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My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraqby Ariel Sabar
Synopses & Reviews
"I am the keeper of my family's stories. I am the guardian of its honor. I am the defender of its traditions. As the first-born son of a Kurdish father, these, they tell me, are my duties. And yet even before my birth I resisted."
So begins Ariel Sabar's true tale of a father and a son, and the two worlds that kept them apart and finally brought them together: ancient Iraq and modern America.
In a remote corner of the world, forgotten for nearly three thousand years, lived an enclave of Kurdish Jews so isolated that they still spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Mostly illiterate, they were self-made mystics and gifted storytellers, humble peddlers and rugged loggers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To these descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Yona Sabar was born.
Caught unawares by growing ethnic tensions in the Middle East after World War II, the Jews of Zakho were airlifted to the new state of Israel in the 1950s with the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq--one of the world's largest and least-known diasporas. Almost overnight, the Kurdish Jews' exotic culture and language were doomed to extinction.
Yona's son Ariel knew little of his father's history. Growing up in Los Angeles, where Yona had become an esteemed professor at UCLA and had dedicated his career to preserving his people's traditions, Ariel wanted nothing to do with his father's strange immigrant heritage. Until he had a son of his own.
My Father's Paradise is Ariel Sabar's quest to reconcile present and past. As Ariel and his father travel together into today's postwar Iraq to find what's left of Yona's birthplace, Sabar brings to life the ancient town of Zakho, telling his family's story and discovering their place in the sweeping saga of the Sephardic Jews' millennia-long survival in Islamic lands. He introduces us to his spiritual great-grandfather, the village cloth dyer by day whose true passion is praying through the night in Zakho's tiny mud-brick synagogue; his quietly heroic grandmother, who never recovers from the kidnapping of her first-born child; his grandfather, defeated by the prejudice and poverty Kurds faced in the Promised Land of Israel; and young Yona, Ariel's father, a footloose boy who swims in the Habur river, leaps across rooftops, and becomes the last bar mitzvah in Zakho before being ousted from paradise.
Populated by Kurdish chieftains, trailblazing linguists, Arab nomads, and devout believers, this intimate yet powerful book is an improbable story of tolerance and hope set in what today is the very center of the world's attention. In retelling his father's story, Ariel Sabar has found his own.
If Ariel Sabar's "My Father's Paradise" were only about his father's life, it would be a remarkable enough story about the psychic costs of immigration. But Sabar's family history turns out to be more than the chronicle of one man's efforts to retain something of his homeland in new surroundings. It's also a moving story about the near-death of an ancient language and the tiny flicker of life that... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) remains in it. The author's father, Yona Sabar, was born in 1938 to an illiterate mother in a mud shack in the remote mountain village of Zakho in northern Iraq, among a community of Kurdistani Jews whose ancestry in the area could be traced back nearly 2,700 years. Co-existing affably with Muslims and Christians, these Jews were so isolated that they heard nothing about the savage farhud, or pogrom, against the Jews of Baghdad in 1941, and throughout the 1940s they had almost no idea about the fate of Jews in Europe. The Sabar family spoke Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of much of the Middle East beginning in the 8th century B.C. and is believed to be the language of Jesus. Its domination ceased in the region in the 7th century A.D., when conquering Muslim armies imposed Arabic. By the 1930s, except in enclaves like Zakho, Aramaic as an everyday tongue was more or less extinct. (It survives today in some scattered communities as well as in major Jewish texts and prayers.) Just as Aramaic has been disappearing, so has Jewish life in Zakho. In 1930, there were 1,471 Jews in the town of 27,000 people. Today, according to the author, there are none. Over the course of his life, Yona Sabar traveled far from his origins. Exiled from the Eden of his childhood, he raised his children in a dizzyingly different place: Los Angeles. "Aramaic," writes his son, "was his only surviving childhood possession." The Sabar family left Zakho around 1950, along with nearly every other Jewish family in Iraq. Impelled by increasing anti-Semitic violence and a forceful denaturalization law, their flight was part of a dramatic exodus that became one of the largest airlifts in history: In less than a year, some 120,000 Iraqi Jews abandoned their homeland for the newly created state of Israel. Yet for Yona and his family, the reality of their arrival in the Promised Land was vastly different from their dreams. Even after they moved out of the vermin-ridden immigrant shantytown that was their first Israeli home, the family remained poor and defeated, victims of discrimination against Jews from Islamic lands. Of those Jews, called Mizrahim, the Kurds were the lowest on the social scale, stigmatized by many European-born Israelis as primitives. Through sheer prodigiousness, Yona managed to distinguish himself, gaining admission to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where his talent for linguistics was quickly discovered, and then to the graduate program in Near Eastern Languages at Yale. The chapters describing Yona's budding success as a linguist are thrilling, as both he and his professors recognized that as a speaker of Aramaic he was a living repository of an endangered tongue. He began by tracing common roots among Aramaic and Hebrew words, then recorded and analyzed the speech of an elderly storyteller from Zakho. In time, Yona's singular efforts led him to UCLA, where he has taught for three decades and where he composed a definitive Jewish-Aramaic dictionary, "racing against time," his son writes, "to document the language for the generations of scholars who would come too late to hear it firsthand." Living in Los Angeles, he has also consulted for the film industry, helping actors learn Aramaic for the 1977 George Burns comedy "Oh God!" and for an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Ariel Sabar, a Washington-based journalist who has worked for the Baltimore Sun, has framed his book as an act of reconnection with the father who had always embarrassed him with his old-fashioned, Middle Eastern ways. But this generational reconciliation is the book's weakest feature. As an anguished mission to preserve the shards of his shattered culture, Yona Sabar's story speaks eloquently on its own. Donna Rifkind reviews frequently for The Washington Post Book World. Reviewed by Donna Rifkind, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Sabar once looked at his [immigrant] father with shame, scornful of the alien who still bore scars on his back from childhood bloodlettings. This book, he writes, is a chance to make amends.--"New York Times Sunday Book Review."
In a remote and dusty corner of the world, forgotten for nearly three thousand years, lived an ancient community of Kurdish Jews so isolated that they still spoke Aramaic--the language of Jesus. Mostly illiterate, they were self-made mystics and gifted storytellers, humble peddlers and rugged loggers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To these descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Yona Sabar was born.
In the 1950s, after the founding of the state of Israel, Yona and his family emigrated there with the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq--one of the world's largest and least-known diasporas. Almost overnight, the Kurdish Jews' exotic culture and language were doomed to extinction. Yona, who became an esteemed professor at UCLA, dedicated his career to preserving his people's traditions. But to his first-generation American son Ariel, Yona was a reminder of a strange immigrant heritage on which he had turned his back--until he had a son of his own.
My Father's Paradise is Ariel Sabar's quest to reconcile present and past. As father and son travel together to today's postwar Iraq to find what's left of Yona's birthplace, Ariel brings to life the ancient town of Zakho, telling his family's story and discovering his own role in this sweeping saga. What he finds in the Sephardic Jews' millennia-long survival in Islamic lands is an improbable story of tolerance and hope.
Populated by Kurdish chieftains, trailblazing linguists, Arab nomads, devout believers--marvelous characters all-- this intimate yet powerful book uncovers the vanished history of a place that is now at the very center of the world's attention.
Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise is the Winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
About the Author
Ariel Sabar is an award-winning former staff writer for the Baltimore Sun and the Providence (RI) Journal. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Monthly, Moment, Mother Jones magazine, and other publications. He lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D.C.
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