Monday, June 7, 2010

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Airel Sabar 2008

Winner of the National Book Critic Circle Award for Autobiography, 2008

Although on the surface this fascinating memoir is about Ariel Sabar and his father Yonah and their relationship, it is so much more. The author is a journalist born in California to an American mother and a Kurdish Jewish father who is a professor of Aramaic at the University of California at Los Angeles. Ariel Sabar has had a difficult relationship with his father who was unlike any of the fathers of his Los Angeles friends; the author was both irritated and embarrassed by his father’s “foreign” ways.

It is only at the birth of his own son that the author thinks long and hard about generations and continuity and reaches out to his father in a gesture to patch a frayed relationship and to try to understand him. Out of that attempt at understanding comes this memoir. It involved many interviews with his father, trips back to his father’s home town of Zakho in Northern Iraq, trips to visit his father's friends and relatives in many places, especially in Israel where Yonah Sabar had immigrated with his family when he was thirteen.

In addition to conducting interviews, Ariel Sabar has done a lot of research to bring his father and the experiences that molded him to life. To give his father’s life context, he recreates Zakho in the early part of the 20th century where Muslim, Christians, and Jews intermingled. Zakho was so isolated it was as if time had stood still. The Jewish community spoke a version of Aramaic that scholars had assumed had died long ago. The author successfully weaves together his family story along with an informative history of Jews in Iraq, Kurdish Jews in Iraq, and a concise history of the Aramaic language.

The author’s father was the last Kurdish Jew to be a bar mitzvah in Zakho and the family fled with most other Kurdish Jews to Israel. To provide context for this phase of his father’s life, Sabar explains the relationship between the Ashkenazi founders of Israel and the Sephardi immigrants. He then goes on to describe the living conditions of immigrants in Israel in the 1950’s, his father’s education, his interest in languages, and how he was steered by professors to study the neo-Aramaic he grew up speaking.

His father’s background was certainly unusual. The contrast between the conditions into which he was born with its high rates of illiteracy and the status he attained in the scholarly world makes for an interesting story. But this memoir transcends its specifics: it has the universality of a story of the lives of many immigrants – of having to leave their homeland and make their way in a world that never really feels like home. Like these others, he feels he has been cast out of paradise.

To see a color picture of Ariel and Yonah Sabar in Zakho in 2005, click here.

People (Author's paternal grandparents were first cousins.)
Author’s father’s paternal grandfather’s side of family
Ephraim Beh Sabagha – married to Hazale (second wife); author’s great grandparents
    Rachel – their daughter
    Eliyahu*- their son
    Israel* – their son; married Naima
    Rahamim – their son; married to Miryam Beh Naze (his first cousin); author’s grandparents
        Yonah – their son; author’s parents
    Murdakh – cousin of Rahamim

Author’s father’s paternal grandmother’s side of family
    Rifqa – married to Menashe; author’s great grandparents
        Shmuel – their son
        Yusef – their son
        Miryam; their daughter; married to Rahamim Sabagha (her first cousin)
            Rifqa –  daughter of Miryam and Rahimim
            Yonah – son of Miryam and Rahimim; married Stephanie Kruger; author’s parents
                Ariel – son of Yonah and Stephanie; married Meg; the author
                       Seth and Phoebe – their children
                Ilan – son of Yonah and Stephanie
            Sarah – daughter of Miryam and Rahimim
            Avram- son of Miryam and Rahimim
            Shalom – son of Miryam and Rahimim; married to Rina
                Noa and Nadav – their children
            Uri – son of Miryam and Rahimim
                Lee – his son
            Ayala – daughter of Miryam and Rahimim
        Saleh – cousin of Miryam
    Aribe – Menashe’s second wife
        Zaki, Yosef and Naim, Shoshana, Salim – children of Aribe and Menashe
    Hazale – Menashe’s sister; married to Ephraim Beh Sabagha (see above)

Zaki Levy
Moshe Gabbay
    Shmuel – his son
Rabbi Samuel Barzani
    Asenath – his daughter
Rabbi Sassoon Kadoori
Menahem Salih Daniel
Ezra Haddad
Yosef El Kabir
Shafiq Ades
Zacharia Shmaya
    Tzion and Reuven – his sons
Shlomo Bar-Nissim
Abraham Zilkha
Yosi Elati
Yosef Sagi
Baruch Givati
Avigdor Shemesh
Moshe Hillman
Yona Gabbay   
* The author states in his “Note on Method” that “he changed the names of people who were involved in a family controversy in Israel, because they are dead and did not have a chance to defend themselves.” It seems likely that Rahimim’s brothers were given the pseudonyms Israel and Elyahu.

Zakho, Iraq
Mosul, Iraq
Basra, Iraq
Nineveh, Iraq
Habur River, Iraq
Amadiya, Iraq
Arbil, Iraq
Nippur, Iraq
Kirkuk, Iraq
Westwood area of Los Angeles
Katamonim section of Jerusalem
The Ben-Zvi Institute at Hebrew University
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Department of Near Eastern Languages, University of California at Los Angeles


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