Off the Shelf: Feline Jewish wisdom by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is there a special connection between Jews and cats? I have plenty of Jewish friends who have dogs, but I don’t recall any book written connecting Judaism and canines. That’s not true of cats, though. There is the delightful graphic novel “The Rabbi’s Cat” by Joann Sfar, which features a talking cat who wants to study mysticism and have a bar mitzvah. That suggests the connection may be between cats and mysticism, which would explain “Tales of the Holy Mysticat: Jewish Wisdom by a Feline Mystic reverently collected by His Humble Assistant Rachel Adler” (Banot Press). 

This odd, short work began as Facebook posts written by Adler, the David Ellenson Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, about her rescue cat, Dagesh. She notes that over the years she came to see him as a teacher and began referring to him as the Holy Mysticat. Although writing tongue-in-cheek, she does see herself as having learned spiritual lessons – particularly mystical ones – from Dagesh. Adler, however, considers herself a theologian, rather than a mystic. This helps explain the troubles that arise between the scholar (Adler) and the mystic (her cat) when they disagree about theological and practical aspects of sharing an apartment.

Adler gives details of her time with the Holy Mysticat, from his throwing up each year as a gift on her birthday to the sweet way he has of making amends with her after they’ve fought. (He settles himself on top of her with his nose in her face.) She interprets his cat-like behavior as being connected to his mystical experiences, including his chasing of demons she cannot see.

Following the 80-some pages of essays about the Holy Mysticat are almost 60 pages of articles discussing Jewish holidays, religious texts and history. Adler suggests this section will be helpful for those who may not understand the religious references in her discussions of the Holy Mysticat’s behavior. While the section does offer a good general introduction, it made me wonder about the expected audience for the book: cat lovers or Jews?

Readers of “The Tales of the Holy Mysticat” will need to have a very highly developed sense of whimsy. Fortunately, I do, although I have to admit the book is best enjoyed when read in short bursts, I’m not sure that those unfamiliar with Jewish practice will get the jokes, even if they read the second section of the book first. One thing is sure, though: Jewish cat lovers will definitely be comparing their cats’ behaviors to that of the Holy Mysticat. It’s possible there are far more kabbalistic cats living among us than we might expect.