My Father’s Paradise By Ariel Sabar

Miriyam Glazer, Rabbi, PhDReviewed by Miriyam Glazer, Rabbi, Ph.D., author of Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to their Beauty, Power, and Wisdom, a new translation & commentary in memory of David L. Lieber. Dr. Glazer is Chair of AJU's Literature, Communication & Media Department.

How well do we actually know people we’ve “known” for years? This is neither a metaphysical question nor a psycho-spiritual one.  I’m not talking about those who are close to us - our life-partners, our children, our dearest friends.  I mean it much more casually. For example, how well do we know professional colleagues whom we’ve greeted warmly over many years, whose paths we have crossed repeatedly, or next to whom we’ve sat at gatherings of our particular professional tribe?  (Read More)

 I’m drawn to pose the question because I recently finished reading a brilliantly written, profoundly involving book: Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), published two years ago, when it (deservedly) won the National Book Critics Award for Autobiography.  Autobiography it may be, but Ariel Sabar’s story of his own life inextricably involves that of his father, Professor Yona Sabar of UCLA. Ever since I came to Los Angeles from Israel decades ago as a Visiting Scholar at UCLA and I met Professor Sabar,  I’ve been greeting him warmly whenever our paths crossed; yet I never had a clue that his life story was one of the most compelling I could imagine. What My Father’s Paradise reveals to us is that Professor Sabar was not only born in a remote village of Kurdistan, but has also lived a dazzlingly moving, cross-cultural, cross-generational, intellectual and Jewish journey.

In this rich, well-researched, page-turning book, Ariel Sabar – himself a thoroughly Americanized Jew who grew up in Los Angeles -- tells us how he unraveled the mystery of his father, whose life story and whole personality were so remote from his own:

He was ancient Kurdistan.  I was 1980's L.A.  He grew up in a dusty town in northern Iraq, in a crowded mud-brick shack without electricity or plumbing.  I grew up in a white stucco ranch house in West Los Angeles, on a leafy street guarded by private police cruisers marked BEL AIR PATROL …My father spent the day in his home office in a threadbare bathrobe, inscribing index cards with cryptic notations in Aramaic.  I spent the day in the backyard with my skateboarder friends, hammering together a quarter-pipe.  His accented English was a five-car pileup of malapropisms and mispronunciations.  Mine, a smooth California vernacular, tinkling with grace notes like ‘rad,’ ‘lame,’ and ‘mellow.’ (‘Mellow,’ the verb, as in ‘Mellow, dude.’) (p. 2)

Yona Sabar, we come to learn, spent the first twelve years of his life in the village of Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Like the other Jews in this Muslim backwater, Yona lived on an ancient, isolated island in the Habur River, an island that yielded to plains of wheat and barley which themselves ended in steep gorges and ravines, ringed by the enclosing Bakher and White Mountains. Of the 27,000 people of Zakho, most of them Muslim Kurds, only 1,471 were Jews. But like the rest of the 25,000 or so Jews of Kurdistan, whom Ariel describes as a “forgotten race of peasants and peddlers who saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel,” the Jews of Zakho were among the very last known speakers of the ancient language of Aramaic.

In an era in which the “global” language is, increasingly, English, it’s hard to remember that in centuries and millennia past, other languages held sway: the Latin of the Roman Empire, for example, and, indeed, Aramaic. Originally the language of the Aramean nomads, Aramaic, Ariel Sabar explains, “was the lingua franca across what was then the world’s center of civilization,” the Fertile Crescent and the Middle East. Recall, for example, the declaration, “My father was a wandering Aramean,” spoken by the Israelites as they offered their first fruits to God at the Temple in Jerusalem, words that we have repeated for generations in our Passover Haggadah.

Movie viewers across the world now know, if they did not before, that Jesus of Nazareth spoke Aramaic – as, of course, did all the Jews of the time. Indeed, in ancient times, the public reading of the Torah included a recitation in the original Hebrew followed by a translation of the text into Aramaic – so the congregation could understand. The Babylonian Talmud – itself passed down primarily in Aramaic -- includes an exhortation to study the Torah portion of the week twice in the original Hebrew – and “once with the Targum” – the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible by Onkelos, an ancient Jew-by-choice whose translation in about 110CE has been seen as definitive throughout the ages and was so essential to the biblical commentator Rashi. Today, when, in Yona Sabar’s words, “The Worldwide Federation of Aramaic Speakers” (of whom he is undoubtedly the premier example) would fit in a small room, it is humbling to realize how widespread and vital to our Jewish cultural and religious heritage Aramaic remains to this day. As fate would have it, Yona Sabar’s linguistic heritage eventually became the source of the radical transformation of his life.

For the centuries-old Jewish culture of the village of Zakho was about to come to a tragic, abrupt, irreversible end.

However remote from the rest of the world the village of Zakho was, the story of what happened to the Jews who had lived there for millennia had less to do with Zakho itself than with the rise and fall of empires, world wars, and the violent collisions and upheavals  of colonialism, Nazism, pan-Arabism, and, perhaps above all, Zionism. The Jews of Zakho barely heard of the terrible pogrom, abetted by German Nazis and Arab Nazi-sympathizers, against Baghdadi Jews (“the Farhud”) in 1941, but the declaration of the state of Israel on Nov. 29, 1947 generated an irreversible change. Most of us are accustomed to reading about or imagining the declaration of the state of Israel through our western eyes: the sense of ecstatic joy that accompanied the establishment of a homeland, at last, for the suffering, eternally homeless Jewish people. 

