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A Battle of the Klezmer Bands -- with Real Bullets

Mel Brooks could not have cooked up a wilder, weirder Jewish-Russian musical Western. Set in early 20th-century rural Poland, Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East opens with one group of itinerant Jewish musicians intruding on another band's turf when -- bang!-- a deadly shoot-out ensues. Clearly, the tiny shtetl just wasn't big enough for both groups. The sole musician left standing in this acerbic yet melancholic graphic novel s Noah (aka Baron of My Backside), a moody loner made even lonelier by the loss of his beloved clarinet. Armed with no more than a harmonica, he attracts voluptuous Chava, and the duo head to Odessa, where more adventures ensue. And there's more to come, since this is only book one of a proposed series.

In expressive watercolors reminiscent of Chagall mixed with Munch, the French artist Joann Sfar depicts an untamed universe with as many unpredictable moods as klezmer itself -- klezmer being both the Yiddish word for musician and the name of a style of Russian-Jewish-folk inflected jazz. With frequent references to the great Russian Jewish author Isaac Babel (including lengthy quotations from Babel's stories of Odessa), Sfar creates a sense of continuity between literary traditions even as he invents his own amalgam of art, narrative and music.

In accompanying notes, Sfar discusses his own Jewish identity. He slams religious observance and isn't at all sentimental about shtetl life. But he is clearly searching for a way to connect with the Jewish soul -- and he finds it in klezmer music. He also provides a discography for the music his drawings evoke. Among his favorites: CDs by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and the Amsterdam Klezmer Band. So light the Hanukkah lights and have yourself a very Klezmer Hanukkah!

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report.

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Diane Cole