MY FATHER'S PARADISE
A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
By Ariel Sabar
Algonquin. 332 pp. $25.95
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 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 shanty town 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 Book World.