I heard Ariel Sabar speak about his new book, My Father’s Paradise, last night at the DC JCC. It was a fascinating presentation, and I would like to read the book.
His father, Yona Sabar, a professor at UCLA, was born in 1938 in a village called Zakho, in northern Iraq (Kurdistan), just a few miles south of the Turkish border. The Jews of Kurdistan, perhaps 20,000 in number, had lived in small villages in the Kurdish mountains for millenia (literally, millenia), perhaps since the capture of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. They lived in small communities, did not isolate themselves from their Moslem (and Christian neighbors), but were totally and completely isolated from the rest of the world, maintained their own customs and language (a dialect of Aramaic, now called by some Neo-Aramaic, to distinguish it from the Aramaic of Kol Nidre, the Kaddish, and Jesus.
Their world was very stable – until the founding of the state of Israel, and the burgeoning anti-Semitism in Iraq and other parts of the middle east. Virtually the entire community moved to Israel. Sabar’s family settled in Jerusalem (it was 1951), and he and his siblings all became educated Israeli citizens, but Yona Sabar, the oldest sibling with the strongest memories of Kurdistan, could not pull himself from his roots, and (complete with a Ph.D. from Yale) has devoted himself to the preservation of the community’s language and culture.
His son, Ariel, growing up in the Los Angeles of the 1980s, was not interested, and in fact was more than a little embarrassed by his father’s background. He wanted nothing to do with it, and became a journalist, writing for the Christian Science Monitor and the Baltimore Sun. But, with the birth of his first son, he says that he realized that he was not the end of a chain, but a link within it, and decided to learn what he could, to pass it along to future generations.
Thus, this book, which is apparently mainly a family story, but necessarily as well a story of the history of the Kurdish Jews, a branch of Judaism which did not record its own history and whose past is quite sketchy until recent times.
The presentation was excellent, I thought, and was supplemented by a series of terrific questions from the large audience. The lecture was part of the Jewish Literature Festival at the JCC.