This review appears in the February issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) Federation Star.
“My Father’s Paradise,” by Ariel Sabar. Algonquin Books. 344 pages. $25.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (paperback).
This fascinating, harrowing, and uplifting book, subtitled “A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past,” is one of several recent books that portray lesser-known strands of Jewish history and identity. These include Lucette Lagnado’s “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World” and Dalia Sofer’s novel “The Septembers of Shiraz,” detailing the effects of the Iranian Revolution on a prosperous Jewish family. Ariel Sabar, like Lagnado a working journalist, takes us through four generations of Kurdish Jews, beginning with his great-grandfather’s world. Along the way, he presents a riveting overview of Middle-Eastern history.
Zakho, then a small, desolate frontier town in mountainous northern Iraq near the Turkish border, was a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in relative harmony. Bonded by an overarching Kurdish identity and by the ancient, vanishing Aramaic language, these Jews kept their heads down but managed lives of relative freedom. Geographical isolation played a part in maintaining this “paradise.” Here Ephraim Beh Sabagha, the dyer of Zakho, lived his life as a respected working man and as a holy man who communed with God and shouted out in exaltation to spirits and biblical figures.
The harmonious existence of this family in its community continued into the adult years of Mr. Sabar’s grandfather, Rahamim, who prospered as a businessman along with his brothers. Yona, Rahamim’s son, had his bar mitzvah a year early, just ahead of the Bathist regime’s excesses that led to a huge immigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1951. Sabar observes how the birth of the modern Jewish state in 1948 damaged the peaceful coexistence of the various Sons of Abraham. Simultaneously, the repression of the Kurds accelerated the decline of Aramaic as a living language.
Successful Kurdistanis like Rahamim found themselves second-class citizens in the wished-for paradise of Israel, trapped in shabby neighborhoods and menial occupations. The ruling class Ashkanazi prejudice against Sephardi and other Jewish strands was especially strong against the Kurds. This immigrant group led lives of humiliation and despair; however, their children slowly made advances in the melting pot society.
One such child, Ariel Sabar’s father Yona, succeeded in school and gained access to higher education – first in Israel, and then in the United States on a graduate school fellowship to Yale. The story of Yona, the narrative’s twice-displaced hero (the second time by his own choice), carries the theme of blurred identity. He marries an American Jew and obtains, after some years of non-tenure track academic employments, a position at UCLA and a home in middle-class Westwood. Yona’s career in this latest paradise involves research into Aramaic, his native language, its vocabulary slipping from his memory even as he becomes an internationally-recognized authority on its history, intricacies, and the culture that it conveys.
Yona accepted his opportunities, escaping his parents’ world of shame and regret. Or did he? He dreams of Zakho. He remains a foreigner in California. His manner, style, and accented, non-colloquial English render him a target of scorn to his son, American-born Ariel.
Ariel Sabar’s gradual transformation from resentful, disrespectful youth to ardent keeper of his father’s, his family’s, and their culture’s honor, stories, and traditions is the book’s final stage. The author has set and met an astounding challenge – magnificently.