For graphic novelist Joann Sfar, family is the central inspiration for his work. In describing one of the characters, a musician, from his latest book Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East, he took a marker and with a few brisk strokes sketched the image on a nearby white board. With square-rimmed glasses and a thin face, the man he drew was based largely on his grandfather, he explained — a World War II soldier and doctor from Ukraine who left his homeland for France, where he was told they needed medical professionals.
All of the characters in his ongoing series of illustrated works, set in locales from Algeria to Poland, are tied to the stories he's heard throughout his life about his extended family.
Sfar, the author of Klezmer and The Rabbi's Cat, spoke recently at University of Pennsylvania's Steinhardt Hall about art, family and growing up Jewish in France. The night began with a sampling of klezmer music by Philadelphians Rachel Lemisch, Jason Rosenblatt, Ilana Sherer, Daniela Cohen and Erika Miller. Violin, trombone, piano and flute filled the room as people gathered for Sfar's talk. The artist watched intently as the musicians played, sketching in his notebook while some people danced to the music and others flipped through copies of Sfar's books.
Searching for Meaning
"I've always been drawing" in order to tell a story, Sfar told his audience. After the death of his mother when he was 3, he took up art needing "to feel that presence," he said, referring to how creativity assuaged his sense of loss even then. He began to draw more and more, and all of his stories seemed to feature rabbis — something he didn't think was out of the ordinary.
His book The Rabbi's Cat features a Sephardic Jewish family living in Algeria in the 1930s, inspired by his father's family. The crux of the story revolves around a widowed rabbi and his beautiful daughter, along with a cat who gains the power of speech after eating the family parrot.
While The Rabbi's Cat was inspired by his heritage, Klezmer was inspired by his penchant for sound, and by another, more unlikely source: Western movies.
Sfar said that he wanted his latest book to be a Sergio Leone film, with instruments used in the place of guns.
Klezmer's protagonist is a former Polish army soldier who survives an attack by rival Jewish musicians; all of his other bandmates are killed. He sneaks into the other musicians' town, armed with only his harmonica — and a taste for revenge.
But violence is not on his mind; his revenge will be musical in nature, embarrassing the rival tunesmiths by wowing the town's venerable rabbi with his skillful playing. He finds himself working with a new set of musicians, including a star yeshiva student who's good at everything — except, of course, for music.
Sfar embraces the comic-book form as his literary medium, which he stated is much more widely utilized in Europe and Japan than here. He also said that in the United States, comics are still predominantly dominated by the superhero genre, although in recent years, more serious titles have emerged from the major publishing houses in the form of graphic novels.
Sfar noted that this genre also sells better in Europe than it does in the United States.
"My purpose, in all my stories, is to write about Jews in Europe," he said. "Most French people have had a Jewish classmate, but they have never been to a Shabbat dinner."
One of Sfar's goals is to make Jewish culture something that's not out of the ordinary in Europe.
"I feel Jewish people always had a great utility in the history of the world," he said, lauding Jewish advancements in science and medicine. Leaps forward in the arts were also a predominant part of Jewish culture, he said.
"More and more non-Jewish people are playing klezmer," he acknowledged, simply because they like the music.
Sfar tackled the subject of anti-Semitism in France as part of his presentation, and responded that he felt the problem has been exaggerated.
He noted that Muslim immigrants tend to be open-minded about their Jewish neighbors, but he sees that their children do lash out, spurred on by anti-Jewish sentiment from the Middle East aired on television. But this anger, he went on, is not specifically aimed at the Jews, but at frustration with French society and its inability to find these young people work and a meaningful future.
Even though his stories are steeped in rabbis and Jewish culture, the trials and tribulations of his characters are Sfar's main concern: "I try to stay as far away from theological problems as possible."
Still, whether he's working with a rabbi's talking cat or a wandering group of rebellious klezmer musicians, Sfar stated that he never really sees himself straying far from his cast of Jewish characters.
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