish idols among French-speaking novelists, and I include Kessel in this group, are those authors who are permanently in an ambiguous friction with their Jewish affiliation.
I don’t have a Jewish life, I don’t have a community life. I hardly see my family and before I made The Rabbi’s Cat, I didn’t see any Jews. I made The Rabbi‘s Cat because the twin towers collapsed in New York and they were trying to sell us a war of civilization – obviously, if you keep calling for it, it will eventually happen… My grandmother from Algeria had just died, and I thought I would like to tell her something. So I imagined this ‘rabbi’s cat’…
AZ : In volume 10 of the Rabbi’s Cat, which is called “Go home! “you talk about the diversity of positions towards Israel: the reasons that Jews may have for leaving or, on the contrary, the reasons that push them not to leave; the fact that Jews can be reproached for assimilating but also for leaving for Israel… What I want to emphasize here is that with the drawing and the narration, the criticisms or reproaches that are regularly addressed to you when you tackle these delicate issues seem defused. One has the impression that drawing allows you to propose images of Jews and the Jewish world that are more ambiguous, more complex and that divert from the usual representations…
JS : The story and drawing leave room for the readers. I think the days when a professor could give a monologue from the podium with people listening and nodding are over. Today, the reader or listener is as smart as the author, so we’re here to share tools for thinking. Why do I often say that drawing is a human science? Because before making it a poetic or artistic discipline, it is a way of telling stories, a way of putting characters on stage. And the advantage of comics is that, apart from the voice of the narrator, we can make different opinions speak, dialogue and argue.
Nowadays, when I work on a story that I tell, I document myself… For example, before I started this volume 10 of The Rabbi’s Cat, I thought I already knew a lot about the Jewish movements in early Israel. In fact, I didn’t. I didn’t know about the Hashomer movement. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know about these Russian Jews who go dressed like Bedouins, who terrorize everyone, on horseback, with grenades and guns, and who are indistinguishable from an Arab tribe when they arrive. I didn’t know the daily life of the Palestinian shepherds who opposed the Jews on one side, but to whom they went to get treatment because the tribe above them won’t allow it, at the risk of massacring them. I try to tell individual stories,
because everyone is so passionate about the Middle East that there seems to be no room left for an individual story, for a memory. And then unfortunately, in the contest of stupidity, there is no winner. That is, in all the camps, everyone is hysterical… Especially people who know nothing about it, and certainly not the history of this region.
In The Rabbi’s Cat, I tried to stay in my grandmother’s story, that is to say, in the barely disguised memories of people in my family or my circle, with their Algerian specificity. That is to say that for Jews from Eastern Europe, for Jews from Morocco, Israel represented a promised land very early on. For the Jews of Algeria, not at all. For the Jews of Algeria, the promised land is the metropolis. They have a fascination for France. So their fascination for Israel will come after they have resolved what they have to do in the metropolis, in a way…
And so I realized that at the time of my story, at the end of the 19th century, there were very few Algerian Jews in Israel. And I told all sorts of stories that are more or less in the family memory, with characters for whom it is never resolved: “It is not our destiny to go there.
I really like the absurd and very true idea about my family: why didn’t we make aliyah? This threat of aliyah terrorized me, because I thought there was no good comic book store in Israel. And we didn’t go in the end because my grandmother got sick in a hotel in Tel Aviv. She said that it was out of the question for us to live in a country that had air conditioning. Nice was already good compared to Algeria. But when my father went to plead in Aix, she was afraid he would catch his death because in Aix, it was very cold. So Israel, with the air conditioning, was not possible. I like this story very much. It makes me say that we have to stop with the free will. We have to stop making us believe that people decide their destiny, that families know what they are doing. Families are good people who get pulled around and then spend their lives trying to justify what they did or what they said. I tried to bring in my grandmother’s story, and this somewhat absurd imagination, rather than the history of historians.