I recently read Ariel Sabar's memoir My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, which was published last year. It begins with a story about going to Israel to find a man who knew his father's family, and being rudely confronted at the door: "Which are you, Ariel Sabar or Ariel Sabagha?" While the story of many American Jews is about assimilation and changing one's name to sound less Jewish, Ariel's father, Yona Sabagha, was born in Kurdistan, perceived as one of the deepest of Jewish backwoods. When Yona came to the new Israeli state after being expelled from Iraq in the early 1950's, he changed his name to sound as Israeli as possible, Sabar, a form of sabra, the prickly fruit of the desert that Israelis like to use to describe themselves.
Growing up in 1980s L.A., Ariel Sabar rejected his father as the ultimate Old Worlder, but years later he tried to track down the world he came from, a Jewish community in Kurdistan that owed its roots to the Babylonian exile thousands of years prior, who spoke Aramaic as their daily language into the 20th century, until being forcibly expelled from their homeland. Yona Sabar made his career as an Aramaicist, doing translation work in TV and movies whenever a Hollywood producer wanted a quick dose of the language of the Talmud or Jesus Christ.
As author, Ariel stays out of the way while telling the family's history, through his father and mother's childhoods. His great-grandfather Ephraim was a dyer, revered for his piety in his community, a man who rarely slept, choosing instead to spent every night in the synagogue deep in study. His father's illiterate, depressive mother Miryam grew up with an evil stepmother and endured an arranged marriage to her first cousin; Miryam's first child, whom she was too weak and young to breastfeed, was stolen by a nomadic wet nurse. Sabar's family read like characters from a fable or a fantasy, not recent history from the time of Queen Victoria. Through his family's story, Sabar manages to bring to life a community of a few thousand Jews who lived almost beyond the world's ken. Then he enters the fray, as he tries to track down a few loose ends, see his father's homeland for himself and search for his missing great-aunt, and finds himself frustrated by the past.
Yona Sabar is a fascinating character in his son's telling, who leaves Kurdistan as a young boy only to discover as a man that his command of his mother's Aramaic is his greatest professional gift, which brought him to Yale and finally to L.A. He was too modern for his own family but far too old-fashioned for Ariel growing up. The book is more memoir and family history than biography: after years of rejecting everything his father stood for and coming to this project out of the desire to reconnect, Ariel has no intention to write about his father objectively. Similarly, though the book touches on the history of Kurdish Jewry, he opts for the personal rather than the scholarly. And that's fine. He's a lovely writer, slyly adapting his voice as needed to write about the different generations, shifting from the mode of a storyteller to the mode of a journalist.
One of the best recent memoirs I've read.
Crossposted at Remingtonstein.