My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
by Ariel Sabar
"...we are who we come from as much as who we make of ourselves."
For many hundreds of years the small village of Zakho in Iraq was a quiet, unassuming place to raise a family. It rarely made its way into the annuls of history and nothing of any significance ever gave it a reason to change its primitive ways. Jews lived in harmony alongside Christians and Muslims. Until a war broke out in the 1950s that was so big Zakho couldn't hide in its corner of Iraq any longer. When the Kurdish Jews were offered a chance to escape to Israel, they left behind their previous lives to pursue paradise. Except Israel was anything but the promised land these Jews sought. To be a newly immigrated Kurdish Jew in Israel was to be the lowest of the low. It was at this time in history that Yona Beh Sabagha was coming of age. This displacement shaped the boy into a man. Determined to make something of himself in the face of difficult odds Yona invented himself in Israel(quite literally with the changing of his last name to Sabar), then reinvented himself in America as a renowned linguistics professor at UCLA.
Fast forward to the dawn of a new century. Ariel Sabar has spent his every moment rebelling against and distancing himself from his father, a man inconsistent with his fashionable L.A. surroundings; until the birth of his own son causes him to step into his father's shoes. It becomes the impetus for the journey to discover his roots and to understand the man his father is apart from being the father of Ariel Sabar.
This eloquent family history combines factual details with just the right amount of storytelling flare. I admire the way the author honors his father, a man of quiet dignity. And I am a little jealous of the rich family history he has to ground himself in. I sometimes got lost in the details about war and politics but these were not heavy nor did they at all detract from the story of this remarkable family. It is very readable. I highly recommend it.
I leave you with this wonderful quote from an interview with the author:
"America makes it possible to be who you want to be. That is its genius. But a consequence of that freedom and acceptance is that it's easy to forget where you came from. Striking the right balance is a daily struggle, a daily negotiation, and one that I am still very much working on."
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