But it is a gift of this book that we are clearly and poignantly made to see a different side of the story, one that many Mizrachi scholars long urged us to see: the trauma the declaration of the state – and, crucially, its subsequent policies -- meant to many of the countless Jews of the non-western, Arabic-speaking world.  The countries in which they had dwelled for generations went to war with the new Jewish state, but at the same time as they were increasingly forced to flee from those countries, the new Jewish state was none too eager to integrate them. It is painful to have to acknowledge the cultural prejudices – indeed the essential racism – of the great founders of Israel.  Yet it is also impossible and unfair not to acknowledge the prejudices if we are ever to be honest about Israel’s history and many of its still current problems. So, for example, Ariel Sabar quotes the Lithuanian-born Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organization in the 1950's, saying “A Jew from Eastern Europe is worth twice as much as a Jew from Kurdistan,” and Sabar also quotes the scholar Meyrav Wurmser:

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion described the Mizrahi immigrants as lacking “even the most elementary knowledge” or “a trace of Jewish or human education.”…”We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are bound by duty to fight against the spirit of the Levant that corrupts individuals and society.”  Likewise, Abba Eban, one of Israel’s most eloquent diplomats, noted that “one of the great apprehensions which afflict us is the danger of the predominance of immigrants of Oriental origin forcing Israel to equalize its cultural level with that of the neighboring world.”…; Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once asked, “Shall we be able to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?” (quoted by Sabar, page 100)
Only after immense pressure were the Jews of Iraq – who had lost their Iraqi citizenship – brought to Israel – 120,000 in less than a year.  Sabar’s description of his family’s arrival at Israel’s Lod airport vividly and poignantly captures the radical dissonance, the maelstrom of emotions and realities, aliyah had involved:

The moment his foot touched the ground…my great-grandfather Ephraim began to cry. He dropped to his knees, bent forward, and kissed the tarmac.

In front of the family, the old world was meeting the new.  The Kurds stepping off the Near East Transport planes in their hand-spun jimidani head coverings looked as dazed and disoriented as if a time-travel machine had just deposited them in a distant future….Tired bodies clanked, with teapots slung to belt loops and demon-banishing amulets bunched at necks and wrists.  Few had ever before seen an airplane, let alone traveled on one…

The immigration agents studied the arrivals as if they were a mammalian subspecies hitherto unknown to science, gawking at their slightly ridiculous costumes and herding them as quickly as possible toward the disinfection chamber. (p. 110)

Displaced from what had been their homeland for countless generations, flung into a radically different culture from anything they would have identified as “Jewish,” discriminated against by the Ashkenazi establishment, the beh Sabagha (Aramaic for “House of the Dyer”) family – who changed their name to ‘Sabagh’ --  joined thousands of others in the ma’abarot, the “immigrant shanty towns,” the tent cities (which became corrugated tin huts) that were set up to house the newcomers across the country, eventually settling in the Katamonim of Jerusalem, a Kurdish slum.  While Yona’s parents, Ariel’s grandparents, experienced a great sense of loss, displacement, disappointments, and sorrow over the years, Yona himself, through unremitting hard work and sheer brilliance, after completing his army service became a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  With his father’s permission, he changed his family name to the “Israeli name” “Sabar.”

What Ariel chronicles in the beautifully written chapters that follow the arrival in Israel is his father’s amazing, life-altering, academic career as a scholar of Aramaic,  preserving the world and the culture from which his community, his family and, of course, he himself, were all rent as a result of the traumas of history. Ariel’s account unfolds Yona Sabar’s evolution into a scholar of the Aramaic language and Jewish-Kurdish culture, as he spent (and is still spending) years – at Hebrew University, Yale, and for the last decades at UCLA – telling the story of his people: their oral traditions, folk tales, beliefs and memories. He published a dictionary of Jewish Neo-Aramaic, an anthology of the folk literature of Kurdistani Jews, a narrative of the Agonies of Childbearing and Child Rearing in Iraqi Kurdistan: A Narrative in Jewish Neo-Aramaic and its English Translation, the nursery rhymes and baby words of his lost culture, and – my favorite – an article called Yona Gabbay: A Jewish Peddler’s Life Story from Iraqi Kurdistan as Narrated by him in his Aramaic Dialect of Zakho (Four Episodes).”

Yet there is also an immense poignancy in the account that Ariel Sabar tells. Father and son take a trip back to the now utterly altered Zakho, and it becomes clear that the world of the past is lost forever. Even more poignant, for me, was Ariel’s coming to experience his father’s work as

an immensely personal struggle to reconcile past and present.  Aside from a school medal in the hundred-meter dash and an old spoon, Aramaic was his only surviving childhood possession.  Teaching Aramaic in America, I came to see, was how he sang God’s song in a strange land… (316) –

a task many, many Jews have been asking themselves how to do ever since their first day in the Diaspora.  The struggle of the Sabars, father and son, to find a shared song to sing, and a shared language in which to sing it, is in the end one we can all be both touched by and learn from. Read the book!