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Klezmer

Joann Sfar
Joann Sfar

Meet Noah Davidovich, dubbed The Baron of My Backside and his unlikely band of musicians: Chava, a young woman who follows The Baron away from her remote village; Yaacov, a favoured student whose rabbi has banished him from his yeshiva; Vincenzo, a wandering Italian fiddler; and Tshokola, a gypsy pursued by Cossacks - all unforgettable new characters from the inimitable Joann Sfar.


In a startling, loose watercolour style, Sfar evokes the Jewish communities of pre-World War II Eastern Europe and the itinerant klezmer musicians who performed at celebrations, festivals, and cabarets. Following in the tradition of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories and rambling Yiddish folktales, Sfar's colourful characters personify the multifarious influences that have poured into the music of klezmer, and into the Yiddish heritage.


The first book in a series featuring The Baron and his musical fellowship, Klezmer is at once dark and light-hearted, tragic and hilarious, violent and tender - and Sfar himself never ceases to amaze, to surprise, and to defy categorization. If you like this you should try Sfar’s excellent The Rabbi’s Cat.


First Second Books, paperback, 144 pages, published September 2006


From the Kirkus review: Joann Sfar made some waves in the U.S. publishing world last year with the release of The Rabbi’s Cat, the story of an Algerian-Jewish family with a cat that decides he’d like to be Jewish as well. Loosely drawn and energetic, The Rabbi’s Cat is both sentimental and sharp in its observations of a lost Jewish world.

“His whole work is infused with both Talmudic learning and with his background in classical philosophy, but it’s often hilarious and always brimming with humanity,” says Mark Siegel, Sfar’s editor at First Second Books. “Perhaps that’s what I appreciate most in his work. He has a big, big heart.”

While The Rabbi’s Cat was based loosely on stories told on Sfar’s father’s side of the family, Klezmer draws on stories from the Ashkenazi Jews on his mother’s side. “She died when Joann was very young,” says Siegel. “That grief haunts many of his books.” Klezmer tells of the birth of the bewitching Eastern European Jewish music after which the book is named.

Four Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms, arranged marriages and yeshiva educations, plus one gypsy fleeing everything meet in Odessa (Ukraine) and become musicians as much through force of will as through natural talent. The first in a series, Klezmer promises to “evolve in remarkable ways,” says Siegel. “[Sfar’s] books aren’t slick and polished, they’re fresh, alive and have an immediacy that’s very engaging for a reader,” says Siegel. “I’m intent on offering lots more of Joann Sfar’s world in our coming seasons.”

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