The best way to read Joann Sfar’s newest graphic novel is to pop a CD into the stereo and become immersed in some good klezmer music. Itzhak Perlman’s In the Fiddler’s House would do the trick or, if you can find it, a recording by the Amsterdam Klezmer Band, Sfar’s favorite group, as he writes in the end notes which accompany this stellar composition. On the heels of his critically acclaimed The Rabbi’s Cat, which featured the sun-drenched Algeria of the 1930’s, Sfar takes his readers to the snowy forests and shtetls of pre-World War II Eastern Europe.
This first book in a projected series follows a group of outcasts who are brought together by various events for the purpose of playing music. Noah Davidovich, nicknamed “The Baron of My Backside,” is the only survivor of an attack on his band of traveling musicians. Chava, a young woman who wants to leave her remote village, joins the Baron, and together they set out for Odessa. Also on the road to Odessa is Yaacov, a student who steals from his rabbi in order to test God’s existence. After being expelled from his yeshiva, he takes refuge from the snow in the burned-out wagon of the Baron’s musicians, where he steals a banjo and a clarinet. Vincenzo, a fiddle-playing Italian Jew who was also kicked out of his yeshiva, soon joins Yaacov. Together they rescue Tshokola, a gypsy who has been left for dead by the Cossacks. The musicians’ journeys intersect in humorous and suspenseful ways, and readers are left impatient for the next book to see what will transpire.
Sfar weaves together the stories of this shabby group of musicians in a unique and fluid style. His stunning watercolor and ink images jump off the page in a brilliant palette of colors. Purple suns, aqua skies, and sunset-colored faces meld in startling ways to highlight the emotions and actions of the characters. Readers are treated to an additional 15 pages of author’s notes about klezmer music, graphic novels, anti-Semitism, and God, as well as six pages of artist studies of the different personalities. Klezmer the graphic novel belongs in every library that treasures the unique slice of Jewish life that only klezmer the music can provide.