My Father's Paradise
A journalist learns to embrace the ancient roots of his past in Iraqi Kurdistan's Jewish community.
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The exile from his homeland served to focus Yona’s academic intensity: He proved to be a brilliant Aramaic scholar first at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and later at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.Skip to next paragraph
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But cultural isolation as an Iraqi Jew shadowed his every step. The bright promise of 1960s America also triggered an “existential depression,” brought on by Yona’s encounters with “spiritual shallowness” and endless small talk.
“America is a country of 200 million lonely people,” he wrote to his sister in Jerusalem.
Yet Yona would make his mark, becoming a leading scholar of the Aramaic language. He met and married a young Jewish woman from New Haven and began an American family life as best he could.
“Behind him were home, family, roots,” writes Sabar of his father. “Ahead, America, where, free of history, you could fly.... How could a man abandon his past and hold on to it at the same time?”
“In a city of $300 coiffures,” writes Sabar, “my father cut his own hair,” drove a beat-up Chevette, and possessed zero fashion sense.
“I mocked [him] and I pulled away,” he recalls. “I tried to morph into the ultimate L.A. boy, some hybrid of actor, surfer, and rock ’n’ roller.”
Sabar admits his work sits somewhere between history and biography. Personal stories are unconfirmed, family mysteries remain unsolved.
And yet his own struggles to trace his family’s path draws him ever closer to the impetus that drives his father: “I saw now that his work [as an Aramaic scholar] was ... the outward expression of an intensely personal struggle to reconcile past and present.”
This must be why Sabar has resolved – with this labor of love – to educate his own young son and daughter about Zakho and to teach them the dying Aramaic language, searching “for signals about what part of our past might survive into the future.”
A reader is left with no doubt that Sabar’s children are being offered a legacy of surpassing value.
“My Father’s Paradise” is an engaging account of a wonderful, enlightening journey, a voyage with the power to move readers deeply even as it stretches across differences of culture, family, and memory.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.