The world's first graphic novel about Klezmorim? Mighty good, too!
A couple of years ago, I was blown away by a very different Jewish graphic novel called "The Rabbi's Cat." It was by Joann Sfar, who I understand to be a fairly well-known French cartoonist. Now, Avidan Kogel has emailed to let me know of the latest Sfar release, the first volume in a new series: Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East.
This is wild, post-modern narrative. But, where reading the shtetl scenes in All things will be illuminated makes one think of hobbits and utter cluelessness, Sfar's post-modern klezmer musicians are weirdly real, despite the fact that it is clear that this is not a novel to be consulted for historical accuracy. In fact, there were times when I could see and read echoes of other graphic novels of the last ten or twenty years. But reading Sfar, I get a sense less of ignorance, than of re-imagining. Which, given the klezmer revival and the "post-vernacular" popularity of klezmer all over the place, is entirely appropriate.
So, the first song that is sung in the novel (okay, he refers to it as a klezmer song; I would have rathered he say "Yiddish", given that klezmer is still instrumental music, even though many post-revival klezmer bands have vocalists) is "Belz," a song written in New York City for the famed Belz native (then living in New York) Isa Kremer. Another song featured in the book is "sheyn vi di levone," straight from New York's Second Avenue Theatre, via Joseph Rumshinsky and Chaim Tauber.
This isn't a cute book. Yeshiva students steal. People kill and are killed. There is a naked woman. It may not be appropriate as a bar/bas mitzve gift. But it is a powerfully compelling and fun book. There is lots of music! There is a gypsy! There is Jewish humor. There is even post-modern Jewish humor, by which I mean the sorts of jokes that you tell when you know that the world in which you allege the jokes were told is dead. For instance, there is a wonderful scene in which the gypsy musician tells a story to a Jewish audience that he is trying to make Jewish. He fails utterly, and rotfl-ingly.
This may be the first adult graphic novel about klezmorim—how much the better that it is so good! (As different from the novel inspired by Alicia Svigals, "Golems of Gotham" or whatever, that is so dismally, cloyingly, disappointingly bad.) This is also a serial novel. No sooner do all of the characters come together than the next adventure begins and the words, "to be continued" appear. The next installment is already available in French.
Of special mention is the author's postscript to the novel in which he describes some of his influences (Ashkenazic roots on one side; Sephardic roots on the other) and beliefs. I find myself at odds with some of the things he writes, while disturbed by others. In the end, however, I think we have to look at an author's stories, and from that best understand what is meant. In that regard, and I am very much in sync with Mr. Sfar, and hope that his books—in particular his Jewish books—continue to get translated. This is a voice so different from Art Spiegelman or Ben Katchor or other American novelists, that deserves to be read and enjoyed as our more familiar artists are read and enjoyed. I cannot over-recommend this book (or its predecessor). Enjoy. Enjoy. Enjoy.