My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
is a 2008 memoir by Kurdish-American journalist Ariel Sabar. Partly an analysis of Jewish cultural history in the regions of Kurdistan and Iraq, Sabar traces his time growing up in Los Angeles as the son of a Kurdish Jewish immigrant. He speaks about his attempt to reconstruct his family history through the stories of his father, Yona, who now works as a professor of Aramaic at the University of California-Los Angeles. The book has been praised for illustrating the capaciousness of Jewish identity in the modern world, while also making a compelling case for learning about one’s genealogical narratives.
The book begins with a story, once relayed by Sabar’s father, about an experience in Israel. He made a trip there to search for a man who allegedly had known his dead father’s family, and was ridiculed for having the last name, Sabar, that was obviously changed to add an Ashkenazi Jewish connotation to its original Kurdish Jewish form, Sabagha. Having been expelled from Iraq in the 1950s for being Jewish, Yona struggled to assimilate into Israel, which was itself an internally contentious state. This initial memory grounds Sabar’s story about finding belonging in his own Jewish-American identity.
Sabar looks back at his early life in Los Angeles. Growing up, he was constantly aware that the adults in his family were different from most other adults. He attributes this understanding not merely to the fact that they were Jewish, or because his father was one of a few people in the world to have Aramaic as his mother tongue. The true reason he felt different was far subtler, owing to his upbringing with people who were attuned to a culture that was far different from that of Los Angeles. Sabar came to reject his father during his upbringing, writing him off as conservative and traditional. His father lived a life isolated from his son, working as a scholar and the sole Aramaic translator for Hollywood films. Only after having his own son did Sabar find his interest in his genealogy renewed.
Sabar refrains from telling his personal history, choosing, instead, to focus on the stories told by his parents. His great-grandfather, Ephraim, worked as a dyer. He was an extremely pious man, sleeping only infrequently, and praying in the synagogue often late into the night. His paternal grandmother, Miryam, saw her mother survive an unhappy arranged marriage to her first cousin. Her own child was later stolen by the nurse who helped her give birth. The Jewish community of Kurdistan, a nation that no longer has an acknowledged geographical boundary, was only a few thousand people strong.
As an adult in the 2000s, Sabar ventured to Iraq to see the place that was once called Kurdistan and to look for traces of his heritage. He looked for a great aunt who had vanished from contact. He was frustrated by the difficulty of navigating the Middle East and of understanding the extent of his own Jewish identity. Much of this journey took place in the town of Zakho where his father had been born. Sabar connects the memories of his travels in Iraq and of Kurdish Judaism with highly personal memories involving his son. In one particularly intimate scene, he reflects on the difficult choice of whether or not to have his son circumcised; Jewish religious law obligates the procedure for all newborn males, but the act violated aspects of Sabar’s own more secular and progressive ethical views.My Father’s Paradise
paints a picture of Sabar’s genealogical past that is tragically incomplete. However, Sabar suggests that he has found some solace in the realization that the modern identity can be complete despite the difficulties of assimilation and the non-traceability of family history. The history of Judaism, complex and expansive, speaks to its own richness and beauty as much as it suggests wandering and erasure.