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My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 21, 2008

4.7 out of 5 stars 209 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. For his first 31 years Sabar considered his father, Yona, an embarrassing anachronism. "Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small. He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A." Yona was a UCLA professor whose passion was his native language, Aramaic. Ariel was an aspiring rock-and-roll drummer. The birth of Sabar's own son in 2002 was a turning point, prompting Sabar to try to understand his father on his own terms. Readers can only be grateful to him for unearthing the history of a family, a people and a very different image of Iraq. Sabar vividly depicts daily life in the remote village of Zahko, where Muslims, Jews and Christians banded together to ensure prosperity and survival, and in Israel (after the Jews' 1951 expulsion from Iraq), where Kurdish Jews were stereotyped as backward and simple. Sabar's career as an investigative reporter at the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere serves him well, particularly in his attempt to track down his father's oldest sister, who was kidnapped as an infant. Sabar offers something rare and precious—a tale of hope and continuity that can be passed on for generations. Photos. (Sept. 16)
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From Booklist

For almost 3,000 years, a tiny Jewish enclave existed in what is now the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The Jews and their Christian and Muslim neighbors spoke the ancient tongue of Aramaic, which had once been the lingua franca of the Middle East and was spoken by Jesus. Sabar’s father, Yona, was born in that enclave but immigrated to the U.S. when the creation of the state of Israel created hostile conditions for Iraqi Jews in the 1950s. Yona, however, maintained strong emotional ties to his native language and culture even as he ascended to a prominent academic position at UCLA. Meanwhile, Sabar showed virtually no interest in his father’s background; however, after the birth of his own son, he felt a desire to reconnect with his father and their shared cultural heritage. Their joint visit to their ancestral town of Zakho rekindles memories of the ancient community while strengthening the ties between father and son. An involving memoir that works as both a family saga and an examination of a lost but treasured community. --Jay Freeman
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 325 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; First Edition edition (August 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565124901
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565124905
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (209 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #768,262 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Benjamin Lukoff VINE VOICE on August 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
We've all heard of Kurdistan, of course--especially the Iraqi portion. And those like me who are either of Jewish descent, interested in languages, or both, have heard of Kurdish Jews and the fact that they were some of the last remaining speakers of Aramaic. But never before had I gotten such a deep insight into their culture and struggles to assimilate in the new state of Israel. They truly had more in common with their fellow Kurds than their Ashkenazi co-religionists in Israel, and this seems to have been a major reason the author's father elected to stay in the U.S. after receiving his Ph.D. at Yale. It's slightly mistitled in that, while Ariel Sabar's search and desire to reconcile with his family's past was the genesis of the book, it really reads more as a biography of his father Yona, now a UCLA professor, and of the entire Kurdish Jewish community. The son's own story, while touching, almost seemed an afterthought.

I understand from the introduction that some dialogue was made up and some composite characters were created, so while this isn't quite creative nonfiction, it's not journalism either. That makes for an excellent read, but it also makes me wonder if there's an accessible but more historiographic book on this subject out there.

At any rate, my thanks to Ariel Sabar for writing this and painting a vivid picture of a world I think few people know ever existed... one that was turned upside down in the space of his father's childhood and is now almost nonexistent. My thanks, too, to Yona Sabar for his important scholarship. I had no idea how important this man was to the study of Neo-Aramaic and am glad he didn't suffer the fate of too many of his fellow Mizrahi immigrants to Israel. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
At heart this is about a Jewish man, born and raised in America, trying as a grown-up to find a connection to the immigrant father by whom he was baffled and embarrassed as a child. Ariel Sabar knows how to tell a story, however, and it's his writing and organization even more than the story itself that makes this book such a treasure. But the story is wonderful, too.

The book starts in the village of Zakho, in Kurdish Iraq, with the tale of its people, including the author's great-grandfather, Ephraim, the dyer, whom the locals believe talks to angels. Sabar makes the village and its inhabitants come alive and while I at times wished there were more photos included in the book, Sabar's writing is usually picture enough. Sabar's parents are married (arranged, of course), Sabar's father, Yona, and his siblings are born, and too many of them die. One goes tragically missing. Throughout the personal saga, Sabar presents a global context -- World Wars I & II, the relationship of his family's native language in Zakho (Aramaic) to the rest of Iraq, to the multi-culturalism and religious harmony of Kurdistan and how the area was divided in the wake of the first World War, to the changing attitudes toward Jews in Iraq and the Middle East and the foundation of Israel.

In the '50's Sabar's family relocates, not entirely willingly, to Israel, where they find not the holy land of their dreams, but a huge and unwelcoming city in which they are the lowest of the low. Most of the middle of the book follows Yona's tale as he works to make something of himself in this hostile environment, eventually earning a scholarship to Yale and becoming a respected professor of Neo-Aramaic at UCLA.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The events of the Middle East that assault us each day from CNN and other sources seem to be motivated by an understanding of the world that is completely removed from what is taken for granted by the West. It is a world where one's religion is not only their faith but their tribal identification; where everything is conducted in the context of cultural assumptions more rooted in the world of medieval nomadic traders than the egalitarian ideas of modern nation-states. "Why do they act this way?" we often wonder as we witness their stubborn refusal to act like us.

Although not written for that purpose, Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise gives keen insight into this world that is at once both lost but still with us in today's headlines. Sabar's family line traces back to a time when the Jews of the Middle East were not centered in Israel but spread throughout the region. Most of these communities are now gone - leaving because of their dream of a Jewish state or their fear of remaining behind what is now enemy lines. Like the now firm divide between the Greece and Turkey, the current situation tells us nothing about the past - and everything.

Sabar was motivated to trace his roots and this led to an small area in what is now Kurdish Iraq. There his family was part of a small Jewish community that was so isolated they still spoke Aramaic - a language that once was the lingua franca of the Middle East but was thought to have died centuries earlier. In retracing his family's steps, Sabar's eyes were opened to a world we barely know existed, one where the strange mix of ethnic and religious identities worked with and often around the authorities to preserve some semblance of their traditions.
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