Tidewater Review - October 2008

My Father’s Paradise


Anne Stinson

   My Father’s Paradise - A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 325 pages. $25.95.
    Zakho, an ancient Iraqi village so remote it had almost no visitors, no new families for millennia, is tucked in the center of a wide plain inside a guardian circle of snow-capped mountains just below the border with Turkey. Its inhabitants were a harmonious blend of Jews who believed they were remnants of The Lost Tribe of ancient Israel, Muslims and a small group of Christians.
    Zakho is where this remarkable story begins and, in a way, ends.
    The Jewish center of town was on a small island in the middle of the fast-flowing Habur River and connected to the rest of the village by bridges. The book’s author’s grandfather was the only dyer in Zakho. His neighbors were weavers, bakers and small-town merchants.
    The only remarkable feature of Zakho was its language. They all spoke Aramaic, the same language Jesus spoke. The year the book begins is circa 1930 when the author’s great-grandparents were still alive. Ephraim, the patriarch, was renowned for his eccentricity and piety. At dusk he went to the synagogue and spent the night in prayer, muttering to himself the ancient rituals and speaking, he said, to angels.
    His devotion to his religion didn’t protect him from sorrow. After the death of his first wife, he married a woman who was so unkind to his daughter Miryam that she was married to a cousin at the age of 13, bore a daughter when she was 15 and paid a wet nurse when her milk failed. The infant was kidnapped and never found.
    Miryam and her kind husband Rahamim had a total of 12 children, half of whom died in infancy, but one survivor was Yona, the author’s father. He was an industrious child, full of mischief, but also determined to be more than a small merchant, trader and smuggler of wool like his father. He was a voracious reader and taught himself to read and speak Hebrew to improve his business skills.
    Sabar traces the unrest and persecutions of Kurds in the post-World War I divisions of Middle East countries and the shuffling of borders that brought unrest even to remote hamlets like Zakho. Politics worsened with Palestine’s severance to make room for the new state of Israel and Arab-Jewish tensions rose. Rahamim’s family learned of the Holocaust after World War II, a period in which Jewish/Muslim enmity increased, and border skirmishes with Turkey exacerbated the danger. The family pulled up stakes from Zakho and fled to Baghdad, then to Israel, where they found Kurds at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. As refugees poured into the new nation, precedence in housing and jobs went to educated European Jews.
    Yona took whatever work he could find, studied hard and was accepted to the new university in Tel Aviv. His fluency in the Aramaic language, heretofore considered almost extinct, gained him an invitation to study at Cambridge in London, and then, on the encouragement from a renowned linguist, the offer of a full scholarship for graduate work at Yale.
    His family in Israel constantly urged him to return to the fold, and he was torn between homesickness and ambition. Eventually all but one of his siblings followed him to America.
    Awkward in English and a social misfit, he still managed to find a beautiful Jewish-American bride and remained at Yale, teaching in New England after earning his Ph.D. It was from this union that Ariel, the author, was born. Yona was lured to the University of California, then building its huge reputation in the field of research in ancient languages. To be able to hire a professor who spoke fluent Aramaic, almost unchanged for 2,700 years, was a great coup for UCLA.
    Yona was happier in Los Angeles than he had been since leaving Zakho at the age of 12 on his journeys to Baghdad, Tel Aviv, London, New Haven and Provincetown. He continued to collect Aramaic words from his childhood and compared them to their spellings and relationships with Hebrew words. He translated early copies of the New Testament written in Aramaic (not all early Christian gospels were written in Greek) as well as earlier Jewish texts in ancient scrolls.
    He also was in frequent contact with his parents in Israel, questioning his father about the definitions of old words and expressions with which he was unfamiliar. His trips to visit his aging grandmother proved to be a treasure trove of songs, mystic beliefs and superstitions in the old language.
    Yona was always a bit of a misfit, imbued with the tradition of self-effacement. He cut his own hair all his life, wore cheap clothes and was shy with all but his colleagues and students, who absolutely adored him and his lively teaching style.
    Yona and his son Ariel, however, were not close in Ariel’s adolescence. Ariel was embarrassed by his father’s faulty English, his appearance that was so different from his colleagues and Ariel’s privileged classmates’ parents. Ariel was a rude adolescent who made fun of his father and only wanted to emulate his “cool” California teenaged friends.
    He met and married a gentile girl from New England. His very Old World parents were surprisingly accommodating to this breach of Jewish Law, citing the humanity of all the world.
    Only as his father aged did Ariel appreciate the accomplishments of his father’s lifelong work and the honor he brought to the family. They traveled together to Zakho several times, sometimes as an extension of his famous father’s lectures at European universities.
    Yona’s treks to Zakho gave him great pleasure, although the village had changed to a bustling town and a tourist destination for many Europeans. The island in the heart of the river, though, had not kept up with the suburban plain that once was fields of grain, and in the mind of Ariel’s father, it was still a Paradise Lost.
    This book relates an unusual family’s journey, an abrupt jump into the modern world. As Ariel Sabar concludes, “There is a counterpoint to the familiar immigrant story of opportunities won. It is the story, less often told, of cultures lost. Its trope is not ‘a better life for our children,’ but broken bonds to ancestors, land, identity and history.”
    We modern Americans are a people on the move. For many of us, we’ve lost the bonds to our ancestors, land, identity and history. This account of how it happens reminds us of the vacuum.
    My Father’s Paradise is an extraordinary book, riveting with portraits of real people, real quandaries, real challenges and survival of both a family and an ancient tongue. Don’t miss it.