My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past

4.8 8
by Ariel Sabar

View All Available Formats & Editions

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 and humble peddlers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To

…  See more details below


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 and humble peddlers 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. 

Yona's son Ariel grew up in Los Angeles, where Yona had become an esteemed professor, dedicating 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.

Ariel Sabar brings to life the ancient town of Zakho, discovering his family’s place in the sweeping saga of Middle-Eastern history. This powerful book is an improbable story of tolerance and hope set in what today is the very center of the world’s attention.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Amy Reiter
Yona Sabar, a professor at UCLA, is an eminent scholar of Neo-Aramaic, the heroic rescuer of a language near extinction, and the sort of mensch who prompts rapturous reviews and fierce admiration from his students. But to his son Ariel, growing up among the privileged offspring of Los Angeles's moneyed set, Yona -- a Kurdish Jew born in Zakho, Iraq, who emigrated to Israel and, ultimately, the United States -- was a source of shame and an object of ridicule, an immigrant with funny hair, a funny accent, and funny habits. In a flashy world of fast cars, rock 'n' roll, and Hollywood glitz, Yona drove a dented Chevette, cut his own hair, wore ugly discount clothing, and further mortified his son by, say, bringing his own travel shampoo bottle of Manischewitz Cream White Concord into restaurants because paying $3 for a glass of wine off the menu was "out of the question."

"Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small," Ariel Sabar writes in the delicately calibrated, determinedly reported and unflinchingly candid My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. "He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A. He grew up in a dusty town in northern Iraq, in a crowded mud-brick shack without electricity or plumbing. I grew up in a white stucco ranch house in West Los Angeles, on a leafy street made safe by private police cruisers marked BEL-AIR PATROL."

Yet when Sabar's own son, Seth, was born, in 2002, and focused on him a look that seemed to ask, "Who are you?" Sabar, who is currently covering the U.S. presidential campaigns for the Christian Science Monitor, did what any journalist would do: He picked up his reporter's notebook and started asking questions.

Speaking with his father's relatives and friends, listening to his father's stories with an attention that was genuinely avid and completely new, digging deep and reading up, Sabar reconstructs his father's roots and traces his life. In doing so, Sabar begins to understand not only where he comes from but who he is and who he hopes to be. He also finds that he and his father have more in common than he ever imagined. And opens his readers' eyes to a culture that they may never have known existed.

"His people, the Jews of Kurdistan, were the world's oldest Jewish diaspora," Sabar writes of his father's family. "Earthy, hardworking, and deeply superstitious, they had lived in isolated mountain villages alongside Muslim Kurds for nearly 2,700 years but never abandoned their ancient tongue: Aramaic. Aramaic had been the lingua franca, or common language, of the Near East for two thousand years. Jesus spoke it. Parts of the Bible were inked in it. Three Mesopotamian empires used it as their official language. But by the time of my father's birth, in 1938, it was all but dead. After Islamic armies conquered the region in the seventh century, Middle Eastern Jews switched to the Arabic of their Muslim neighbors. Aramaic clung to life in just one place: on the lips of Jews, and some Christians, in Kurdistan."

The fate of the Jews of Kurdistan themselves was equally precarious: The geographic isolation that had for centuries preserved an ancient language could not, ultimately, protect Kurdistan's 25,000 Jews, "who saw themselves as the direct descendents of the Lost Tribes of Israel," from the world -- or from change.

In the book's opening chapters, Sabar vividly evokes life in Zakho circa 1930 -- with its narrow, zigzagging unpaved roads; clustered flat-roof mud-brick houses; cramped open-air market; river banks speckled with scampering children and tea-sipping men; Jews, Muslims and Christians peacefully coexisting. There, in Zakho's Jewish quarter, we meet Sabar's grandmother, Miryam, whose childhood hardships (a mother's early death, a stepmother's cruelty) and difficulties thereafter are recounted quite movingly. Particularly affecting is Sabar's retelling of the disappearance of his grandmother's firstborn, a "little thumb girl" named Rifqa, a sickly baby who was handed over to a Muslim wet nurse to regain her health and was never seen again.

It's hard not to feel, as Sabar clearly does, that a more dedicated search could have been made for the baby. Was she dead or kidnapped? And as Miryam rejoices in the birth of her baby son, Yona, and in her subsequent offspring, the mystery surrounding Rifqa's disappearance never quite leaves the reader's mind. True, it is Yona's book -- and so we follow his journey from Zakho to Israel to America with fond interest. We marvel at his progress from ghetto to university and his efforts to save his mother tongue. We nod in recognition at Sabar's candid confessions about his own poor treatment of his father, a gentle, caring soul who clearly deserved better. And we delight in their father-son bonding trip to Zakho, a city that is now moving rapidly into the 21st century.

But when Sabar takes it upon himself to return to Iraq to try to track down his aunt, whom he has become obsessed with finding, we feel grateful -- and we share his disappointment when all the promising leads prove false. Yet, with him, we learn a lesson.

"In the search for my past, I had made a wrong turn with the hunt for my lost aunt," Sabar concludes. "I had wanted an Oprah moment, in which relatives separated at birth embrace through tears and order is restored to the world. I see now that if I want to repair my ties to the past, to my forefathers and father, it will take more than a 'get.' It will be a work of days and months and years."

