The Washington Post
My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Pastby Ariel Sabar
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
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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.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
For his first 31 years Sabar considered his father, Yona, an embarrassing anachronism. "Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small. He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A." Yona was a UCLA professor whose passion was his native language, Aramaic. Ariel was an aspiring rock-and-roll drummer. The birth of Sabar's own son in 2002 was a turning point, prompting Sabar to try to understand his father on his own terms. Readers can only be grateful to him for unearthing the history of a family, a people and a very different image of Iraq. Sabar vividly depicts daily life in the remote village of Zahko, where Muslims, Jews and Christians banded together to ensure prosperity and survival, and in Israel (after the Jews' 1951 expulsion from Iraq), where Kurdish Jews were stereotyped as backward and simple. Sabar's career as an investigative reporter at the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere serves him well, particularly in his attempt to track down his father's oldest sister, who was kidnapped as an infant. Sabar offers something rare and precious-a tale of hope and continuity that can be passed on for generations. Photos. (Sept. 16)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Sabar, a former political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, grew up as a typical California kid. His father, a Kurdish Jew, is the foremost scholar of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, which most people think is extinct. The disconnect between his present and his past launched Sabar on a quest to understand the history of Kurdish Jews, who spent 2000 years in northern Iraq until the 1950s, when most of them emigrated to Israel. Interweaving the community's history with his family's stories, Sabar tells of his visits to Iraq and Israel to trace his father's journey from an isolated Kurdish village to UCLA, where at one point he provides Aramaic dialog for The X-Files. Although Sabar ultimately fails to discover the fate of his father's sister, who was kidnapped from their village in the 1930s, he does begin to understand his responsibility to his ancestry. Throughout the narrative, he focuses on identity and community and this central question: "When we carry our languages and stories from one generation to the next, from one country to another, what exactly do we gain?" Written with a reporter's flair for people and places, this is recommended for public libraries.
"A powerful story of the meaning of family and tradition inside a little-known culture." San Francisco Chronicle
"Remarkable...A moving story about the near-death of an ancient language and the tiny flicker of life that remains in it." The Washington Post Book World
"Voices like Susan Hand Shetterly's are soothing . . . Shetterly puts a hand on your forearm and says, come walk along the Maine coast. Let's consider other species, eels and hummingbirds." –The Los Angeles Times
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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What People are saying about this
"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
Meet 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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.