By attending the stories of his father's past, by listening and walking step-by-step through his father's journey, Ariel Sabar has arrived at a clearer sense of who his father is, how alike they are -- and how finally to answer his own son's silent demand: "Who are you?" --Amy Reiter

Amy Reiter is an editor at Salon. She has also written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Wine Spectator, and Glamour, among other publications.

Read More

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Taut and extravagant. A sweeping saga with the cadence of a Biblical tale."– Daniel Asa Rose, author of Hiding Places: A Father and his Sons Retrace Their Family's Escape from the Holocaust

"An enchanting combination of history, family and discovery – Ariel Sabar's chronicle of his journey is flat out wonderful." –Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Why Faith Matters

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
LitLoversLane More than 1 year ago
Call me ignorant, but I hadn’t a clue there had been Kurdish Jews in Iraq, much less Jews considered part of Lost Tribes of Israel and speak the language of Jesus Christ. Thank you to My Father’s Paradise for curing that ignorance and for so much more. I loved this book in which author Ariel Sabar marries history, biography, memoir, and even throws in a little linguistics (my true love) to boot. Chronicling his attempt to connect with his father Yona, Sabar transports the reader to early 20th-century Iraq, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews live together peacefully in isolated Kurdistan. (Isn’t that a concept?) A consummate storyteller, he weaves together a narrative on the history of Kurdish Jews, their everyday lives, and the hardships and triumphs of his father’s family – a narrative that reads as beautifully as any novel. Totally riveted, I found myself feeling disappointed when the family emigrated to Israel, but I shouldn’t have. Reading about Yona family’s adjusting to the struggles of a new life, including prejudice, was equally absorbing. And loving anything to do with linguistics, when Yona began research on his language, Aramaic, I was over the moon with each new tidbit about this practically extinct treasure and where it fits into the family of languages. There is so much more to love about his book, including how the author finally begins to understand and appreciate his father and his history.  I can do nothing but give it the highest praise possible. It is beautifully, lovingly written and tells a story I could have kept on reading. This definitely will not be my last read by this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I truly delightful read, which I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did. A labor of love from a son to father who was born in Kurdistan to a Jewish family who was later forced to leave and immigrate to Israel and his rise to professorship at UCLA  for mother's tongue Aramaic.  As a product of the Israeli education system I had to learn by heart and regurgitate for the matriculation examination years upon years of  Jewish European history. Gaining insight into the story and history of the Kurdish Jews was both enjoyable and educational. And as an immigrant myself I found it amusing to recognizes similar experiences and similar reactions despite being years apart. Very enjoyable book. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the last surviving pockets of Aramaic speakers was in a tiny isolated village in Kurdish Iraq. The author, in searching for his family's roots, illuminates the existence of a Kurdish Jewish community that had virtually no contact with the outside world beyond the mountainous reqion of the Kurds. This book is a fascinating look at the experience of one family, but in an historical context. Yet it reads like a novel, very interesting and enjoyable. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
KeikoHP More than 1 year ago
This book tells the story of the author's father's life, as well as a little of the story of his immediate ancestors. It's good, though its Muslim characters are mainly judged by how well they treat Jews, and no mention is made of the fact that the Jewish exodus from Iraq was largely stimulated by the Israelis (specifically by the Israeli secret service). But if you ignore that, then it's a touching tale of a little boy forced to grow up far from his native land, who eventually becomes a professor studying his own dying language. It also contains the heartwrenching story of how the boy's older sister disappeared. I recommend it.
Ronci More than 1 year ago
To review this book I divided it into two distinct but merged parts. The first part is a powerful story of a highly intelligent Jew from Kurdish Iraq, Yona Sabar, now a professor at UCLA and an eminent scholar of Neo-Aramaic. His lifelong work and efforts were rewarded with the rescue and preservation of a language near extinction. As a speaker of Aramaic and subsequent documentarian of the language he is legendary in this role. In the book, Ariel states, "My father had staked his life on the notion that the past mattered more than anything". Part two is a unique story of the relationship of Yona Sabar and his son, Ariel. Their connection might be well described by the term double edged sword meaning a benefit that is also a liability, or that carries some significant but non-obvious risk. It is made clear to us almost at the outset that Ariel respected his father but never understood his unassuming, penny-pinching immigrant ways. Ariel often regarded his father with shame, an object of ridicule, an immigrant with funny hair, funny accented English and odd habits. The writing of the book provided Ariel the opportunity not only to explore his Kurdish past, his personal family history, the diaspora of Iraq Jewry to Israel and other countries marking the end of Iraqi Jewish presence forever, but also to identify the value of identity and community. Prompted by the birth of his own son, Seth, Ariel set out to define who he was. In the journey of writing, he brings to life the ancient town of Zakho with well chosen words that evoke the jumble of buildings, the exotic peoples, the ancient traditions, the color and flavor of the foods, and the dusty roads stretching to the far-off hills. The important relationship of father and son is explored through all the positive experiences and vicissitudes which take place in the family's move to Israel and to the US. Their life in Israel was vastly different than in Zakho and very difficult. Perseverance and hard work eventually brought recognition and the family to Los Angeles. Although success and stability is achieved, the longing for Zakho and the old way of life remains forever in their hearts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago